Minnesota Not-So-Nice

In the Great White North the other shoe has dropped.  Those of us who were expecting it can officially say……. well, we can’t say anything nasty, of course, because we live in Minnesota.  So…… how ’bout dem Vikings?

Ah, Minnesota.  I love living here….. except for the Prairie Home Companion thing.  Strangest hour of my life was in a meeting with Garrison Keillor.  And then there are the occassional freaky tornadoes.  Oh, and the deadly cold mid-February weeks.  Oh, and lest we forget – Michelle Bachmann.  Yikes.

One thing we have managed to be justly proud of is our cultural scene, and the Minnesota Orchestra is one of the shining jewels in the arts crown.  It’s an excellent band with a long and proud history.  It is also facing one of the biggest challenges of its existence (read this article, please).  (Full disclosure – I was on the M.O. staff from 1992-97 and I still have many friends there.  None-the-less, I don’t get down to Orchestra Hall more than a couple times a year, and that’s usually to watch my kids in their youth orchestra.  Although I travel for a living I’m a homebody, and the last thing I want to do on a free night is hear someone else hack through a Beethoven symphony.)

Before everyone panics it should be pointed out that the orchestra has not been running huge yearly structural deficits like Philly or Detroit did. Indeed, the last 4 years have seen a balanced budget. But that’s the good news.  The bad news – the 72% attendance figure I highly doubt.  It seems more like the low 60%s and I suspect the higher number includes some papering.  Orchestra Hall itself is too large and stuck in the early ’70s.  The orchestra is large and the yearly starting salary is highly enviable (almost half the $30M budget goes to orchestra salaries). The orchestra has been drawing on the endowment way, way, way too much.  That’s always the canary in the coal mine for these larger institutions.  Note to all involved: your endowment is NOT like the penny jar under your bed.

And speaking of endowment – this raises some serious questions.  Namely, what has been the procedure in the past re: borrowing from said endowment?  Was principle raided?  And if so, was that principle refunded at a later date or was the endowment left to work with a lower principle?  Then there’s the question of timing – if everyone has known that this wasn’t a viable long-term strategy for the organization why wait until this year to make the change in the amount being drawn from the endowment?  It wouldn’t have anything to do with this being a contract year, would it?

Be that as it may, that’s not the worst news.  All sorts of ridiculous rumors abound: an across-the-board 20% pay cut; a reduction to a 17 week season and fill the rest of the time with touring Pops shows (call backs for the orchestra when necessary); etc.  I’m not sure I believe any of it because this would be a sure path towards cultural obscurity in this town.  The most ridiculous rumor concerns a warning to musicians about negative statements to the press which could lead to disciplinary action. This would not only be unethical, it would also be illegal. I don’t believe that rumor because the M.O.’s in-house counsel, if said counsel got wind of this, would go ballistic.

And yet, that’s still not the scariest part.  I’ve been asking around and it seems that the Minnesota Orchestra has lost its relevance.  I’m not talking about all those glowing reviews of the CDs, though I do wonder if any of those CDs have so much as approached breaking even.  I’m also not talking about all those glowing reviews of the tours, though I’m pretty sure that none of those tours have come close to breaking even.  I’m talking about butts in seats AND hearts in mouths.

Honestly, I don’t hear anyone talking about the M.O. anymore.  I think the M.O. fell into the “How Do We Keep Being a Top 10 Orchestra?” trap.  Cranking out highly regarded CDs won’t do it, nor will expensive touring.  The only way an orchestra like this can really thrive is to aggressively court the people of their community.  Yet I know that there were community based outreach programs that were going gangbusters 20 years ago that only exist on paper now.  Perhaps that’s just the symptom.

I know a lot of people who used to regularly attend the orchestra.  They don’t go anymore.  It’s certainly not due to the quality of the band.  Somehow from a community standpoint the M.O. has lost its M.O.-JO.

2 thoughts on “Minnesota Not-So-Nice”

  1. Bill, excellent – right on the money! I especially find your comment that expensive cd’s and touring are not what will make orchestras survive but connecting/staying relevant to your community!!
    Amen to that!

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