Minnepocalypse now.

Coming up on six months of lockouts in Minneapolis and St. Paul, it’s very difficult to think of what else to say or write on this tragic situation, since lots of people way smarter than I have already done so. But since the cliff is fast approaching (or maybe already past), I thought I’d post a few thoughts mostly directed to the MOA (Minnesota Orchestral Association) Board and the soon-to-be former patrons of classical music in the Twin Cities.

I’ve got several friends in the Minnesota Orchestra; some I’ve been in contact with, a few who have been subbing with the Milwaukee Symphony off and on for the last few months (a substantial portion of the MN Orch is now working with ensembles all over the country). As time has progressed I’ve noticed quite a few similar and sometimes unexpected perspectives from the musicians I’ve spoken with, and maybe some are worth sharing.

medium_120878924-3First is the very real human cost of this debacle: lost income, families with no health insurance (cut off when the lockout started), houses for sale, permanent relocation, possible career changes, serious soul searching. Another common refrain was how the MOA Board is allowing this to happen- a slow-motion catastrophe that could permanently affect their very own community. After months of disbelief, the most common question from musicians seems to be “How can these people continue to drink this crazy Kool-Aid from a couple of guys who clearly have no idea what they’ve set in motion? Why won’t at least a few board members stand up and do the right thing?” Another source of confusion seems to involve the MN Orchestra patrons themselves. Obviously they are passionate and well-meaning, with sites like Orchestrate Excellence , some social media efforts, and lots of volunteer workbut who thus far seem to lack an effective or potent strategy to get their message across to a broad coalition, possibly including members of the MOA Board that might eventually get tired of sitting on the sidelines while the institution disintegrates. With all due respect, where are the thousands of people who attended those self-promoted concerts (shunned by most of the MOA Board), and might there be better ways to get the points across more effectively to the Board and broader community? At least the recent actions of the MN legislature might get their attention, but those wheels turn slowly.

It was interesting to hear one person reflect on one aspect of why they left the MN Orchestra many years ago, despite it’s considerable artistic cachet and (at that time) unmistakable upward trajectory. To paraphrase- “If there’s a serious problem, everyone puts their head in the sand. People in Minnesota hate conflict, and this is Exhibit A. Even the audience seems to think that it’s better to sit back and let it all play out rather than get off their asses and directly confront this idiotic Board; it’s just part of the culture up there. This time things may really come crashing down; they probably have already”. Presumably they were referring to the fact that if indeed the entire season is eventually cancelled (a very real possibility), that would have repercussions that are far beyond the scope of what this Board and arts community seem to comprehend- in most other cities it has taken years to recover, and when the smoke cleared it would be a very different institution indeed. But at least here they’ll have a really nice lobby.

For the record, no musician I’ve spoken with was willing to work with President/CEO Michael Henson in any capacity. Responses ranged from resigned disappointment to outright hostility; all agreed his departure would be a requirement for any path forward, once a decision is taken to have actual negotiations rather than silly posturing and repeating the same nonsense everyone’s heard since last April.

I lack the details of the local politics and personality clashes that are such a huge part of this now, perhaps the most important factor. But what I find most amazing is that this is Minneapolis, a city with a supposedly literate, highly-educated, culturally aware populace, and an economy that (while not ideal) is certainly able to sustain (and has sustained) major cultural institutions for decades. Not exactly Detroit. The Minnesota Orchestra has evolved mightily over the last 15 years or so (artistically anyway), and was a symbol of excellence for the city and beyond. Could anyone have possibly imagined that the MOA Board and arts community would toss it away? It is absolutely incredible, and begs the question of what might also circle the drain if things get tough, the Guthrie? Walker Center? I cannot think of another instance in which such a shining point of civic pride was abandoned for what now appear to be ideological and mean-spirited motivations, not to mention outright stupidity and incompetence.

Not to slight the SPCO; that esteemed group is certainly part of the whole picture here. The general buzz has been that somehow they’re closer to a solution that might save some of the season and/or the institution itself. I’m not holding my breath.

In the end, maybe this is just how it is and the glory days of music in the Twin Cities are over. But the record will very clearly show it was a conscious choice made by the relevant Boards and the community itself, not the musicians.

As usual, I encourage everyone to read Song of the Lark for much more comprehensive coverage and insight.
photo credit: duncan via photopin cc

23 thoughts on “Minnepocalypse now.”

  1. Thanks for the shout-out, Frank!

    Please forgive my thinking out loud… I’m not trying to be passive-aggressive here; I genuinely do not know the answers to the following questions.

    One thing I struggle with every single day is, what would an “effective and potent strategy” look like? What exactly are the “better ways to get the points across”? How would this strategy be formulated? Who would lead it? How does a community – no matter how deep its commitment to the arts – create an effective network of activists and communicators from scratch in the space of a few weeks? When else has this been done in American cultural history? When has it helped? What strategy would even have a *chance* to convince the board to change course? How do you “directly confront” a board that only assembles once a year and consists of 80+ members (who you have no way of contacting except through their work addresses you can assemble via dozens of Google searches)? What kinds of engagement would help…and what would only be so much noise that might be temporarily cathartic for patrons and musicians, but ultimately harmful to the cause, especially in our conflict-averse Minnesota culture? On the musicians’ Facebook page, you once asked why patrons aren’t marching. How specifically would something like a march help the current situation? It’s obvious that if you aren’t a major donor (and sometimes even if you are), the Minnesota Orchestra board of directors doesn’t care about your perspective. End of story. I don’t know what, if anything, could ever change that.

    One lesson I’m bringing away from the fiasco is that there needs to be a better network of communication between all stakeholders. All board members should have physical addresses and email addresses through which patrons can contact them. And they should be taught to VALUE every single piece of correspondence they get. Quarterly open meetings should be mandatory. Minutes should be posted online. Several “audience advocates” should be on the board (people who don’t have a lot of money, but have a lot of ideas). Maybe reduce the size of the board, period (I often wonder if the size of the board is paralyzing it in its moment of crisis). And those are only suggestions off the top of my head.

    If any board members are reading this (although I highly doubt it), feel free to contact me through my blog or Facebook. I’m really not as vitriolic or “senseless” as you’ve been told I am. Promise. 🙂


    • Hi Emily,

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply and comments. By the way, it’s obvious you are neither vitriolic or “senseless”, and no one has ever said that to me; quite the contrary.

      First, some clarifications. I most certainly don’t have all the answers to the questions in the first part of your comment- if I did I would’ve included them in the post. Also, the Facebook comment you refer to didn’t exactly ask “why patrons aren’t marching”, but was more of a light-hearted suggestion to get people thinking about ways to generally make a little more noise (but maybe it didn’t look that way when I wrote it). As I recall I also noted that starting a riot is not the answer- I’m very much aware of the potential blowback of drastic action not carefully considered, and this is certainly more relevant in the prevailing conflict-averse culture up there (as you note). To address one part of your first paragraph, when things got nasty in Detroit there was a fairly robust response from Save Our Symphony (and the musicians themselves, particularly early on with the Sarah Chang thing). I don’t know how they did it (hiring a PR firm, maybe just having full-time media crisis response from a few people?), but somehow an “effective network of activists and communicators” was created and implemented fairly quickly. For quite awhile I was getting all kinds of email, postings, instant press responses, you name it, almost on a daily basis sometimes. Did it make a difference in the end? I don’t know, but it certainly sent a durable and consistent message that the Board/Management’s spin on things virtually required that anyone who really cared needed to get educated, and quickly. This is clearly a different sort of dispute, in a very different cultural atmosphere.

      I think you really get to the point in your second part above- all of those elements and ideas would and could help at this moment, and in some cases should be mandatory (a Board after all does need to conduct at least some of its business with a degree of discretion and confidentiality, like any well-run institution).

      I wish there were some magic dust someone could dump on the powers up there to get things moving again. If I find some I’ll let you know.
      Thanks again for writing, I’m a huge fan of SOTL and you have done more for the musicians than can possibly be conveyed here.

      • We’ve got SOSPCO (Save our SPCO) going, at http://www.sospco.org. We’ve networked with the Detroit SOS and gotten some good feedback. The audiences have been shamefully dissed by the mgmts of both orchestras – which continues to amaze me – but the musicians have been awesome in their response and thanks. We know who the grownups in the room are.

  2. To echo some of Emily’s thoughts – I have noticed that at least as online forums go, I see the same several folks chiming in, which disappoints me. I do know anecdotaly of others who are of the pen-and-paper school who have put their thoughts in print, some got pre-fab responses from the MOA, others were ignored. But in the final reckoning, I’m experiencing a huge sense of powerlessness. I am a donor, but not a huge one, certainly not big enough to get noticed by those In Power. Of all the many letter and emails I’ve sent to MOA board members, Michael Henson (including two letters by certified mail to be sure they reached the right offices), and elected officials, I have received only two responses: one from Mayor Rybak, and one from Representative Lesch. I’ve done my share of ranting and raving, but seem to be tilting against windmills.

    • Of course that’s appalling, but to be expected, I suppose. One thing on my mind more and more is how the MOA Board and leadership seem to have forgotten the most important fact related to their duties: a modern orchestra is at its core a community service organization. They are entrusted to safeguard it, not possess it. In the end the orchestra belongs to the community.

  3. This is so wonderful, thanks so much for responding. I love these kinds of discussions. And I’m a big fan of your work.

    A few of us in Minnesota are actually in touch with the folks at Save Our Symphony, so that’s good. I’m in the process of studying their blog very closely, trying to guess what helped and what didn’t. One thing that I wrestle with is, how is Detroit similar to Minnesota? how is it different? Because the conflicts are so similar in some ways, and so different in others. A couple of people have actually thrown around the idea that there would be a place for a sort of “national” SOS group…some kind of resource for American communities to go to when their cultural institutions are hijacked by boards that take drastic action, without first making an effort to reach out to their stakeholders.

    I get now what you mean about SOS’s PR. I’m not involved with Orchestrate Excellence, so I couldn’t tell you much about their strategy…I do, however, get the impression that they’re more active behind the scenes than non-members might initially guess. I do know there are a corp of volunteers who are active day and night. (If my impressions are correct, it will be interesting to see if this strategy bears fruit…) Save Our SPCO has had a very robust web presence, and appeared in the papers and on MPR. There’s usually a daily Facebook posting there, and regular email bulletins (and there has been since October). However, as best I can tell, their efforts have done relatively little to move their board… They gave a presentation to various board members and proposed a fundraising strategy and everything, but were basically patted on the head and told they were well-meaning but naive. I have a feeling the same thing would happen if Orchestrate Excellence did a similar thing with the MOA. Also, the Minnesota Orchestra musicians have had a very effective PR presence in Minneapolis. That PR presence may not radiate into other cities, but I can vouch that it’s been pretty effective. One thing the entire music world will get by the end of this is more data on what strategies might work for audience advocacy and musician groups during labor disputes, and which tactics might backfire.

    Re: vitriol and senselessness… I’ve actually been told that one of the reasons the board members didn’t go to the Grammy celebration concert was because of my “vitriol.” (…) And Henson himself said in a closed-door meeting that “blogs are senseless and must be ignored.” So that’s the story on that. I can just imagine Mr. Henson refreshing SOTL, waiting to see if I make any kind of anti-management noise, or mis-interpret any numbers, then using that as agitprop to convince the board members musician sympathizers shouldn’t be listened to or trusted. He seems the type that enjoys the drama of persecution. I don’t really know what else to expect of an orchestra CEO who has a bodyguard. So whenever I can, I try to reach out and encourage board members to contact me if they want, and convince them what they’ve no doubt heard about me isn’t actually true…

    • Wow, what extremely thin skins. I had no idea that was one of the reasons! If you can’t stand the heat, get the hell out of the job.

    • When we at Save Our SPCO met with the Detroit SOS group by conference call in January, I proposed a national “League of American Orchestra Audiences” (LoAOA) group, with a suggested inaugural meeting in Honolulu in November! We all got a good laugh, and noted the similarity of the acronym to the Wicked Witch of the West music, but it might actually be a good idea. Now all we need to do is find someone who isn’t spending all their time advocating for their local professional orchestra to get this set up! BTW, stay tuned for big news out of SOSPCO next week.

      • I LOVE the idea of League of American Orchestra…l Audiences.

        Seriously, Mariellen, I’d totally be on board for doing something like this, even on a small scale, once we figure out our situation here… No matter how the Twin Cities story ends, I want to help other communities, and share the lessons we’ve learned. I bet you anything that there will be increasingly nasty labor battles over the next five years.

        Really looking forward to hearing your news!

  4. Emily nailed a really important point…if your board is extremely big, it will likely be extremely out of touch. Eighty people can gather in conference rooms only so often, and usually only for the big annual meeting (where they review the accomplishments since the last annual meeting) and rubberstamp whatever they’re told with a politely unanimous “AYE”. There is a subgroup, in a more convenient size of 12-20, who make “recommendations” to the full board…this is the executive committee. In this subgroup is a smaller group, probably not identified on the website or in any formal way in the minutes…that is the de facto steering committee: setting agendas, meeting with board members informally – here is where the real action happens.

    But the pretense lives on…that eighty individuals somehow are in unanimous, North Korean lock-step with decisions made that involve them. I just don’t believe that can be true. What I do believe is that eighty people can mistakenly equate British accents with depth of expertise, and mighty bankers with responsible behavior.

  5. “Could anyone have possibly imagined that the MOA Board and arts community would toss it away?” Which might explain the slow response time from the public; everyone was in shock and denial that this could even be happening in Minnesota. Surely, it would all be over in a month or two, many of us imagined, but that was wishful thinking. We didn’t realize that a very dark agenda (years in the making) had been put in motion by the board and management.

  6. I’m with those who wonder what, exactly, I could do. Although I’m a longtime dedicated audience member of both orchestras, I’m not a major donor and never will be. Maybe there’s strength in numbers, but it’s hard to feel like the MoA board has any interest at all in engaging with audience members. We just don’t matter to them.

  7. Here’s one suggestion, for what it’s worth. In the for-profit world boards are held accountable to stockholders, at least that’s the way it used to work. In the NFP world, it has always been common to think of donors as the “stockholders” – the more you donate, the greater your controlling interest. But there are many reasons for donating to an orchestra, even without any interest whatsoever in what the orchestra does (tax deduction, civic pride, ego, bragging rights, business contacts, etc.). Now going into an imaginary orchestra world, what would be the result if purchasing a season ticket (a sign of interest more focused on the music) carried with it a vote of confidence/no confidence in the board at the end of every season? One ticket, one vote.

    • That would bring in the stakeholders, a much larger group – and they’ve been totally ignored so far in all of this. We, the audience!!!

  8. It seems like time to dismiss the Board. Past time. I have no idea how such a thing could legally be done, but when a board cancels a season, they clearly do not have the interest of the orchestra they represent at heart.

    • Keep in mind, if *everyone* on the board resigned, that would create its own set of problems…

      As Frank insinuates, I imagine there are many board members who are waiting on things to change, who don’t feel that a massive confrontation would be in the best interests of the organization. (That whole Minnesota Nice thing at play again…) As an outsider who has been following this conflict every single day since August, I’ve got really unfortunate news: things WON’T change, unless a handful of board members stand up and BECOME the change. They need to reach out to Orchestrate Excellence, SOSPCO, the folks at Save Our Symphony in Detroit, people in the orchestra field like Drew McManus or Robert Levine or Bill Eddins or Frank or any of their critics, who might be able to bring a fresh perspective to the table and give them suggestions of how they could move forward. There is no need for them to feel paralysis of any sort. They need to ask around, find out who the independent experts are, contact those independent experts, and test the veracity of every single claim that management and the musicians have set before them. Throw all preconceptions and preordained narratives from all sides out the window. Be proactive. Please, guys. It will be hard work, but you have a community that wants to help you. The board is full of the leaders of the Minneapolis community. Flex those leadership muscles. Surely you have them. Surely there are win-win solutions somewhere!

      Some articles on the subject of accountability in the nonprofit world that I’ve found very helpful and relevant to the MOA debacle…

      Nonprofit Accountability and Ethics: Rotting from the Head Down http://www.nonprofitquarterly.org/management/21259-nonprofit-accountability-and-ethics-rotting-from-the-head-down.html

      The Voice from Outside: Stakeholder Resistance in Nonprofit Organizations http://www.nonprofitquarterly.org/governancevoice/18291-the-voice-from-outside-stakeholder-resistance-in-nonprofit-organizations.html


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