Monday, July 1, 2013

Locked Out: Month Nine

MN Orchestra (credit: Greg Helgeson)
The title says it all.  Nine months and counting that the MN Orchestra Musicians have been locked out by the Minnesota Orchestral Association Board of Directors and executive management.  Today came the news that the MOA has returned a MN State Arts Board grant worth over $900,000 that had been earmarked to help pay 2013 operating expenses.  The two sides are not at the negotiating table and have not been since last January.  Music Director Osmo Vanska sent a letter to the MOA Board at the end of April specifying exactly where the Orchestra was artistically, what needed to happen if they were to perform at Carnegie Hall in November, and his determination to resign if the Carnegie Hall concert does not happen.  At the end of May, Drew McManus, at his blog wrote about how the new business model touted by orchestra administrators, including MOA executive management, is a deadend.  Finally, Mask of the Flower Prince posted in mid-June an even-toned examination of the MOA's FAQs about the lockout and the questions raised by them.  Lots of other people have been talking, just not the two sides in the contract dispute with each other.

I add my voice here.  I've been thinking the last two months or so about the choices MOA made, the choices the musicians made, how the lockout affects the community, the audience, donors and the international community who listen to the MN Orchestra's concerts online or have attended tour concerts.  I have tried to find logic in the MOA's public statements, and it's hard when their words do not match their actions.  For example, I do not believe anyone's fooled by their strategy to not cancel concerts far in advance, and then to schedule concerts in July when there is absolutely no hope that they will actually occur.  Did they take this strategy because they believed it made them look like they were hopeful and trying?  It's a charade.  If they were really hopeful and trying, the lockout would have been lifted ages ago and they'd be negotiating with the musicians.

In fact, the way I see it, the MOA has no intention of lifting the lockout and they began planning their strategy in 2007-08, about the time that Bryan Ebensteiner commented in a Board meeting about the financial status of the organization, i.e. they could balance the books by drawing from the Endowment in order to get State funding for the Hall renovation, and then they could announce deficits closer to the end of the musicians' contract in order to demand deep cuts from the musicians and gut the master agreement so that management would have total control.  It reminds me a lot of what happened in Hollywood in reverse: the major studios (management) had total control over their employees (directors, actors, crew workers) and treated them badly, paid them badly, and made lots of money.  The employees organized into unions, wrenching the control away from management regarding working conditions and pay, and the studios lost their power -- although they still wield more than enough for producing power.

Back to the MOA: rather than back up their claims of supporting the artistic integrity and excellence that Osmo Vanska and the musicians had attained by being honest about the organization's financial situation starting in 2007, inviting the musicians to work with them on solutions, postpone the Hall renovation until they'd re-established financial stability, and treat everyone concerned with respect, the MOA chose to take an adversarial stance, issue dishonest and manipulative statements regarding the organization's financial situation, and proceed with the Hall renovation.  I find their strategy fiscally irresponsible.  Their management expertise lacks expertise and competent interpersonal relations.  Finally, their statement that the musicians can lift the lockout is disingenuous at best, manipulative at worst.  The musicians did not lock themselves out.  The MOA Board locked them out and they can let them in again at any time, whether or not there's a counter-proposal offered.  The MOA Board has the control and power in this situation, and they know it.

The MOA seems to be moving in one direction and one direction only: down.  I believe the financial challenges could have been handled long before this if the MOA had been open and honest about what the situation was and treated the musicians as partners and the stakeholders they are.  Other major orchestras have done so.  I find it truly disgusting and shameful the way the MOA Board and executive management have conducted themselves during this dispute.  Have they no sense of the consequences?  The damage they have done and continue to do to the orchestra, its artistic level, its reputation, and indeed, the reputation of the MOA?

It's easy to gripe and point fingers.  This situation makes it easy, too.  But what would I do if I were in charge?
The first thing: withdraw management's contract proposal.
The second thing: invite the musicians back to the negotiating table with the purpose to answer their questions honestly, clearly and completely about the organization's financial condition and what needs to be done to improve it.  After outlining the challenges, I would ask the musicians for their ideas, and have the two negotiating committees work with any staff members, outside consultants, donors and others in the community in order to put together a strategy that preserves not only the organization and the orchestra, but its artistic integrity and excellence, its reputation, and its music director.  I would not cut myself off from the help I'd need as this Board has done, isolating itself as it's done.  The musicians and the Board should be partners not adversaries.
The third thing: I'd get everyone back to work.  Musicians, staff, everyone.  There's a new season to get up and running by September.  I have confidence in the musicians to come through for the organization.  I no longer have the same confidence in the Board or executive management.
The Fourth thing: I would ask President and CEO Michael Henson to leave.  His leadership qualities and methods are not well suited for this organization.  I would also thank Jon Campbell, Richard Davis and Bryan Ebensteiner for their service and ask them to leave.  We need fresh ideas and better non-profit leadership in order to restore this organization to health.
The Fifth thing: I'd ask the Board to create a task force to re-structure the Board taking into account the following:
  • Reduce the Board's size by at least half, but try for a third
  • Remove any requirements to secure a seat on the Board, e.g. a minimum donation.  I'd want to make it possible for people to sit on the Board who are not wealthy enough to meet any donation requirement.
  • Develop a job description and qualifications for a Board member so each member will know what is expected of him or her.  The Board's fiduciary responsibilities need to be spelled out in writing.
  • Create a volunteer advisory circle of business people who can advise the Board on business matters.  Members would not have voting power.  They would be only advisory.
  •  Board members need to be interested in, have had experience in, or simply love the arts, including music and specifically classical music.  They will be encouraged to attend as many concerts during the year as their schedules allow, and to be active in support of music education and other issues that affect the future of music.
  • Board members will also be representatives in the community of music and the MN Orchestra.
  • Board members need to insure that the organization's staff also has an interest in, experience in or a love for the arts, specifically music.
  • At least half the Board needs to have experience with non-profits, preferably in the arts, and be willing and open to learn.
The Sixth thing: seek a new President and CEO who understands the place of the President and CEO in the organization, in relation to the Music Director and the Artistic Department.  I would suggest that an arts administration consultant and a non-profit finance consultant also be sought and contracted to help staff with the challenges ahead.

Following Mr. Henson's idea about hundreds of musicians graduating each year that are available for replacing MN Orchestra musicians who have left, I believe there are hundreds of young, hungry and creative arts administrators out there who would love his job.

MN Orchestra in Orchestra Hall before renovation (credit: MOA)

 I believe that once the musicians and management have settled the contract dispute and are moving forward again, this organization has a very long and difficult road ahead of it.  Finding the leadership to help it navigate the shoals will be crucial.  Finding the leadership to restore the organization's reputation, and to support the orchestra in its work to restore its artistic reputation, will be the biggest challenge but I believe it's one that can be met and overcome with integrity, respect, and responsibility to the organization, the community, the state and the nation.

That's what I'd do.  Any thoughts, suggestions, ideas?

Addendum: As I've been thinking about this post and talking with people, I realized that I needed to include, in "The First Thing," the letting go of current legal counsel as well as current PR company.  New legal counsel would need to be found fairly quickly.  I'd also charge the remaining Board members with the task of developing a procedural guide to cover acquiring new members, electing leadership, etc.  And they'd need to search for and hire a new CFO to replace Mr. Ebensteiner.  



Anonymous said...

I'm waiting for the imminent announcement of the July "concert" cancellations. My thought is that they announced them solely to avoid having ticketholders ask for their money back before fiscal yearend.

Michael Henson will not leave willingly. I doubt if it will be pretty.

Minneapolis has become not a "cold Omaha" - with apologies to Omaha which appears to be "happening" in terms of the arts (never mind Kansas City) - but a subzero one.

Your analysis is spot-on and amazing in its clarity. People ask why the musicians won't produce a counteroffer - well, when the entire artistic/contract agreement has been trashed, it's an impossible task.

Gina said...

Thanks for the kind words. I know not everyone agrees with my assessment, but appreciate hearing from those who do. My heart is broken.....

Anonymous said...

Money does not grow on trees.

Gina said...

No, money does not grow on trees. Neither does the kind of artistic excellence that the MN Orchestra demonstrated during the 2011-12 season with Osmo Vanska. To not include the musicians as partners in meeting the financial challenges facing the organization from 2007 on was just plain wrong. Quoting old saws won't change that.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for such a thoughtful and constructive post. I, too, am heartbroken over this tragic situation and am feeling powerless to make any sort of difference. Do you have any thoughts on what significant action the public can do to influence those in power to take up your plan? Letters certainly haven't had much impact.