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Minnesota Orchestra: Approaching armageddon and how things might have been

Courtesy of the Minnesota Orchestra
To me, the Minnesota Orchestra of 110 years has been killed.

The Minnesota Orchestra Managements full page ad in the Sunday Minneapolis Star Tribune ominously said: “Eight days left….”

Today is Thursday. That must mean there are four days left, which means next Monday is the day.

According to the folks who approved the copy for the ad, anyway.

I wonder how I’d vote, if in the Orchestra, 11 months locked out, having had to subsist with other than Orchestra pay or benefits, faced with an offer which at this point can only be one to save face for Orchestra Management.

Sharks don’t do deals, other than to win….

There is less question how I’d vote as a locked out patron, who didn’t have an opportunity to use any of my 2012-13 season tickets.

Of course, we patrons (aka audience, listeners) appear to not much matter.

For this single listener, the end of the Orchestra as we knew it happened back in January, 2013; but the beginning of the end probably began over a small lunch or dinner at a fancy restaurant somewhere back around the near collapse of our economy in 2008, five Septembers ago, when a few powerful people shared some ideas about making the Big Dreams they had into reality. There is, after all, great profit to be made from adversity, if you know how to play the money game. And there are different definitions of “profit,” too.

There are probably some scribbled ideas on sheets of paper somewhere about
how to exploit a near economic catastrophe as an excuse, in other words.

Or, perhaps there is no definable “ground zero.” It just evolved.

I speak as a single audience member, simply a long term account number at the Minnesota Orchestra (who seems, to my knowledge, to have been ‘disappeared’ from the Orchestra managements ordinary communication network.)

For some time now I have said, including more than once in this and other blog posts, that I’ll return to Orchestra Hall if and only if the Musicians Union ratifies a new contract. (This does not mean a “kick the can down the road” temporary agreement.)

But even if I’m back, the reality remains: without major changes in how business is done at Orchestra Management level, including who is permitted to be on the Board, the new Orchestra Hall will be a monument to failure of management and not to success.

To me, the Minnesota Orchestra of 110 years has been killed.

There are many models (mindsets, I’ll call them) which could have been followed to avoid this pending Armageddon.

Just for perspective, here are a couple of examples, compared against the current apparent model:

A. Alan Fletcher, President and CEO of the Aspen Music School and Festival, said this on June 23, 2013: “Classical music in the United States depends on four groups working together: musicians, donors, administrators, and listeners.” Two months later he said similarly, across the street from Orchestra Hall.

There is at least an implication in his remarks that these four components have essentially equal value.

B. As those of us in the audience now know, the Minnesota Orchestra Management has (and may have always had) a different model:

  1. administrators/large donors/Board;
  2. musicians;
  3. listeners/audience; 

with the administrators/large donors superior; and the listeners (it now appears) essentially irrelevant except to purchase tickets.

This model worked so long as there was a benevolent donor class which believed in great music for the greater community played by a top tier Orchestra conducted by a top tier music director.

Wealthy opportunists who like music but like power and control even more apparently saw their opportunity to take over the Orchestra, and have done so, and here we are.

C. And there’s a third model, which Board member Harvey Mackays “Swim with the Sharks” book caused me to revisit this week.

The alternative is in “A Man’s Reach” by Elmer L. Andersen (edited by Lori Sturdevant, University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

Mr. Andersen would be well known to any of the “players” on the current Orchestra Board: orphan who loved books and learning; well to do and very successful business owner, life-long Republican, MN political and civic leader, including Governor and UofM Board of Regents, philanthropist, on and on.

We were friends the last 12 years of his life.

In his book, pages 96-100, Mr. Andersen describes his “corporate philosophy” which “was built around four priorities in a definite order.”

  1. “Our highest priority…should be service to the customer.”
  2. “Number two was that the company [H. B. Fuller] should exist deliberately for the benefit of the people associated in it. I never like the word employee. It intimated a difference in class within a plant.”
  3. [H.B.] “Fuller’s third priority was to make money.”
  4. “Our philosophy did not leave out service to the larger community. We put it in fourth place….”

Mr. Andersen died in 2004. It would be interesting to hear Mr. Andersen and Mr. Mackay et al discuss the word “customer” in context with the Minnesota Orchestra.

There is, in my opinion, a severe distinction and disconnect between Mr. Mackay’s “Shark” approach to business and Andersen’s “A Man’s Reach” philosophy, and the distinction is on display at 1111 Nicollet Avenue now.

Mr. Andersen can’t engage in this conversation, at least directly. I wonder what he and many of his other contemporaries – former pillars of this community – would have to say.

Four days. My best to the parties.

The Listeners will determine the future.

This post was written by Dick Bernard and originally published on Outside the Walls.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Wm. Sweeney on 09/12/2013 - 07:40 pm.

    Different approaches to economics…and life

    Dick Bernard’s reference to Elmer Andersen’s business philosophy reminded me of a talk given by Kenneth Dayton more than three decades ago — a copy of which follows.

    Kenneth N. Dayton
    Speech to the Social Responsibility Project – Spring Hill Conference Center
    November 16, 1977

    I believe that the only reason for the existence of the free enterprise system is to serve society. If it doesn’t do that, it will be replaced by another system. That other system may not be as good, but if the public perceives that it is not well served by us, it will surely replace us – in one way or another.

    I believe that every business must define for itself how it will serve society. (In our case we have recognized and clearly stated our obligation to serve four constituencies – our customers, our employees, our shareholders, and the communities in which we operate.)

    I believe that there is no conflict between any of those four constituencies. Furthermore, I believe the common denominator of all four is maximum long range profit, without which none can be served well.

    I believe that long range profit is both the means and the measure of that service but it is not the end. To put it another way, profit is our reward for serving society well.

    I believe that only when business recognizes this subtle but important difference, only when it states clearly that we are in business to serve society rather than just to make money, only when it allies itself with the public interest, will it begin to secure its own future.

    In short, I believe that serving society is the only way to assure our survival. Serving society therefore is very much in our own enlightened self interest.

  2. Submitted by Michael Wunsch on 09/12/2013 - 08:48 pm.

    Excellent commentary

    This article gets to the heart of the issue. The philosophy embraced by Elmer Anderson was commonplace in earlier generations, and it was what made this country great. If you maintain a dedication to excellence, serve your customers well, and treat your employees respectfully, the money will follow. The Minnesota Orchestra has lost its way in its exclusive focus on the bottom line. In disregarding their customers, losing their focus on excellence, and disrespecting the musicians, the board and management of the Minnesota Orchestra are destroying their brand, destroying their product, and alienating their customers. An organization run in such a manner has no chance of financial success.

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/13/2013 - 07:59 am.

    The bottom line

    One problem about looking at bottom lines here is that the orchestra doesn’t have one. We can disparage management as much as we like, even as much as they deserve, but the fact is, disparagement doesn’t solve any problems. The fact is, this management does not see the Orchestra as financially viable as it’s finances are currently structured. I quite frankly don’t know if they are right in that assessment. But as long as nothing happens to change that assessment on the part of management, the only way a deal gets done is if concessions are made by musicians. Instead of concessions, and instead of someone putting a plan forward are real plan that would show how the orchestra could raise the revenues it needs to change the bargaining dynamic, what we have is pie in the sky musings, to the effect that if management meanies cough up someone else’s money to get a deal done, the orchestra fairy will make everything better. As it happens, I believe in orchestra fairies. I always clap at the appropriate time during the movie. But this management doesn’t, and as long as that doesn’t change, nothing will change in the negotiations.

  4. Submitted by Michael Wunsch on 09/14/2013 - 08:58 am.

    Hiram, many other solutions have been proposed

    Many other solutions have been proposed to resolve this situation. Patrons and musicians have long requested that the management and board utilize strategies successfully adopted by other orchestras to help resolve the financial problems: Raise revenues by starting a residency for the orchestra in another city (an approach Cleveland successfully pioneered), raise revenues by asking regular patrons to substantially increase their giving (which Lee Henderson proposed and now the SOS Osmo group is promoting), raise revenues by increasing the number of concerts (Cleveland started producing Nutcracker performances at Thanksgiving, for instance), and raise revenues by increasing attendance by utilizing some of the same techniques that Cleveland has successfully pioneered. The Cleveland Orchestra was in a similar situation financially as Minnesota a decade ago, and it resolved its problems without cutting musician pay or destroying its product. What is needed is a collaborative approach to resolving the financial problems. Why not involve patrons and musicians in problem solving? The board’s approach to this problem has been very counterproductive. If they were serious about obtaining concessions from the musicians, they would not simultaneously ask for significant changes to the work rules (including the most egregious change, which would place ultimate hiring authority for musicians into the hands of the CEO rather than the music director). If they were serious about maintaining the financial health of the organization, they would have made a fundraising plea to patrons prior to trying to make such drastic cuts and they would not alienate their patrons and small to medium sized donors by blacklisting them if they express concerns and ignoring their letters.

  5. Submitted by Rod Loper on 09/16/2013 - 07:07 am.

    Well done

    This post reveals the sad state of leadership in this community. The Daytons, the Pillsburys, the Mcknights and their crowd stand tall in
    comparison to the current generation. They treated the state like a
    valued family and nutured excellence while making a bundle. They headed corporations with an eye on the public good. The current crowd can only crunch numbers.

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