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Silence from the Minnesota Orchestra sides, but community efforts grow

Outside groups are questioning bonus pay and criticizing mangement’s marketing and fundraising efforts.

In the last contract offered by the MOA and unanimously rejected, musicians were being asked to take a 17 percent hit over three years, meaning a $110,000 violinist would be paid about $102,000 at the end of the contract.
Photo by Greg Helgeson

In the last two weeks, silence has surrounded the Minnesota Orchestral Association and its locked-out musicians, but there is increased community activity on the fringes of the dispute.

Is something going on behind the wall of silence? Nobody, of course, is saying.

But certainly silence seems more hopeful to music lovers than the angry rhetoric that  has marked the lockout, which recently entered its second year.

John Remington, professor of labor studies at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, agrees that it’s possible silence is golden.

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“It’s certainly possible they are engaging in informal sidebar discussions designed to see if there is a basis for settlement,’’ Remington said in an email response to questions.

But Remington sees the problem as so fundamental that without some pretty basic changes in the demands — and leadership — of this dispute, it doesn’t seem reasonable to get too optimistic that an end is near.

“The problem appears to be that the union’s bottom line and the employer’s maximum possible offer don’t overlap,” he wrote. “Accordingly there is no basis for settlement unless one of the parties abandons its basic position on dollars. I don’t see that happening without a change of leadership on one or both sides.’’

Even so, that doesn’t mean others in the community aren’t searching for a way out.

More public funds?

The latest development is a report Monday by the Star Tribune that some legislative and community leaders are considering ways to channel more public money to the Minnesota Orchestra. The newspaper said that the orchestra annually receives about $1 million from the state.

And last week, Save Our Symphony, which is seen by most as a pro-musician organization,  sent out a notice that Michael Henson, the association’s president and CEO, received total compensation of $619,313 in fiscal year 2011. That included a base salary of $386,916 and two bonuses totaling $202,500. (The rest of the compensation included deferred compensation of $9,800 and benefits, presumably for such things as health care, totaling $20,097.)

The MOA was quick to explain that the bonuses actually were paid in separate MOA fiscal years, but they ended up on tax records as paid in one year, because the IRS bases its data on a calendar year.

Put on the defensive by ths information, the MOA also pointed out that:

• The bonuses were paid prior to the lockout.

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•  The 990 tax form that included the information on Henson lists the highest-paid individuals in the MOA. Six of the nine people listed are musicians. “That reflects the values of this organization,’’ a spokesperson said.

•  Henson has “volunteered” to take the same salary whack as musicians are being asked to take.

Given that Henson is one of the three main MOA lightning rods in this lockout, the efforts to defuse issues surrounding his pay come across as a bit hollow. After all, it was Henson, in 2011, who came up with the “strategic plan’’ calling for reducing the orchestra’s expenses.

Orchestra’s top nine in pay

As for the list of the top nine, music director Osmo Vänskä, a casualty of the lockout,  was No. 1. The man credited with creating a “world class” orchestra was paid $1,175,910 in 2011. Vänskä was followed by Henson at $619,000 and then five musicians (with wages ranging from $237,364 to $187,780) and, finally, two other MOA executives.

It’s questionable, by the way, whether a rank-and-file musician would be impressed at Henson’s offer to “sacrifice.’’ In the last contract offered by the MOA and unanimously rejected, musicians were being asked to take a 17 percent hit over three  years, meaning a $110,000 violinist would be paid about $102,000 at the end of the contract. Taking the same cut from base pay, Henson would be receiving $359,832, not counting any bonuses that might come his way.

In regards to the issue of pay, Orchestrate Excellence, which is seen as the most neutral organization of music lovers that has sprung up around the lockout, conducted a comparative study of the financial performance of the Minnesota Orchestral Association and the Cleveland Orchestra.

That study seems to support the musicians’ belief that the MOA has not been as creative as it could be in marketing the orchestra, increasing the audience and in building the endowment. In all the fundamental revenue streams, Cleveland has out-performed the MOA, which has built its long-term sustainability plan on cutting costs.

Release of that study is obviously meant to put more pressure on the board to put pressure on its leadership. But if that’s happening, it’s happening quietly.

Public ownership broached

On a different front, Rep. Phyllis Kahn stepped forward with the idea that “the community,’’ meaning the city and the state, would take over the Orchestra. In the past, she’s made similar attempts for the public to take over ownership of the Vikings and the Twins, much as the public owns the Green Bay Packers.

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Those efforts have failed. (The Packers are unique and grandfathered in to the NFL structure. With all other franchises, the only input pro sports owners want from the public is dollars for new stadiums.)

Kahn is the first to agree that her plan for some sort of public ownership of the orchestra is sketchy.

She also agrees that the orchestra, a nonprofit entity, is different from the privately held Vikings.

But, Kahn says, the current economic model isn’t working for the Minnesota Orchestra or for many other orchestras in the country either.

“Maybe we can come up with something that would become a national model,” she  said.

Kahn notes that much about the orchestra already is public. Not only did the state come up with $14 million in bonding for the renovation of Orchestra Hall, but also the city of Minneapolis actually is the owner of the Hall. (The relationship between the city and the Hall is filled with technicalities. The Orchestra leases the hall to the city, which leases it back to the MOA. All of this helps open the door for public bonding.)

Under Kahn’s plan, the wealthy, so vital to the survival of any arts institution, would be encouraged to buy limited amounts of stock in the publicly owned orchestra.

She believes that the relationship between a board of directors of a publicly owned orchestra would have to be far better than the relationship between the current board and musicians. For starters, she said, a public board would include musicians. Orchestra members and  and their supporters fume that the current board appears tone-deaf to all, except power.

“When you introduce legislation, what you hope to do is introduce conversation,’’ Kahn said. “Let’s put our common sense together and come up with something that works.’’