The Broken Circle

Well, it finally happened. Those of you not living in a cave will have heard the Osmo Vänskä is returning as the Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra. I’ve already heard some people claim that the orchestra has come full circle. Not quite.

There are still some major issues surrounding the M.O. that cannot be avoided. Musicians have left, and to replace them is a lengthy, time consuming, and expensive process. There is still a deficit which needs to be addressed. There are very bruised feelings in the community over how this has all gone down. Importantly, it now seems that the musician’s contract and the Music Director’s contract will expire within spitting distance of each other. That could lead to more issues in the future. Oh, and the M.O. needs a really good Executive Director. STAT.

But enough of those problems. Even though it is still a broken circle, it is full enough that perhaps we should take stock of what we have learned by this debacle. Here’s my list, not comprehensive, and in no particular order. I welcome additions.

  • The Neo-conservative approach to running a nonprofit organization is as disastrous as the Neo-conservative approach to running a country’s economy.
  • A successful non-profit with a long and storied history belongs to the entire community, and cannot be hijacked by any group with an agenda without incurring significant damage to said non-profit.
  • Do not underestimate the power of social media and the internet in today’s world.
  • There are actually some conductors who will stand up for what is right, as opposed to worrying about their public image.
  • Musicians should be way more engaged in how their orchestras function. Of course, this means that musicians actually have to demand AND take responsibility as well.
  • Communities should be way more engaged in how their orchestras function. Of course, this means that the “common folk” need to be made privy to the problems that orchestras face in this modern world, and there needs to be a mechanism within the non-profit structure that allows this to happen in a positive manner.
  • The days of the orchestral dictator – whether that’s a conductor or a manager – are either over or seriously on the wane.
  • Long range plans that take into account both the fiscal AND artistic health of orchestras are absolutely critical, and they cannot be implemented without the approval of all and sundry.
  • Orchestras (and other non-profits) actually do play a vital role in the health of the community in which they perform.
  • There is such a thing as bad publicity.
  • Spending money to upgrade your facilities can frequently be a good thing. Spending money to upgrade your facilities at the expense of your artistic mission is never, ever a good thing.
  • Non-profits operate most effectively when there is a level of trust between all the constituencies. Once that trust is breached it is very, very hard for a non-profit to function.
  • Non-profits are non-profits. Non-profits do not function well as for-profit organizations, and any endeavor to make them do so will eventually fail for one reason or another.
  • It doesn’t matter how good your orchestra is if no one is coming to the concerts.
  • It doesn’t matter how bad your orchestra is if no one is coming to the concerts.
  • Independent audits of a non-profit are essential. It’s much harder to agree on a direction for an organization if you can’t agree on the basic facts.
  • Orchestras are usually only as good as the quality of musicians in the community who are called upon to sub with them.
  • There is a difference between a collection of musicians and an orchestra.
  • There is a difference between governance and managing.
  • If you don’t understand anything about music, then please don’t wax philosophical about how to manage an orchestra.
  • Conversely, if you don’t understand anything about management, then please don’t wax philosophical about how to manage an orchestra.
  • The easiest way to fulfill the prophecy that “the orchestra is going down the toilet” is to flush it yourself.
  • Music is beautiful. Making beautiful music is really, really, really, really hard. Anyone who says otherwise either has absolutely no clue about what it takes, or is being intentional obtuse.
  • Orchestras are not cheap. Good orchestras are damn expensive.
  • The whole “starving artist” things is complete crap. No, musicians are generally not in the orchestra business to get rich. That does not mean that they have to be treated, or paid, like servants. Providing musical beauty to a community is just as important as any other job.
  • An orchestra can never be a “corporation.” Yes, that’s a problem in some ways, but that’s the way it is.
  • Most people don’t know the difference between a lock-out and a strike.
  • Orchestras still have a major image problem in today’s America. Much of that is our own fault.
  • Coverage of orchestras by major media outlets tends to be subpar.
  • Coverage of orchestra by major media outlets that have an executive on the board of said orchestra which is mired in a lock-out tends to be abysmal.
  • Comparing orchestras to sports teams is a losing argument.
  • An artistic organization without a strong artistic mission is a waste of time, money, and energy on everyone’s part.

That’s enough from me. I look forward to hearing everyone else’s ideas.

40 thoughts on “The Broken Circle”

  1. So many important lessons. One important indication of how the orchestra will fare in the future is how well the energy this conflict unleashed in the community will be incorporated into the “new” organization. Will those community members who demonstrated passionate commitment to the Minnesota Orchestra be invited inside the tent? And, if invited, with they continue their work mobilizing community support for the orchestra? It’s a chance to make lemonade from all those lemons.

    • BarbBurt, what exactly would – and wouldn’t – constitute being invited inside the tent? I mean, anyone can buy tickets to a concert, so I presume you mean something more than that.

      • Thanks for asking. It’s important to have diversity on the board, and that includes economic diversity. Allow elections of board members so the board is not simply self-perpetuating. Recommit to the mission. All stakeholders–musicians, audience members, donors, elected officials should be represented. In this transition and challenge, hold an open space-type workshop and let the community help develop solutions. The opponents of the lockout demonstrated an abundance of creative thinking; put that to work!

  2. Dear Bill,

    Excellent, excellent post. I read your posts often. While there’s cause for celebration on Osmo’s return, there is still a great deal of work to be done at the MOA, not least of which is governance reform. Please support my idea to change the MOA’s governance structure to create accountability to the community by returning to a membership governance structure. By opening up to the community and inviting them to become members of the association, the MOA will broaden their base of support, fundraising, and resources. The membership will elect the Board of Directors, and the Board elects the officers. It’s a simple, elegant structure and with today’s technology could be much easier to implement than 100 years ago.

    Gina Hunter

  3. Well said, Bill! If people across constituencies listen maybe even the fundraising problem can get solved which changes everything.

  4. Wonderful summary. These points should be framed and hung in the office of every orchestra administrator and cultural critic and in the dressing rooms of musicians.

  5. I second Gina Hunter´s idea for community governance. We need to be in touch with Rep. Kahn to make sure that here bill goes forward to change the paradigms of the organization. It would be wise to look at the models of other more democratic, community centered arts groups such as the Oregon Symphony Orchestra. Thanks to all the mighty bloggers who dug deep for the stories and without fear gave us their analysis. The Star Trib could learn from all of you.

  6. My favorite: There is a difference between Governance and Managing.
    I really HOPE somebody gets this. And soon.

  7. So smart, Bill. Thank you for this post! I am particularly drawn to:

    A successful non-profit with a long and storied history belongs to the entire community, and cannot be hijacked by any group with an agenda without incurring significant damage to said non-profit.

    This is not just an issue at MN Orchestra and is one that concerns me greatly. The strange situation at San Diego Opera seems to be an example (though there are efforts to rectify the situation) … DIA seems to have become a pawn in the midst of the bankruptcy of the city of Detroit … and NYCO seems to have been felled by something similar.

    • I cannot find the, uh, correct words! My name is Lisa Ragsdale & I live in Minneapolis, MN. I am a composer of concert music, a writer of words and a photographer. Are you on Facebook? Or Twitter or? Obviously you are a musician?

    • I don’t know, Diane. The collapse of New York City Opera unfolded over quite a few years – arguably decades. (The company would almost certainly have folded in the 1980s if not for Beverly Sills’s superhuman fundraising skills.) More recently, City Opera had an unusually unfortunate board chair for some years, which helped make the company particularly unprepared when the Met began moving in on the turf City Opera had occupied in the city’s musical ecosystem.

      As for the Detroit Institute of Arts, since (uniquely among major U.S. museums, I think) the city of Detroit, rather than the DIA as an institution, has legal title to the DIA’s collection – making the art a city asset, just like city-owned real estate – there was no way for the DIA to avoid becoming a pawn once the city declared bankruptcy.

      • Just to clarify, the city of Detroit does not have legal Title to the DIA collection. Several works IN the collection were purchased with funds made available by the city of Detroit over several years. Creditors have now decided that those works now belong to the city of Detroit.

        • Are you certain, Pete?

          From an extended feature on the history of the Detroit Institute of Arts and its relationship with the City of Detroit from the Detroit Free Press, posted on Sept. 8, 2013:

          In July 1919 the Detroit Museum of Art was rechristened the Detroit Institute of Arts and became a city department. It now drew operating funds from the same pool of money that supported parks, police and other services. Ownership of the collection and building were ceded to the city — the DIA’s precise structure, ownership and relationship history with the city remain unique among leading American museums.

          Did Mark Stryker and his editors really get that wrong?

  8. Thanks for this Bill. I just posted something on Facebook:

    In the end, eight Minnesota Orchestra board members resigned over the dispute regarding Henson. Reading New York Times coverage of the orchestra, one note really struck me:

    “There is evidently some sense on the board that giving in to any of Mr. Vanska’s demands would be to grant him too much power within the organization, and that the board should not let itself be bullied…. ”

    That the board was more concerned about being bullied than bringing back the incredible talent and driving force that is Osmo, is beyond my comprehension. Would those board members be more satisfied with a lesser orchestra and conductor for this community than to have the world class orchestra we deserve?

    • With all due respect, MOA may consider Mr. Vanska part of the ‘rebellion’ in that rather than remaining neutral he consistently voiced the players’ position.

  9. Preston Smith brings up an issue that needs to be addressed specifically with the MOA Board. They do not comprehend that they don’t understand how to govern a non-profit. They do not appear to be open to learning. What can be done? The fact that they were more concerned about being bullied than bringing Osmo back as Music Director is alarming. The Music Director is the artistic leader of the MOA, charged with insuring that its mission is fulfilled. The Board is acting as if that’s their job and they should have total control over the Music Director and everyone else on staff, and yes, including the musicians.

    This issue makes it absolutely crucial to move forward with governance reform at the MOA. If Phyllis Kahn’s HR 1930 bill forces the MOA Board to accept reform they do themselves instead of allowing the state legislature to take over the organization, then I support it to do that. But I’m not at all in favor of the state taking over the MOA, forming a corporation (for profit?) that will sell stock in the MOA as Kahn’s bill outlines. I understand that Rep. Kahn wants more community involvement and for the MOA Board to be accountable to the community. I want that, too. We disagree in how that needs to be achieved.

    The membership governance structure will achieve all that and maintain the MOA’s independence and non-profit status. It is what the founders set up for governance of the association. It’s time to return to it.

    Gina Hunter

  10. Thanks, Bill — an excellent check list that we all need to keep handy and refer to often!

  11. I would add:
    – Repeating the mistakes and errors made by other orchestras/opera companies in the hubris that any side of the story (management, musicians or board) will know how to do it better is idiotic. Read, learn, don’t repeat.
    – You have exactly ONE (maybe two) chance(s) [if you haven’t gone down this road in recent year – i.e., 10+] to repair damage to your public image. Don’t waste it. After that, getting back sponsors, donors and ticketholders becomes door-to-door warfare.
    – If you have dirty laundry, wash it. Don’t air it.

  12. Right on, Bill!

    As long as there is a youth orchestra out there somewhere, classical music is not dead.

    The golden age of orchestras (1960s – 80s) is over, managements need to stop resting on the laurels of their orchestras’ reputations and become relevant to their respective communities.

    Stop relying on the fat cats…start fundraising from the community.

    Finally, what Minnesota management did, they learned from Detroit. Hey, League of American Orchestras…what gives? You all are strangely silent on this matter…

  13. • An orchestra can never be a “corporation.”

    An orchestra that stacks its board with corporate types – which is inevitable, because corporate types (active and retired) are the source of most of the donated money in most communities – is going to be under constant pressure to behave like a corporation.

    The way corporations have been behaving since the crash of 2007-08 – amassing cash, cutting expenses, outsourcing, zero-hours contracts, etc. – compounds the pressure on non-profits. The idea that an organization will permanently run a deficit is simply unacceptable, never mind that it’s in a field that has never been profit-making.

    The only way around this that I can see is to mobilize small donors, which is time-consuming, labor-intensive and, according to most professional fundraisers, not cost-effective. (Thus, the campaigns that raise 80 percent or more of the goal before going public.) That lots of small donors equals lots of stakeholders is an equation that’s as hard to instill as the idea that a non-profit can never be a corporation.

  14. I would add:
    If you do not truly love classical music, and believe that performing it at the highest level is worth the cost, you have no business having anything to do with the governance of an orchestra.

  15. Most people don’t know the difference between a lock-out and a strike.

    I was dismayed to see just how true that is.

    And I bet you that a big chunk of the folks who don’t know the difference, once it was explained to them that a lock-out means the bosses are refusing to let the employees go to work and earn a living, would splutter something like, “But … But … That’s illegal, isn’t it?”

  16. And what exactly does this bit of snarky, politicized nonsense have to do with the subject at hand? To start your article with this undermined your credibility as a savvy reader of culture:

    “The Neo-conservative approach to running a nonprofit organization is as disastrous as the Neo-conservative approach to running a country’s economy.”

    • Is it snarky? I would debate that. It’s the truth. I’m sorry if that has offended your neo-con leanings. In order to placate you I shall title my next blog “Tax Cuts for the Rich – the only way to do anything.” Will that work?

  17. Another point that could be added: An orchestra is in serious trouble when it still has large structural deficits even after a settlement with labor is reached.

  18. william1951, how do you know there are still large structural deficits? Based on the not-so-independent audit? Salaries were cut 15%, orchestra size is reduced, and numerous positions will go unfilled for quite some time. Fund raising for the building is over, so hopefully donations will be funneled back into operating expenses. And hopefully the season will no longer contain “dark weeks,” and tickets sales will be up. Sure, some board members stepped down in a huff, but other donors are stepping up. I think we’ll have to wait and see how it all balances out.

  19. Bill you have speared most of the whales. However you do not have a viable business plan. Profit is not a dirty word even for non profits. Whilst it is true that in this era of crony capitalism there has been an unbalanced distribution of wealth and a decline in disposable income of the middle class, Margaret Thatcher’s warning that “Socialism is fine until you have spent everyone else’s money is still prescient. When she came to power it was spent, and she revitalized the middle class. So as usual the truth lies somewhere between the extremes of socialism and crony capitalism.

    Now against this backdrop we have trouble aplenty throughout the arts scene. Since orchestras and opera companies are so expensive they are the “canaries in the coal mine.”

    Pretty much universally the signs are the same: – Increased expenses. An increase in donor funds, especially from wealthy donors over earned ticket revenue. This problem is especially severe at the Met. We may well see a lockout there before next season.

    Coupled with murky ways in which board members get to serve on the MOA board and its decision making, this financial trend is spells major trouble ahead for the Minnesota Orchestra.

    Of all the issues governance should be the easiest to resolve with a little give and take. Because of the difficult decisions ahead this is an urgent matter.

    There is also this backdrop that Hiram Foster points out. Most Minnesotans could not care less if the orchestra survives or not, but the core supporters are passionate about it, and have done an outstanding job bringing this crisis to the point where there is the possibility of long term change and survival.

    So lets look at the revenue side. I don’t see a possibility of increasing the price of tickets without empty seats.

    Seeking major donors would buy time. And of the orchestras enjoying some measure of financial stability currently recruiting major donors has been their winning card. I don’t see this as viable in the long term.

    Recruiting many small donors, is inefficient. With current evidence pointing to declining disposable incomes for the middle class, this is source is more likely a pipe dream than not. Currently these donors are tapped out buying the tickets.

    This all needs to be set against the backdrop of a large number of arts groups requiring support and in this I include MPR, more about this later.

    The other source is taxes. In this community I see no appetite, or prospect of this currently.

    Now this situation is very analogous to the situation faced by Sir Henry Wood when he founded the Proms in 1895. Donors were walking away from support of the music, but donating to large civic spaces, (bricks and mortar). We should not dismiss that as we still benefit from those edifices today. Sir Henry faced lamentable standards of musicianship in the orchestras. His solution was to have the orchestra play lots of long concerts and make the tickets cheap. He succeeded. However that was only part of the reason for success.

    He started this venture at a time Emil Berliner’s flat discs were starting to sell exponentially. Recoding firms were falling over themselves to get artists and orchestras in front of their recording horns and a whole new revenue stream was created.

    Improvements and advances drove income. I would say but for these developments there would be few orchestras and opera companies left.

    In the early twenties came electrical recording and regular radio broadcasts, increasing revenue stream further.

    In 1948 came FM radio and the LP. This further increased revenue, and led to the repertory needing to be recorded again.

    1959 the stereo LP ad stereo broadcasting.

    From 1948 on there was an explosion if research and development of ways to improve delivery of music to the home. This increased the accelerating trend whereby music reproduction became the way the vast majority of music overs got to know and enjoy the musical literature.

    1984 saw the introduction of digital audio into the home with the CD. Same events ensued.

    Now since with the introduction of the Blu Ray disc in 2006 and the development of rapidly improving technology for streaming orchestras in not only high quality audio and also audio and video, history has not repeated itself. Instead the recording industry has been thrown into chaos and disarray, splintered, chopped and diced. A reliable revenue source of over a century has been cut off at the knees.

    How did this happen. For one, traditionally classical music has been a big driver of new technology. For some reason the classical side has got caught flat footed and allowed the new technology to become highly pop geared.

    In addition the new technologies in terms of implementation are a huge break with the past and require more user understanding and expertise.

    There is only one big bright spot in this and it is the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. They are artistic and technology leaders relentlessly trying to harness and DEVELOP cutting edge technology to bring the wonders of digital distribution to the home, by streaming and now their new record company. Their company is unique, and not traditional at all. They understand that when a buyer gives them hard cash they want not only the finest technology and production standards, but the ability to play and watch what they paid for across multiple digital platforms. At the same time, making their offerings available on LP for those that won’t make the leap to the modern age. Now I note a lot of music critics around the world just don’t get it. I believe the BPO do get and will return this vital income and historic revenue stream to the bottom line. One reason they will ultimately win, is that this is second nature to the 35 and under crowd and most of the under 45 crowd. Time will soon take care of my grey haired set and the younger set as they grey will be facile with these developments.
    Just yesterday they Emailed my with an app for Android, and now you should be able to Chromecast to your home AV.

    Now the last point is that there is far too much free program about.
    We have to get back for people paying for what they listen and watch.

    In this regard, our wonderful MPR need to rethink their mission painful though that may be. Having everything supported by voluntary contributions is increasingly going to be part of the problem. Though this philosophy is laudable there are downsides. It sucks a lot of donor funds that could support the musical organizations directly. Now it is impossible to have a subscription service for radio. However that will be gone in a generation or less.
    At this time there is nothing wrong about having digital stream and downloads, as pay as you go, or on a subscription basis. The stream would have to be better and at least some AV stream available. Digital streams can now easily best the best analog FM and can be heard and viewed worldwide. The big upside of this is that it would support not only MPR but the Minnesota Orchestra, the SPCO and others.

    This leads back to governance and having skin in the game. The policies of the American Federation of Musicians on digital music distribution are appalling. It is backward thinking and totally irrelevant and out of touch with the state of play now. This is a big reason why the musicians must be part of governance at this juncture.

    Without innovative thinking and sound business moves playing in the Minnesota Orchestra will not be the musician’s day job much longer.

    I don’t minimize the task ahead, and for a start one or some big donors will be required to get that moving. This would require and expenditure, pretty much identical to the new lobby.

    As an example of the gains their last concert at Northrop, was just made for AV. It won’t happen. It is not wild thinking at all that that concert viewed and or downloaded for a modest fee, could have paid 25 to 30% of the year’s operating budget.

    • “Bill you have speared most of the whales. However you do not have a viable business plan.”

      Mark, you didn’t seriously expect Bill – a conductor, not an administrator – to present a viable business plan in one blog post, did you?

      That said, you’ve given us a very good, useful and important post; we’re lucky to have it in the conversation, so thanks for putting all the time and thought you did into it.

      I do have a few observations in response, though they’re mostly about details:

      About your first paragraph and your reference to Mrs. Thatcher, I’m pretty confident that few people are seriously suggesting anything like socialism for the Minnesota Orchestra. At most, I think there are gibes from people irked (with good reason) that taxpayer money goes to subsidize the wealthy owners and not-quite-so-wealthy athletes of professional, for-profit sports franchises while orchestras struggle.

      (For this discussion, let’s not count as “socialism” a musician-run collective along the lines of, say, the London Symphony or the Louisiana Philharmonic.)

      Regarding the Metropolitan Opera: Yes, we might see a lockout this summer. We might also see a strike. Bill’s right that too many people don’t get the difference between them, but the difference is real, as those of us who love the Minnesota Orchestra know all too well.

      You’re right that support of new major donors will be indispensable in the near term, and that raising ticket prices isn’t a good idea.

      I do get the sense that the MOA’s marketing and fundraising efforts both could be improved a lot from what they were the past couple of years. In fact, watching and reading about this saga from afar, I’ve wondered more than once if, in the couple of seasons before the lockout as well as during it, the MOA deliberately did its fundraising and marketing poorly (even to the point of moving the box office to a less accessible and counterintuitive location) so as to make the financial situation look as dire as possible. (Farfetched, you think? Well, we already know for a fact that the MOA manipulated its finances to look as good as possible while angling for bonds from the Minnesota legislature.)

      Your points about the Minnesota Orchestra earning income from digital content are particularly good. Just as a side note, it occurs to me that, at least in the United States, it was never possible to set up a subscription model for radio as long as radio was broadcast over public airwaves.

  20. Great points as always, Bill. This one you share is crucial: “Long range plans that take into account both the fiscal AND artistic health of orchestras are absolutely critical, and they cannot be implemented without the approval of all and sundry.”

    Perhaps slightly off topic, but not unrelated, some other issues which can point toward trouble and support of the orchestra, may have to do with who and how programming is concocted, and the amount of interaction and outreach in the community an orchestra is able and willing to extend itself. But that is probably another blog entry. You are brilliant when it comes to these points, and ‘what makes an orchestra tick in the community’. You may have already done this and I may have missed it, but if not, can you share your thoughts about programming and outreach in the future?

    • For folks who are interested, there are a few blogs over at that address outreach, programming and community engagement very regularly (and, for some of them, in virtually every post).

      For What It’s Worth
      Michael Rushton on pricing the arts

      Engaging Matters
      Doug Borwick on community engagement

      Creative Destruction
      John Thomas Dodson on ideas for building arts communities

      Greg Sandow‘s blog on classical music’s future,
      now very focused on the alt-classical scene and on how particular performers are building their own audiences

      Diane Ragsdale’s very thoughtful Jumper blog

  21. Hey Jules. Sorry to hit you where you live but Mr. Eddins nailed it. Two pillars of the neocon worldview make it absolutely unsuited to dealing with orchestras. 1: Free Market Fundamentalism is, unfortunately, just as flawed as any other flavor of fundamentalism. It is, for example, useless for nurturing classical music, which cannot justify its existence with profits and market share.
    2: Like it or not, the great orchestras in America are unionized. If you consider unions, by definition, The Enemy (which is a tenet of the right wing in our benighted land), you are woefully ill equipped to collaborate with the artists you are charged with managing.
    Now maybe you feel that neocons have a great track record elsewhere, that Iraq and Bush-era deregulation (for example) were a great boon to the U.S. You are certainly entitled to your opinion. Just don’t expect reasonable people to share it.

  22. I was lucky enough to hear the Minnesota Orchestra a while back when i was visiting some friends in America. Such great news that Osmo is returning as the music director.

    Wonderful summary btw. Fantastic list and so true.

Comments are closed.

Send this to a friend