The Minnesota Orchestra, one of the finest between two coasts, has been silent for almost the whole of this season. The board want to cut the musicians wages while spending $50 million on a new lobby – according to one narrative. The musicians are obdurate, according to another.
We asked Emily E Hogstad, a close observer of the orchestra, to give a local rundown of the proceedings thus far, with a view to seeing whether there is any way ahead for the orchestra in 2013.
Here’s Emily’s report:
Before the musicians’ 2007-12 contract expired on September 30, rumors had run rampant that the Minnesota Orchestra was facing financial difficulties. Negotiations were tense. In early September, without telling its musicians, the Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA) posted the entirety of their proposed contract on the Orchestra website. It included over 250 changes (many related only tangentially to finances) and a reduction in base salary from $109,000 to $78,000, with musicians paying more for benefits. Seniority pay was also nixed entirely.
The next day, the musicians countered with a request for a joint independent financial analysis, claiming that the financial information they’d been given was “contradictory, outdated, incomplete, and deliberately confusing,” and was keeping them from making an informed counteroffer. The MOA immediately turned down the request, citing “unnecessary delay and duplication of effort.” According to the musicians, other papers requested and denied include the 2012-13 budget, an updated audit report, and a confirmation or denial that a decline in contributions from Board members and Board-member influenced organizations was due to the impending negotiations. Management claims that the 1200 pages they’ve given musicians are enough, and that their asking for additional information is nothing more than a “frolic and detour.”
Also worth noting: last year, the MOA removed the word “orchestra” from its mission statement, without consulting musicians, donors, or patrons. They’ve not explained why.
(press photo (c) Greg Helgeson)
According to its website, over the last few years, the MOA has raised $97 million for a $110 million fundraising campaign called “Building for the Future.” $60 million of this money is meant for “artistic projects” and $50 million for the renovation of Orchestra Hall. The renovation focuses on the lobby and backstage areas. In 2010, CEO Michael Henson appeared before the Minnesota State Legislature seeking $14 million in taxpayer money for the building project. There Mr. Henson testified, “On the financial front, we have announced balanced budgets over the last three consecutive years, and we are facing the current economic downturn with stability.”
On November 26, a Minneapolis Star Tribune article called “Minnesota Orchestra’s board walked thin line on finances” sent shock-waves through the local music scene. In it, reporter Graydon Royce revealed that even back in 2009, MOA leadership was planning on running deficits in 2011 and 2012. According to minutes, in September 2009, vice president of finance Bryan Ebensteiner told the orchestra’s executive committee, “Balances in 2009 and 2010 would support our state bonding aspirations, while the deficits in 2011 and 2012 would demonstrate the need to reset the business model.” MOA leadership rejects the idea that it has misled the legislature or the public. Jon Campbell, MOA Board Chair and Wells Fargo Executive Vice President, said in the article, “If it was a cover-up, would we have been that transparent in the minutes?” After this article broke, the musicians held a unanimous vote of no-confidence in Mr. Henson. Judging by both the musicians’ and the Orchestra’s Facebook pages, many patrons wish they could do the same.
Many have asked if the Orchestra’s financial woes have been exacerbated by the renovation. Personally, I can’t say; I’m just a patron, with no access to the books. Management claims that ”These donations [to the Building for the Future fund] would not have been contributed to the Orchestra if there were not a building project to support.” However, Mary Schaefle, a local non-profit professional who has been analyzing publicly available information about the Orchestra’s finances, writes, “Unrestricted gifts decreased by close to $750,000 in three years, or almost 25%. I wondered whether focusing on the campaign would have a dampening effect on general, or annual, contributions. We can’t say for certain, but it’s tempting to think that the same effort for the Orchestra as a whole would have eased or erased the deficit.”
The Orchestra has been largely silent this season, but on October 18, the musicians presented a “season opening” concert on their own, selling out the Minneapolis Convention Center Auditorium. New Yorker critic Alex Ross labeled the concert “already legendary.” They will play again on December 15 and 16 at Ted Mann Concert Hall. Those concerts sold out in little more than a week, with, as the musicians’ Facebook page says, “no significant advertising.” The October concert was conducted by former Orchestra music director Stanisław Skrowaczewski, while another former director, Edo de Waart, will be on the podium for the December shows. These concerts are bright spots in what has otherwise been a very dark and silent season in the Twin Cities.
I welcome clarification or justification from the MOA on any of the points I mention. Unfortunately, I and other patrons have contacted the MOA repeatedly, and we’ve yet to receive satisfactory answers to our questions. Local journalist Matt Peiken has a standing offer to interview Mr. Henson; he has yet to respond to the request. Drew McManus has also extended an offer to travel to Minneapolis on his own dime to interview the MOA leadership. So far, we’ve heard nothing.
It is impossible to know where this frustrated music-loving community goes from here.