Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


With week’s events, is a Minnesota Orchestra settlement any closer?

File photo by John Whiting
Michael Henson, president and CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra: “Everyone needs to put the hurt of the last 18 months behind. We have to focus on what’s ahead.”

It’s never been clearer that musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestral Association desperately need each other.

It’s always been simple: One group has the talent; the other has the keys to the money and Orchestra Hall.

But, in the wake of reports issued by each group this week, is a settlement any closer?

On the surface, the answer would seem to be a resounding no because nothing has changed.  Still, there are little remarks being made that hint at some small progress toward resolution.

Major negatives still there

To see the positives, you have to have an active imagination and a generally hopeful outlook about life and times. The negatives remain right in front of us.

The negatives:

The MOA’s board of directors is not changing the leadership that created the strategy that began with a lockout. In fact, if there were ever any debate about whether Michael Henson should be replaced as CEO and that Jon Campbell and Richard Davis should be pushed aside from their positions as leaders of the board, they were held far from the public eye.

There was no change-of-direction discussion at Wednesday’s annual board meeting held at the Minneapolis Club.

(Side note: Board members, who must pay $10,000 just for a seat on the board, have to pay for their own meals at all board functions.)

Given the harsh feedback that board members are getting from some in the community, why would anybody want to stay on the board?

Attorney Doug Kelley, who has served as a negotiator for the MOA, was asked that question after he opted to re-join the board this year.

Kelley, who previously had been on the board for 19 years and currently has worked as a negotiator for the MOA, said board members aren’t doing the work for love and adoration from the public. 

“I recently got an e-mail that said, ‘You’re nothing but an expensive media whore for the board of directors.’ I wrote the guy back and said, ‘I may be a media whore, but I’m not expensive, I’m doing this as a volunteer.’ ”

The moral of the story, Kelley said, is that board members truly do love the orchestra and the organization that supports it. They want it to survive into the future.

OK, that’s what MOA leadership has been saying for 14 months: This lockout is about the long-term future of the orchestra.

Long term vs. short term

If the shorter-term needs of today’s musicians aren’t given greater consideration by the MOA, the silence in Orchestra Hall has just begun.  

At their public meeting on Monday, musicians said their No. 1 priority is resolving the dispute and going back to Orchestra Hall. But, on the clear negative side, they said they’ve prepared a series of concerts, which will include star guest artists, for the winter/spring season.

By the way, those pricey guest artists perform in these concerts for far less than their normal fees. In some cases, they’ve even turned back those fees as a contribution to the orchestra musicians.

Musicians seem united. And they seem excited about the support they’re receiving from both their audiences and their peers across the country. And they still are distrustful of the MOA leadership.

The statement they offered following the Wednesday release of the MOA’s annual report wasn’t exactly filled with olive branches.

“It’s of great concern to the musicians that the leadership of the MOA managed to spend $13 million and run a $1 million deficit while producing no concerts,” musicians said in a statement. “This begs the question as to whether the MOA’s new business model will truly lead toward sustainability or success.

“As we stated at our community meeting on Monday, it is our top priority to reach an agreement with the MOA that keeps a world-class symphony orchestra in Minnesota. However, until we reach that point, we will continue to plan and produce concerts so that we can continue to serve our audiences and preserve what the community has built over the past 110 years.”

Slight hints at changing dynamics

The positives:

There are at least slight hints that something might be changing in the dynamics of this dispute.

Following the annual meeting, Henson, talked, almost wistfully, of the need for both sides “to look forward.”

Asked in an interview if starting this whole process with a lockout was a strategy he now regrets, Henson sat silent for a moment.

“We all need to sit down together,” Henson said. “Everyone needs to put the hurt of the last 18 months behind. We have to focus on what’s ahead.”

OK, that’s not exactly a mea culpa. But Henson, in part because of his heavy British accent and in part because of his outward self-confidence, has the type of personality that at times has seemed to add fuel to the labor fire.

In our conversation on Wednesday, Henson seemed a little more appreciative of the musicians and what they were able to accomplish in Minnesota.

“This is a world-class orchestra and it will be in the future,” he said in various ways on several occasions.

Clearly, Henson still believes that this dispute at this time and place has worldwide implications and implications for the arts everywhere.

“This is a debate about the arts around the world,” he said.

And he’d like to be the guy who wins the debate and shows the arts world that with deep cuts here and there, the arts can be made more sustainable.

Through much of this long dispute, Henson came across as someone who believed his was the only way. His longtime view: The musicians must be made to understand that they would have to take deep cuts if the orchestra is to survive.

There perhaps were subtle differences in his words Wednesday.

“I think what has been shown this week is that we all need each other,” Henson said. “This is an exceptional board, an exceptional orchestra, an exceptional community. There has to be a way to bring that all together.”

Of course, that’s been true for 14 months and nothing has happened.

Yet from both musicians and management, there has been more talk of late of needing each other and less belligerence than there’s been in months.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (21)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/12/2013 - 10:08 am.

    10k to buy a seat on the board? That seems like a real problem.

    • Submitted by Ben Munroe on 12/12/2013 - 11:46 am.

      Skin in the game

      Exactly. There’s nothing in the bylaws that says a minimum donation is required. This shows the mindset of the current board — that “skin in the game” is only about money, and not about vision, input from “average” patrons, or building new audiences.

    • Submitted by Amy Adams on 12/12/2013 - 11:50 am.

      That’s actually not uncommon, for the board to have…

      …an expected level of giving.
      But you’re right: a side effect is that boards grow insular, as the Moneyed, and Only The Moneyed, control the organization. Ex Officio members (with full voting rights) would help represent the community and balance decision-making (members of the university, arts officials, city officials…musicians! Even musicians!) The mayor is on the board now, but purely as an honorary title.
      Voting rights and an encouraged voice are what matters. And this board, being so very huge and unwieldy, meets very infrequently…and doubtless not to talk, but to Hear A Carefully Prepared Presentation – Then Vote Unanimously On It – Applaud Themselves – Then Have Lunch.

      • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 12/12/2013 - 01:05 pm.

        Amy: the unwashed do not fit into this effete board,…

        …they wouldn’t know the social rules.

        People who’ve bought their way into this club don’t care what it actually DOES, or there would have been some real hair-pulling going on at those board meetings.

    • Submitted by Rebecca Kite on 12/12/2013 - 06:11 pm.

      Donation buy in for board members

      Last year I read a NYTimes article about arts non profit board membership in NYC and the amount of $10 million was mentioned for one organization.

  2. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 12/12/2013 - 10:09 am.

    I wonder if they understand that for it to exist into the long-term future it has to exist in the near-term future; and given how many musicians they’ve lost it seems like they may have killed it already in their attempts to save it in the long term.

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 12/12/2013 - 10:26 am.

    Today’s MOA Board and Executive Leadership

    Will, in the future, be remembered with all the love and warmth that we remember Major Bors who uttered the infamous Vietnam-era comment regarding the village of Ben Tre, a village that had been virtually wiped off the map with it’s population mostly killed in a prolonged battle seeking to root out he Vietcong,

    “We had to destroy this village to save it.”

    This negative memory will be especially well justified because the MOA seems to believe that the musicians union IS the Vietcong.

    The only thing that will now preserve what used to be “The Minnesota Orchestra” (which, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists),…

    is for the Musicians to gradually develop their own leadership, management, schedule, and performance venues.

    But, of course, even if the musician go their own way, the Board and it’s anointed executives and legal team will do what they’ve done for this past year: spend down the rest of the MOA’s endowment while providing nothing of value to the community, the musicians, or those who endowed the MOA in the now-proven-to-be-misguided belief that they were ensuring that what used to be “The Minnesota Orchestra” would remain a strong source of excellent classical orchestral music for decades to come.

    I can’t help but wonder when the representatives of the estates which have so richly endowed the MOA will wake up and realize that the money they’ve given is not, and likely will not EVER be used for its intended purpose, and being to sue the MOA for violating the spirit of the terms under which that money was given.

    Meanwhile, the fact that the former musicians of “The Minnesota Orchestra” and the classical music lovers of the metro area and the entire upper midwest region are left feeling as if they are, in effect, the citizens of Tre Ben in 1968 does not seem to matter in the least to the MOA, it’s lawyers, or it’s executives. All that matters to them is that they WIN (no matter how much destruction they cause in pursuing that victory).

    I’ve heard it said that these are not “bad people,” that they’re only trying to accomplish what they believe in, but I take seriously the Biblical admonition, “You will know them by their fruits.”

    Whatever their intentions, the “fruits” that the MOA board, legal team and executives have already born and which they seem determined to continue to bear render them to be evildoers. It doesn’t matter in least what they intend to accomplish. What they HAVE accomplished is only damage and destruction and will continue to be so, because they cannot EVER accomplish the aims they claim to be pursuing while using the only methods they seem willing and/or able to use.

    • Submitted by Larry Schluter on 12/12/2013 - 11:30 pm.

      What Do The Musicians Want?

      We haven’t heard from the musicians lately. What do they want to get this settled? Are they willing to sit down and get this settled or are they just satisfied playing their outside concert? They seem to be as much of the problem as the board.

      • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 12/13/2013 - 11:52 am.

        If that’s what you think…

        then you haven’t been paying attention. The musicians have made many offers, but the board walked away from the negotiating table at the 11th hour, resulting in no deal and the resignation of Maestro Vanska. Please get your facts straight.

      • Submitted by Amy Adams on 12/14/2013 - 08:07 pm.

        Where Exactly Have You Been?

        I don’t mean to disturb this careful bubble you must be in, to not know what the musicians are up to, what they want, or if they’re willing.

        You may, though, be qualified to sit on the board of directors of the Minnesota Orchestra, the only group of people in this area known to avoid listening to the musicians at all. All you need is $10k and an invitation.

  4. Submitted by Michael Hess on 12/12/2013 - 11:59 am.

    Declaring War

    Mr. Henson and the Board effectively declared war on the musicians with the lockout last year. While he may wish for everyone to put the hurt aside it’s a little easier when you spent the last year at full pay, with insurance, spending $13M to accomplish nothing. What exactly was the hurt, that your work performance was criticized by the musicians you locked out and the community and arts industry observers? What will management and the board to to acknowledge the hurt experienced by the musicians and to make amends instead of more ultimatiums?

  5. Submitted by Wm. Sweeney on 12/12/2013 - 12:09 pm.

    Personalities (and egos) as much as other issues

    It is hard to see the resolution of this painful episode of finger pointing and distrust without the resignation of Michael Henson. As mentioned in the article, his personality — and also his compensation package — simply add fuel to the emotional fire of this dispute. It may also be difficult to reach a resolution without the departure of Mssrs. Davis and Campbell – although I don’t know if their presence raises quite the negotiation hurdle as that of Henson.

    If Henson – and possibly Campbell and Davis — are truly interested in the resolution of the lockout and, as a result, the viability of the Orchestra, they will voluntarily leave the organization.

    • Submitted by Arthur Horowitz on 12/12/2013 - 01:15 pm.

      I don’t think the trio will leave (quietly)

      According to accounts of the board meeting published in today’s Star Tribune Misters Davis and Campbell were elected to continue on until the dispute is settled and Mr Henson also received the boards approval. Again, fingers are pointed at Mr. Henson, but you must remember who hired him and rewarded him with $200,000 in bonuses for developing the “Strategic Plan”. Its my guess despite, fragments of hope alluded to in Doug Grow’s article, after attending the musicians’ get together Monday morning I saw little to confirm his belief. Although the musicians said they want to work to resolve the problem, they reminded the attendees that the board rejected 10 proposals some of which even offered some salary concession and would not negotiate. And the musicians announced 8 to 10 upcoming concerts–as many or more than the board had planned for this time frame. This leads me to believe there is no hope for a settlement this season. One positive sign though, a member of the board’s executive committee was in the room as well as Ms. Judy Dayton, who is not a board member. Unfortunately, I was not invited to the orchestra board meeting so I can’t comment—and my acquaintances on the board have been mum except to let me know the musicians would make enough money anyway when they took their 25% pay cut.

      • Submitted by Sarah Nagle on 12/12/2013 - 06:18 pm.

        How much is “enough”?

        Geez Louise, Richer Davis makes $12 mil/yr. I wonder if he considers THAT enough. I guess even that amount can’t buy class.

  6. Submitted by Rebecca Kite on 12/12/2013 - 12:38 pm.

    Why the MOA still needs a leadership change.

    The injuries this MOA leadership have inflicted on the orchestra are grievous and will take years and years to heal. Perhaps they are just starting to realize this.

    When bankers and wealthy business executives start trying to make artistic decisions, artists are in big trouble. The reason – a combination of narrow thinking, ignorance, and arrogance. I have seen similar attitudes in the region where I live involving community orchestras and non-profit boards of arts organizations.

    Narrow thinking example: I like pops music, everyone I know likes pop music so we’ll get more audiences if we book cool pop groups that everyone will like. Also: wow, those musicians sure are expensive, in fact their salary is our biggest expense. I’ll bet we could get some hot new young players for a lot less – that will really help the bottom line.

    Ignorance: No survey of current customers (orchestra supporters) to find out if THEY want more pops music or recent conservatory grads instead of world class musicians). Also – is there no other difference between older, experiencend employees and fresh out of college? Not in THEIR world view – the kids are definitely cheaper.

    Not looking at their own records and seeing a possible link between declining attendance and increasing pop music.

    Not realizing the trends in the classical music world toward deep engagement with the community (google: CSO Citizen Musicians )

    Arrogance: Us? Look to the Chicago Symphony for ideas? Who are they? Us? Look to LA Phil for ideas? Us? Look to Cleveland for ideas? They’re just a dying rust belt city. Hey, we are successful in our day jobs so I’m sure what works for us will work here.

    Also the Arrogance of not considering the musicians to be part of the organization and the total lack of listening and considering the other side. (In other words, how a lock-out is a bad strategy unless you think you’ll never have to negotiate or work with those people again).

  7. Submitted by Michael Wunsch on 12/12/2013 - 02:46 pm.

    the musicians’ concerts are critical for building trust

    While I understand why someone might see the independent concerts produced by the musicians as an impediment to negotiations, these concerts are likely actually the key to the long-term survival of the Minnesota Orchestra.

    For the orchestra to be successful in the medium and long-term, the broader community needs to know that it has a voice and that the orchestra is there to serve them. Sadly, the MOA has a severe credibility gap in this area.

    The musicians are helping build some of the trust and credibility that the MOA will desperately need if it is to survive. The musicians have been completely transparent with their finances, they have been receptive to input and feedback from patrons, and they are showing through their actions that they care first and foremost about serving others. By putting on their own concerts, they are building trust with their audiences that otherwise would have been completely lost to the organization.

    What we have to hope is that when a labor agreement is reached, the agreement is reached in such a manner that patrons believe that the musicians’ vision of transparency, community engagement, and excellence in classical music performance and outreach will be be embraced by the MOA: i.e. that the agreement is such that patrons are willing to transfer their trust in the musicians to the MOA. This isn’t an easy task given the actions of the MOA and statements made by Henson, Davis, and Campbell, but it is not impossible.

    In the interim, the programming put on by the musicians is the only hope that we have that trust and confidence can be restored. I applaud them for their sacrifices and their sense of vision.

  8. Submitted by Andy Dunn on 12/12/2013 - 02:58 pm.

    But they DO care

    It shows the world they have A Seat on The Board.

  9. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 12/12/2013 - 06:22 pm.

    Strategic plan?

    So, Mr. Henson was hired, compensated and rewarded with bonuses to devise and implement a long range strategic plan? Is this something that has been made public or is that a secret? Was the renovation of Orchestra Hall and the public funding (since paid back) of that renovation part of the strategic plan?

  10. Submitted by Mark Carter on 12/13/2013 - 08:19 am.

    Agenda needs to change

    If this dispute is to be settled, then the scope of the agenda for negotiations needs to widen. None of us want to see this happen again.

    The first issue is governance. This needs to change as part of the settlement. There needs to be a category of membership for a set fee, that gives you a seat on a body, that meets once a year, and has a nominating committee for officers to the board. This body should elect the governing board. There should be strict term limits. Under specified conditions, the membership should be able to convene a meeting to recall a board member.

    The musicians and music director should have artistic control. It should be understood a symphony orchestra does not need, and should not have a director of pop music on the payroll. The current one has left and should not be replaced.

    The musicians right to negotiate salary and benefits should be respected.

    In the meantime, thanks to the musicians for the concert series announced yesterday. It is far superior to the season the MOA sent to the city, That was a disgrace.

    There should be no settlement at any price, and I trust the musicians will hold their griund, difficult though that will be.

    The board also need to know there are ways of favorably altering the expense income ratio, other then cutting the musician salaries.

  11. Submitted by Jim Million on 12/14/2013 - 10:14 am.

    No Rules, Only Exceptions

    As FDR proclaims in Annie:

    “In the long run, there is no long run!”

Leave a Reply