And here we are. Can we finally have a revolutionary discussion? Or are we going to pretend, in the face of all contrary evidence, that the system still works?
The Minnesota Orchestra absorbed two body blows late this week in quick succession. First, their brilliant Principal Clarinet Burt Hara was offered the Associate Principal Clarinet position at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and it must be said that Burt’s departure would be an outsized and dramatic loss. Burt has been a star with this orchestra for 25 years, choosing to live and play in Minnesota when he could have had just about any job anywhere. An orchestra is supposed to be more than the sum of its parts, but Burt’s playing has perhaps been the most signature sound of this last generation of the M.O.
The next day we discovered Osmo Vänskä’s line in the sand. The response by M.O. Board chair Jon Campbell can only be summed up using that most expressive language Yiddish – “Meh.” If that’s the Board’s response to the most public artistic figure in the organization then what little shred of hope that they had the artistic health of the organization in mind has fluttered away in this cold and nasty Minnesota spring. These twin salvos have actually prodded the editorial board of the Star Tribune, Minnesota’s largest paper, to get off the fence and pass the prodding on to Governor Mark Dayton. The current Board of the M.O. is getting pounded in the press and the blogosphere, making it clear that the musicians have won the PR battle. Actually, it was never much of a battle – it has been a slaughter. The collateral damage, though, is where this war hurts the most.
Any honest assessment of the nonprofit governance system in place to manage orchestras, subject of constant criticism and ridicule from both within and without the business, must conclude that said system has finally and spectacularly collapsed. One of the great orchestras of this hemisphere, if not the world, is on the brink of complete ruin due to the intransigence of a bunkered few working in lockstep with someone whose managerial skills could only be termed maladroit, and whose “vision” for this orchestra is at best short-sighted and at worse borderline nefarious. The damage already done to the Minnesota Orchestra legacy is legion and will take decades to undo, even if by some miracle everything would be settled today. But considering the position of the Board I have few doubts that they would be willing to take this mighty ship down with them.
This “stewardship” of the M.O. by its Board of Directors should be considered felonius. At least in the for-profit world there would be some possible redress, though recent history would tell us that just because you intentionally run a company into the ground don’t expect to be held accountable for it. But leaving that aside – the facts are that the Minnesota Orchestra is now almost irretrievably in a state of total collapse. No other orchestra of its size and stature has been in these waters, and these waters are very deep and the ship is sinking. Even if Governor Dayton manages to broker a peace settlement (and yes, I am aware that I am using the nomenclature of war) we would be left with a deeply wounded orchestra missing many of its key players, a nuclear level toxic atmosphere between musicians, Board, and management, an embittered Music Director, and a community who rightly feels that their very proud legacy has been betrayed. It is hard to see how any orchestra could survive, let alone actually thrive, in this atmosphere.
Maybe this is the one situation where it would be possible to jettison the current orchestra governance model in favor of a realigned structure intrinsically different from anything tried before in this hemisphere. It would take tremendous guts and goodwill by all involved to make it work, but as Socrates so eloquently put it –
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”
What must first happen is a frank conversation about what the current and future needs of an organization such as the Minnesota Orchestra would be, what the needs/desires of the various constituencies are, and how we could design a new governing model that will address those needs/desires while fostering artistic growth and fiscal stability?
The first question I would ask is “what are the needs/desires of the various constituencies?” I would like to start with the most important constituency of all –
With all due respect to my musical colleagues it is The People who come to hear your concerts, The People who support your organization, The People who believe in having a fabulous artistic endeavor in the community in which they live, who are the most important constituency in this fight. As a general rule, if it is good for your audience it is good for the organization (there are exceptions to every rule but those exceptions tend to be fewer and much farther between then we might want to admit). In every city there are many, many thousands of people who might not ever attend one of your concerts who never-the-less believe that having outstanding arts institutions like the Minnesota Orchestra is a sign of a healthy community.
What do The People want? They want a healthy orchestra, to be sure, but they also want a say in how the organization functions and its long-term health. You would never see all the “Save Our [insert orchestra name here]” organizations if the people weren’t interested in contributing. But as the model stands today most of the people have no voice in the governance of their beloved institution.
This should seem self-evident but it still needs to be said: the musicians are the the next critical constituency in this fight. These are artists, and despite the pejorative connotations that word has in some segments of our society for many of us it is a worthy goal in life to share your artistic talent for the delight of others.
What do The Musicians want? Boiled down to the lowest common denominator what any musician wants is a decent job where, on occasion, you get that rare chance to fill someone’s heart with joy. They crave a healthy orchestra, but they also want a say in how the organization functions and its long-term health. Everyone on earth wants some say over how they must manage their lives. It is necessary for one’s self-respect, and without self-respect you cannot create great music.
Please note I do not refer to this constituency as the Board of Directors. This part of the conversation is about constituencies, not about governance. Like any Music Director/conductor I have had the opportunity to hobnob with many people who choose to support arts institutions like the M.O., and in most instances I have found their calculus to be surprisingly simple: healthy arts institutions are the sign of a healthy community, and since they have the means to make a difference they consider it their civic duty to do so. Without them none of the great arts institutions would have built. Not one. For decades the Great Philanthropists were the only game in town when it came to underwriting the expenditures of the arts world, but the rise of the middle class over the past 60 years is what has kept people going to those artistic endeavors. People pay real money for tickets these days. They budget for them, and they treasure those experiences.
What do The Philanthropists want? They want a healthy orchestra, but they also want a say in how the organization functions and its long-term health. It’s only human to want your voice to be heard if you have gone to the expense of donating your time, money, and energy.
I was hesitant to call management a full fledged constituency in this fight for a number of reasons but then I started looking at this issue from another perspective. Outside of an Executive Director (or the equivalent) there are usually dozens of people in an organization the size of the M.O. who draw a paycheck yet never appear on stage in concert! Stage crew, librarians, personnel support, fundraisers, P.R., etc., etc. I would argue in the strongest possible terms that these people have a vested interest in ensuring that the organization functions at the highest possible level of efficiency. Their jobs depend on it. And for many of them it is a labor of love. There aren’t a lot of folks getting rich in Arts Management these days.
What does The Management want? They want a healthy orchestra, but they also want a say in how the organization functions and its long-term health. Working at an arts organization is hard work. There a long hours, low pay, and a high rate of turnover. How can we make it easier for management to function and to attract and retain top quality people?
By now the trend should be obvious – every constituency wants a healthy orchestra, and everybody wants a voice in how that organization functions. Everyone wants a say in what the Minnesota Orchestra is, what it does, and how it does it. Everyone wants rights, but with rights come responsibility. That is the critical word – responsibility. After 20 years running around this business I have seen a few universal trends:
1. Other than measuring ticket sales and the level of small donations, most orchestras look at The People as the Victorian child who should be seen, not heard. We refer to “butts in seats” but it’s a bit more complicated than that. In the for-profit world you sell a product. In the non-profit world you should be growing a passionate and devoted constituency who will fight to the bitter end to ensure your organization survives. Why shouldn’t we harness the energy and goodwill or those people who have already drunk the Kool-Aid?
We must give The People more rights pertaining to the governance of the Minnesota Orchestra, and The People must embrace their responsibility to ensure that this orchestra is fiscally stable.
2. To quote a musician colleague – “There is a small yet extremely vocal group of musicians in every orchestra who believe that their responsibility begins and ends with showing up and playing their instrument, and more often than not the rest of their energy goes into complaining about how management or the Board is trying to screw them over.” I cannot see how this mindset will be a successful one in the reality that is the 21st Century orchestra. In the case of the M.O. I’m pretty sure that the first part of that quote has already been shattered, as the musicians have done a brilliant job organizing concerts and successfully working social media. I would bet that the learning curve has been both steep and very enlightening. So if the musicians want more control then why not?
We must give The Musicians more rights pertaining to the governance of the Minnesota Orchestra, and The Musicians must embrace their responsibility to ensure that this orchestra functions in the most efficient manner possible.
3. The time has come to separate philanthropy from governance. “He who pays the piper calls the tune” only goes so far, and to be honest the amount that the M.O. Board (or most Boards) raises on a yearly basis is dwarfed by the twin income streams of 1) ticket sales; and 2) donations by non-board members, corporations, and foundations. Yet it is the Board, alone of all that constituencies, that is solely tasked with governance. Board members are frequently recruited for their philanthropic prowess, or for their connections to those who have money, and then they are confronted with the concept of running a large non-profit. From a for-profit point of view the non-profit world makes very little sense, and some of the funniest conversations I have ever had have been with Board members desperately trying to understand how non-profits manage to exist, let alone function. Instead of tasking The Philanthropist with running the organization, how about relieving them of that responsibility and asking them to focus on what they do best – philanthropy?
We must redefine the relationship between The Philanthropists and the Minnesota Orchestra. The Philanthropists should be tasked with the responsibility of fundraising for the organization without the burden of governance.
4. The time has come to stop using management as the bulwark between the twin competing constituencies of the Board and the musicians. Management should be incentivized and empowered to work for the maximum efficiency of orchestra, and not used to flog the other constituency in a labor atmosphere that should have been left in the 1950s. After all, this job is hard enough, why make it harder?
We must make it easier for The Management to present concerts, pursue new artistic endeavors, and provide for the day-to-day operation of the Minnesota Orchestra. It should be acknowledged that The Management is a constituency as important as any other.
It is time to move on with the long overdue task of finding a new orchestral governance model suitable for the 21st Century. In these days of 3-D printers, social media, and home HD entertainment it makes little sense to try and run a large, personnel heavy, non-profit institution by the rules and regulations of the McCarthy era. The world has changed too much for that approach to have the necessary flexibility to succeed.
It’s broke. Why bother trying to fix it? Throw it out. When I moved into my house in 1995 I discovered that my laboring clothes dryer was from 1951. That poor dryer could barely get above 80 degrees (fahrenheit, I must add) and it did not take me long to have a new dryer delivered and installed by my local large appliance store. I firmly believe that the Minnesota Orchestra is in that same boat. Let us see if all those who share a love and passion for the mighty Minnesota manage to create a new and more flexible governance model and get back on the road to prosperity.