What Biko Taught Me

Well, it’s happened again. There goes another bitter confrontation centered around the Minnesota Orchestra lockout. What I wonder, though, is how people could manage to have so disparate views about what has happened?

Back to the basics: what is the role of a Director on the Board of an organization like the Minnesota Orchestra? To nurture the organization, certainly, and also to ensure its longterm success. We can quibble and argue about what that means, whether it is artistic-centric, fiscal-centric, or godonlyknows-centric, but I would like to add one more criteria to the job description: to act honorably while discharging the duties of Director.

This is not to say they should act in good faith. That’s a given. The “good faith” doctrine is a mainstay of the Uniform Commercial Code, and we all know that the good old U.S. of A. is built on money.  Don’t believe me? Please keep in mind that the United States Secret Service is part of the Department of the Treasury.

But if you are elected to the Board of one of these major cultural institutions you should also act honorably. The whole concept behind the nonprofit code is that there are things in life more important than money! If you are elected to provide guidance to an institution that is the outgrowth of that idea then you should be held to a higher standard than just “acting in good faith.” You should act honorably at all times. This is where I think the Minnesota Orchestra Board has lost its way, and this is the root of my current bitter confrontation.

Over the past 1 1/2 years a mountain of information has been disclosed about the dealings of the M.O. Board going back to 2008. Some of it has been volunteered by the M.O. itself, though much of it has been unearthed by a couple of very, very stubborn people who have done a decidedly better job at gleaning information from reluctant sources than the established press have. Looking over this body of information I find it difficult to escape a couple of basic conclusions:

  1. The Board of the Minnesota Orchestra, intentionally or unintentionally, misled the public, the State of Minnesota, and the City of Minneapolis about the fiscal health of the organization.
  2. The Board of the Minnesota Orchestra, intentionally or unintentionally, misled the public, the State of Minnesota, and the City of Minneapolis about the impact and timing of the renovation of Orchestra Hall, as well as their commitment to the artistic health of the organization.

For the life of me I don’t know how one could argue with those two statements. Certainly there have been enough public figures, private individuals, bloggers, and even the mainstream media who have come to this conclusion. If there is anyone out there who would argue otherwise I invite them to write a guest blog for Sticks&Drones. I look forward to reading it.

For me the critical phrase is “intentionally or unintentionally.” If the Board has intentionally led us all down this path then they have certainly not operated in an honorable manner. If the actions of the Board were unintentional then it calls into question their fitness to provide oversight for this organization. Either way, I do not see how anyone can argue that the Minnesota Orchestra has not been led in a manner centered around what is best in the long term for the institution.

So what? Does it really matter? After all, as long as the organization continues to exist hasn’t the Board fulfilled their legal obligation? Perhaps in the eyes of the law this is so, but once again there are those intentional or unintentional consequences:

  1. The musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra have been locked out for more than 400 days, causing great hardship for them and their families.
  2. The greater Twin Cities area has been without its flagship music ensemble for that entire time, sporadic concerts by the musicians notwithstanding.
  3. Tens of millions of dollars have been sucked out of the arts economy of Minnesota.
  4. Untold damage has been done to the Minnesota Orchestra brand.
  5. Two dozen musicians have left the orchestra, and many of the rest are scattering to the four winds.
  6. The Music Director has essentially been forced out.
  7. There has been collateral damage to the musical society of Minnesota which will be very, very hard to calculate and overcome.

That’s a mere summary. There’s certainly more. Why bring this up now? This is the root of the newest bitter confrontation.  I realized recently that the head of my local favorite wine store, someone who I have known for 20 years, is on the board of the M.O. This would be the time of year I would usually be loading up on a few cases of 1/2 priced wine.  I won’t this year because I just don’t think it would be right to spend the money at his store, and I said so directly to that store on social media.

One colleague of mine has taken exception to my actions. He wants me to understand how this Director must feel, and insists that my protest is misguided. Frankly, I’m a little upset by that attitude, and I think this stems from my own personal experience of 30 years ago when I took part in the 1st Johannesburg International Piano Competition. Yes, that Johannesburg. This was 1984 and, then as now, I was a black man.

That whole experience is another story, but it was the cheerful arrogance of the Afrikaners that stuck with me. It’s not that they thought they were superior, they knew they were superior. Any suggestion to the contrary was summarily dismissed. However, what enraged me most at that time was returning from South Africa to the appeasement of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The immorality and injustices of apartheid, so obvious to me, were blithely glossed over by the supposéd leaders of the Free World, all in the name of money. I had just spent a frightening two weeks in South Africa where the only thing that stood between me and official non-existence was my U.S. passport, and these two freely elected leaders were making excuses for the apartheid regime. If you want to know the defining political moment in my life – there it is.

What was probably the single most successful action to combat apartheid was the boycott. Countries were identified, multi-national corporations were identified, and they were targeted for their business dealings with the apartheid government. Once it started hitting where it counts – the pocketbook – then apartheid became untenable on an international level.

I’m not going to conflate the horrors of apartheid with the Minnesota Orchestra lockout. As far as I’m aware the musicians of the M.O. can still vote, live freely, go where they want to, etc., etc. However, that experience colors my emotional response to a lot of different situations, the M.O. lockout included (hmmm…… perhaps colors is too loaded a word here, but…). Hard though I try I cannot empathize with the Directors of the Board of the M.O. They entered into their positions freely and they undertook their actions freely. If any of them disagreed with the direction laid out by their leadership it was beholden of them to make their voices heard. Their very position directly implies that they support the actions of the Minnesota Orchestral Association in this matter.

I am trying desperately to imagine a scenario where my current Board chair, or either of the two previous Board chairs who have had the grand misfortune of dealing with me, would have advocated for a path similar to the one undertaken by the M.O. Board. First of all, it would be so utterly out of character that it is almost utterly unimaginable. Even if by some strange chance it did happen, in that wonderful passive-aggressive manner that is a hallmark of things north of the border the rest of the Board would have found some polite way of inferring that the chair has lost his/her mind.

No matter what good any individual may have done for any organization in the past, no matter how many millions they have raised or given or how much advocacy they have put forth, this does not give them the right to intentionally embark on a path which will cause lasting damage to the institution. If they act intentionally then I believe they have not acted honorably, and they have not stood up to the higher standard required of directors. If they acted unintentionally, they should over the course of time realize what damage these actions have caused, and for the sake of the institution reverse them. Just as critically, all directors need to hear this. They are supposed to represent the interests of the entire community. To treat them like they are detached demi-Gods who might withdraw their favor if we do not constantly acknowledge whatever good they may have done in the past does everyone a disservice. We who disagree with them on the current state of events need to state that publicly and in forums that they understand, else to them the whole episode remains abstract. It sure can’t be abstract for those who are trying to make a mortgage payment.

My conclusion is that the Directors of the Minnesota Orchestra have not acted honorably towards the people of Minnesota (who they are supposed to represent) and the musicians, and that will be my position until proven otherwise. These Directors will, at the end of the day, return to their jobs, their homes, their positions, and they will not be overly put out by this lockout. Not so the musicians, the audiences, those who depend on the music playing. Lives have been disrupted, families uprooted, health care interrupted, etc. This lockout has had a real and devastating impact on people’s lives and there is nothing abstract about that.

So, no, I will not be buying any wine from that store this year, and I’m not at all sorry to say so. Being able to walk through Pretoria, a “white by night” city, at night time, simply because I had a U.S. passport stapled to my forehead, was my “there but for the grace of God go I” moment. Having been on the staff of the M.O., lived in the Twin Cities, worked with some great Boards (including my current one), and being a Music Director, I look at the current situation at the Minnesota Orchestra and – once again, there but for the grace of God.  

Hell, my liver can use the time off.

28 thoughts on “What Biko Taught Me”

  1. Eloquent and from the heart statement from Eddins Prime. Bravo. There is indeed a financial and social ‘apartheid’ practiced by the board of the M.O. It is an apartheid based on their surrounding themselves with the abstractions of the money system as opposed to real connection with other human beings from classes other than their own. Thus they may not be capable of empathy for others outside their own circle. Certainly this is not black and white (no pun intended), there will be exceptions. And servants are appreciated often, and well paid or compensated somewhat at least. That however does not indicate empathy of course. Since money is an abstraction compared to say, hunger; since it is about calculation, perceived ‘risk’, and living in the future, there is a coldness and lack of curiosity about the lives of others; the only realities are symbols: large Pharonic temples to themselves (or halls perhaps?…), luxury goods, spreadsheets, Powerpoint presentations, numbers sent by electronic transfer,etc. It is the same as with the well-off suitsters who ‘planned’ the Iraqi war in their safe havens of plushness in Washington, Virginia, and various boardrooms as well. Suffering uncertainty and deprivation, not to mention death, is not part of their life, suffering is at best theoretical to them. This is the problem.

  2. Totally agree Bill! I have not bought any wine at that store either and will not as long as the lock out continues. What you have written is the truth as far as the behavior of the director of the board. It is certainly surreal what is happening to one of the greatest cultural institutions of this state! It is none other than a disaster. And for what? I don’t believe the board is really interested in having a world class orchestra because it ISN’T all about the money. So what is it the board really wants?

  3. You always get right to the heart of it, Bill. I can’t understand two things: (1) how so many directors have been willing to go along with the bullying tactics of their leadership, which–as you so clearly point out–has decimated the mission for which they signed on as stewards, and; (2) why there hasn’t been a serious uprising on the part of music-loving Twin Cities denizens. Boycott Haskells? At the very least! The Young Musicians of Minnesota have been valiant, Orchestrate Excellence is well-meaning, and Save Our Symphony is trying to rouse the rabble–but, seriously, WHERE’S THE PUBLIC OUTRAGE? Are we inhibited because of “Minnesota nice”? Are we afraid of corporate power? Are we buying the “unions are bad” rhetoric? Are we apathetic because, after all, “the musicians were all pulling down $100K+ salaries”?

    It’s time to get serious. This isn’t only about musicians not being allowed to work. This is about a community treasure that’s been plundered, taxpayers and their representatives who’ve been lied to, and a nonprofit organization that has betrayed the public trust. Anyone in Minnesota who loves music–any kind of music–should stand up and demand an end to this madness. For that matter, anyone who cares about the management of nonprofit cultural organizations should join the protest. End the lockout. Fire the current leadership. Start over, negotiating honorably and in good faith.

    • Barbara, have no doubt, the music-loving public is outraged at this situation, but even though many ideas have been offered, none seem to address the question of “how can we change this or fix this to get the Minnesota Orchestra back on its rightful stage, and a responsible governing organization in place?” Many wonderful people have unearthed the damning evidence about the malfeasance of the MOA board, but what we need is folks in a position to make the changes we all seek. At the moment, that seems to be the Minnesota Legislature, which doesn’t go into session until after the first of the year. I have written my legislator, who has replied that he shares these concerns and will support the proposed legislation of Rep. Phyllis Kahn to create a new governing body for the orchestra. That seems to be the most viable option that I have heard so far. Also, the newly elected major of Minneapolis has voiced strong support the getting the orchestra back on the stage, so there is hope there as well. The current board is deaf and completely callous to the community’s concerns, and there hasn’t been any viable option presented to change the situation. I am not giving up, and I don’t think others are either.

  4. Great piece, Bill!
    One of the sad truths about the situation seems to be that no one did due diligence on the plans of the higher ups in MOA management/Board leadership—not the rest of the 80 odd member Board (most of whom probably trusted the leaders)—or the City of Minneapolis, or the State when they gave all the Bonding funds for the Hall renovation. It’s unclear whether people were fearful of crossing the very powerful bankers at the top or trusted them to be the finest “financial” minds in the state or both. Regardless, here we are with a huge mess and lots of collateral damage. But you are correct that whether intentional or unintentional, the MOA has indeed behaved without honor.
    Thanks for your insight.

  5. Thanks for baring your soul to share your experiences in Africa, Bill.

    Haskell’s is the wine shop that Bill alludes to, for those wondering.

  6. “Hard though I try I cannot empathize with the Directors of the Board of the M.O. They entered into their positions freely and they undertook their actions freely. If any of them disagreed with the direction laid out by their leadership it was beholden of them to make their voices heard. Their very position directly implies that they support the actions of the Minnesota Orchestral Association in this matter.”

    Bill, your quote above reminded me of a situation I want to share. After the MOA went off and did their own financial analysis last Spring, I had dinner with an acquaintance of mine. He has a familial connection to someone on the MOA board, and a personal connection to the organization itself. In the course of the evening’s discussion about the lockout and the MOA’s position, he told me that when the negotiation process (or the planning of it) was beginning, members of the Board were offered the option of leaving the organization if they disagreed with the plan that was being pursued. He said that none of them chose that option.

    I have no way of verifying the truth of this, or of what the thoughts/rationales of individual board members were or are. But since the public has only heard full support and defense by individual Board members of their plan, I don’t see any other option than to assume that it is true. And tragic. And very dishonorable.

  7. Either you have to find ‘landed gentry’, to quote a previous article of yours, who have not had their empathy destroyed (this often happens in childhood, alas), or you have to go on without the ‘landed gentry’ at all. Which seems to be happening to an extent.

  8. The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.
    ― Dante

  9. Excellent, Bill, and I couldn’t agree more. It is appalling how disconnected the MOA Board is from the reality of the consequences of their actions. I believe they are trying to bust the union, which will not happen, and are willing to wait and wait and wait, no matter how long it takes. They are fools. It’s very clear that they do not know the people with whom they’re dealing.

    Have you read Gina Hunter’s most recent blog posts on the MOA governance history and review plus her take on Rep. Kahn’s proposal? It’s at Eyes on Life: http://eyesonlife-ginahunter.blogspot.com. She did a lot of research into the articles of incorporation for the MOA to find out to whom the Board is accountable. Some of what she unearthed is disturbing.

    • If I am reading Gina’s reporting correctly, the Officer position of “Immediate Past Chair” does not exist in the Articles of Incorporation and/or By-Laws of the Minnesota Orchestral Association (only Chair, Chair-Elect, President, Secretary and Treasurer). However, Richard K. Davis is listed as an Officer of the MOA (“Immediate Past Chair”) on the Minnesota Orchestra’s website.

      Consequently, it would appear that if Mr. Davis has been signing off on MOA documents or checks as an Officer, he has been doing so as an individual board member, not as an Officer of the non-profit organization. Just one more item for the MN Attorney General to investigate.

    • Apparently, Gina is working with the By-Laws from October 2009, so it’s quite possible that changes have been made to them since then. Is it always so difficult to obtain the current By-Laws of a non-profit organization?

  10. What happened to the suggestion in the State House that the community own the Orchestra outright? I like THAT idea best.

    • Jim, Representative Kahn of Minneapolis has indicated that she will introduce this legislation in the next session, which doesn’t begin until after the new year. One thing everyone can do in the meantime is to write your legislators and ask them to support this legislation.

  11. Bravo! Mr. Eddins – please please please post this as an opinion piece or letter to the Star Tribune.

  12. I’m retired now from the practice of law, but I learned one thing from it: board directors and managers of non-profit and charitable organizations are particularly prone to venalities like shoddy financial practices, dishonest promotions and downright vicious labour relations. They think the purity of their motives justifies such conduct. Self-governing arts organizations like the Wiener Philharmoniker are, notoriously, not exceptions to this.

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