MinnPost Editorial by Paula and Cy DeCosse

As the Orchestral Apocalypse drags on, many readers have wondered what important donors are feeling about now. We have our first indication in this MinnPost editorial, “We’re locked out, too: Questions for MN Orchestra management,” by Paula and Cy DeCosse.

Their editorial begins:

The recent announcement of additional Minnesota Orchestra concert cancellations only deepened the gloom of hundreds of Twin Cities patrons and music lovers. We’ve already missed six weeks of concerts, and now the holiday concerts have been canceled as well. Orchestra Hall is under construction; the Convention Center auditorium is dark. The musicians are locked out – and so are we!

As the conflict has dragged on, with letters from the board citing unsustainable deficits and musicians protesting a 30-50 percent pay cut (management says the cuts would be 20-40 percent), we in the community are trying to make sense of it all. We have a lot of questions.

The whole thing is highly recommended reading. It covers several of the most important questions we’ve been asking here, calmly, succinctly, and persuasively. (And for what it’s worth, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first mainstream press mention of the “winning” article.)

Mr. and Mrs. DeCosse were one of the sixteen donor couples profiled on the Orchestra’s website. In light of their editorial today, if you click the link and the page is gone, I have screenshots I can share.


Filed under Not My Writing

8 responses to “MinnPost Editorial by Paula and Cy DeCosse

  1. Love your blog! Thanks so much for your fanatical attention to detail in support of the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra.

  2. Hi Emily!

    I finally got around to listening to the MNuet podcast of the Dobson West interview. I spent all afternoon writing a comment on the Facebook page of MNuet (My goodness! I spent a good hour or so on it, how do you find the time to write all that you do!?)

    At any rate, here is my big long post. You can also find on the MNuet page. I hope Matt and readers of MNuet read it and leave some comments. I have to warn you though, it’s long, so bare with me. I took a practical and analytical approach to it, implementing my knowledge of arts management into my thoughts (I’m taking an arts management class right now. I certainly don’t know a lot, but I can apply what I do know to the situation). I hope you find it enlightening and enjoy! Let me know what you all think!

    (PS: I’m copying my post directly from the Facebook comment I wrote. I refer/speak directly to “Matt” every once in awhile. He’s the head of MNuet and host of the podcast. He does great work.)

    Hi Matt,

    I’d first like to thank you for what you do with MNuet. I think this organization is great and I appreciate a place for all classical music in the Twin Cities to meet together in one place.

    I’d also like to thank Dobson West for his enlightening discussion on the SPCO. It is certainly more than anything Michael Henson has done.

    However, I have a couple thoughts/problems with things Mr. West said in this interview. I’m a musician at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, hoping to pursue a career in music. But, I’m currently taking an arts management class, so I’m going to try to phrase all my thoughts from a management perspective. This way I can sound like an informed and analytical manager and Mr. West should be able to sympathize with my views…

    …but on the other hand, maybe he won’t be able to understand my comments. From much of what I heard in this interview I am beginning to seriously question his “expertise” and ability to properly manage *any* organization, let alone an art organization.

    So, first thought: Dobson West was absolutely unable to answer the *very first* question Matt asked him (not a great way to start off an interview, Mr. West). Matt, you asked Mr. West what percentage musicians salaries make up of the total cost of the SPCO. West said a decade ago they made up 30%, and today make up 40% of the budget. You preceded to ask what percentage West would like to see musicians compensation reduced to. West was unable to answer the question. REALLY? What kind of manager doesn’t have a clear idea of future financial goals for an organization? West would like to reduce musician compensation by $1.5 million, but what percentage of the SPCO expenses is that? In my limited understanding of money and management, this is possibly one of the most terrible ways to address the funds of an organization. “It seems musician pay is too high, let’s reduce it by $X.” NO! Mr. West demonstrates how unqualified he is to run the SPCO when he fails to provide a specific percentage of how much he’d like to reduce musician pay by. His current ambiguous method of eliminating the defect by slashing musician pay by what seems to be an uninformed and random dollar amount is absolutely unacceptable and could cause as many problems as solutions, because he’s playing around with money, not making analytical and informed solutions to the current financial crisis.

    On a related point, and even more importantly, why are musicians ONLY using up 40% of the SPCO budget!? The SPCO is a NON-PROFIT ARTS ORGANIZATION! From my experience learning about arts management, I am forced to wonder what on God’s Good Earth management could possibly be doing with 60% of the SPCO’s funds? In my opinion, this is a gross misuse of an organizations funds. Why is the management of the SPCO so grossly inefficient that they need to use 60% of the organizations funds to market, rent and pay for salaries? As a non-profit art organization, every penny possible should be put towards making the best art for stakeholders, AKA community members and patrons. It seems absurd to me that Mr. West thinks 40% of the SPCO budget going to the musicians, the art, the product, the REASON THE SPCO EXISTS, is too much. I realize that management has already taken cuts and that peoples jobs are at stake, but in my humble opinion, an arts organization should be spending 60% of their funds on the art, and should be spending only (or less than) 40% on management. It is obvious the SPCO should be focusing on making the infrastructure and management of the organization more efficient, because it is clear that at the moment they are not.

    My second thought: ticket prices. In my arts management class I’ve learned that when an arts organization puts on an event/show/concert and there are still hundreds of tickets left to sell, discounted tickets and small sales will not sell those tickets. LARGE drops in price will sell tickets. Why? because people who are already inclined to buy tickets bought those tickets weeks ago. People not inclined to buy tickets will never buy tickets that are $50, but maybe they will by discounted tickets that are $20. Yeah, that’s a huge discount, but it has a much higher likelihood of selling seats than a $5 discount. The principle is the same (or should be) in the reverse. SPCO tickets are insanely cheap. It’s practically stealing. I am CERTAIN that raising tickets $5 will not deter any patron from not buying a ticket or turning a community member away. It is absolutely ridiculous and illogical of West to think that a $5 raise in tickets prices will jeopardize the finances and audience base of the SPCO.

    My third thought: donations and giving. West said that the SPCO has been trying to become more independent of foundation and corporate giving. In my opinion, this tactic is unacceptable in the current times and shows a blatant disregard for utilizing all possible, creative and innovative means to get funding from any sector of society. In Europe arts organizations are funded by the state. In America, we run our arts organizations in a vastly different way. Because of the emphasis placed on philanthropy in America, non-profits utilize individual donations greatly. Additionally, because of the benefits of being a non-profit (501(c)3), all donations are tax deductible for donors and organizations don’t need to pay taxes on donations. In this respect, I must commend West and the SPCO on wonderful individual donors, because from the interview, it is clear they are doing a great job in this sector of donations. However, it is absurd to think that individual donations can be enough to fund a whole organization and it is equally absurd to try to be independent of corporate and foundation giving. In America, non-profits are deeply rooted in corporations and foundational giving (as well as government). Corporations WANT to donate to non-profits. It makes them look good to their customers and naturally, corporations want to make their neighborhoods and states attractive to prospective employees. Everyone wants to live in good neighborhoods with cultural hotspots (Twin Cities anyone???). Furthermore, grants from foundations can be used to start new projects within the mission of an organization or be used for operating expenses. Most importantly, There will always be corporations and philanthropic foundations ready to give to non-profits. I think it’s admirable that West doesn’t want the SPCO to rely on corporate, foundation (and government) giving, but it’s a mystery to me why West wants the SPCO to become independent of funding that will always be available.

    It also shocks me that West said towards the end of the interview – in response to your question, Matt, about whether he has lost donations from patrons because of the lockout – that he has lost the support of “a few small donors”. Excuse me, Mr. West, I am a small donor. Am I not as important as the board members donating $35,000? Absolutely not! In a non-profit arts organization, patrons who donate are ALL important, no matter how large or small the donation is. I find it hard to believe that a man who just boasted about his unusually high amount of individual giving can just as easily throw the same patrons under the bus, calling their donation and support not as important as larger donations. I also find it hard to believe that Mr. West thinks he has lost “a few” donors because of the lockout. He is outright lying, because based on the comments on the musicians’ Facebook page and letters sent to management and musicians, the SPCO have lost LOTS of donors (I get a call from the minnesota orchestra multiple times per week asking for donations. The answer is NO). West is simply trying to make the situation not look as bad as it is. Disgusting.

    My fourth thought: defeatism. Matt, you mentioned that West seemed to be presenting a defeatist attitude to the whole situation: “the community can only support so much, most people don’t like classical music, etc.” WHY ARE YOU MANAGING THE SPCO IF YOU BELIEVE THESE THINGS!? A manager should never admit defeat. They should always be looking for the next option, a new idea, creative and innovative plans to revitalize an organization. That West thinks this community (the Twin Cities, a cultural oasis in the midwest, home to not one, but TWO world class orchestras, the schubert club, vocalessence, the rose ensemble, the minnesota chorale, minneapolis institute of art, the walker, the ordway, orpheum, state theater, varsity, first ave, and MORE!) cannot support the price tag on musicians is illogical and yes, defeatist. West is supposed to be advocating for classical music and ensuring the success of the SPCO and he is saying that the Twin Cities can’t afford it. I BEG TO DIFFER. Based on the comments on both the musicians of the minnesota orchestra and SPCO Facebook pages, letters sent from patrons to management, musicians and government officials and the press from the media, I am certain that the Twin Cities can support the arts scene that we have supported for the past 3 or 4 decades. What we cannot support is a board and management that has lost faith in this community and who apparently aren’t looking for alternative and creative options to increase donations, attendance and demand, especially among “football fans” as West puts it.

    My fifth thought: diminished artistic quality. Dobson West is kidding himself if he thinks he can maintain the artistic quality of the SPCO if the proposed contract is ratified. It is just simply just not true and I don’t know what fantasy he’s living in when he says that.

    Finally, sixth thought: There is no negotiation. Matt, you said it correctly at the end of the interview. If musicians can’t request a rise in ticket prices, work with a reduction of $.5 million or even $1 million instead of $1.5 million, keep 34 musicians, etc.., what can they work with? How can they negotiate? When asked what happens if the musicians don’t ratify the contract and the SPCO crumbles, West said that probably won’t happen because management and musicians are always successful in collective bargaining, though he did say it was theoretically possible. I think what Mr. West is failing to understand is that he is not bargaining collectively, but presenting an ultimatum.

    So those are my thoughts from a management perspective. I hope they make sense and are sound. If you or anyone actually took the times to read this incredibly long winded post and would like to comment I’d love to hear what you have to say.

    I’d like to thank Matt again for all is work with MNuet, and Mr. West for speaking publicly about the negotiations, something Michael Henson has yet to do.


    • EDIT! Make sure you listen to the interview first (can’t believe I forgot to include that!). However, I give a decent intro to each topic so if you don’t listen to the interview you should be fine. But definitely worth a listen.

    • Incredibly lovely comment; thanks so very much for sharing. I still haven’t had the stomach to listen to the interview; isn’t that awful? I really need to. To be fair, though, I’m working on a rather long piece on Mr. Henson, so I’m distracted. TOO MANY APOCALYPSES.

      I’d love to hear Mr. West address the points you raise. They all sound compelling and intelligent to me. *shrug* I’m bristling a bit over the small donors line, although I haven’t yet heard it in context, so…I probably shouldn’t be bristling yet until I hear it for myself. I also wonder if this is straight-out lying on Mr. West’s behalf (apologies, Mr. West)… Because a few weeks ago, the Pioneer Press couldn’t find **a single person** who was able and willing to speak on record to the paper in support of SPCO management’s position. I mean…seriously, whut?!??? If there are still big important donors on board who care deeply about the organization and are knowledgeable about the situation, then **where were they** for this **front page story at the Pioneer Press**??? Management should have been able to refer dozens. None answered the Pioneer Press’s calls.

      Have you submitted this as a letter of support to the SPCO musicians? I think it would be greatly appreciated…and perhaps raise awareness of the interview, and facilitate discussion..

    • Sarah

      Thank you for this – I had no wish to listen to this podcast and waste 50-some minutes of my life. I am one of this small sustaining donors, and would like to comment from my perspective. It is true that once you hit the $300 level (which frankly isn’t much if you add the cost of tickets to X concerts and average) you do get some nice perks – like a very helpful staff person to take care of renewals, hold tickets for you etc. But management wasn’t really doing a lot to get people to donate. Their overall strategy was to build numbers with ridiculously cheap tickets and try to build “loyalty” OVER A PERIOD OF SEVERAL YEARS. So why aren’t they giving that long a time to deal with the supposed $1.5 mil deficit – which only occurred during the past year? I’ve seen many people mention that they would pay more, or donate more, if they had known of the problem – but management refuses to let that happen.

      It’s quite clear that nothing will divert management from their plan to totally trash the orchestra based on a sudden deficit which isn’t insurmountable.

      • Thanks to a Facebook discussion, I’m just seeing this conversation now– 4 months later. Sarah, I encourage you to actually listen to that interview, rather than basing your reactions on someone ELSE’s reactions. I’ve listened to it, and it’s worth the 55 minutes. As for “St. Olaf Musicians,” I think your passionate love of the orchestra is wonderful, but I fear you’re a long way from grasping the intricacies running a large non-profit.

        Also, Mr. West isn’t somehow declining to accept funding from foundations– the problem is that foundation funding has been on the decline for a long time, and that missing income needs to come from somewhere, ergo a renewed focus on individual donors. Here’s a somewhat mind-numbing article about it– from a foundation which was one of the biggest players in the orchestra-funding world, the Mellon Foundation. It looks kind of grim– but things ARE grim for the arts!

        Somehow, we watched the recording industry dissolve in the last decade, and thought we were immune– but changes in a million aspects of our lives (cultural, technical, ethical) have left foundations and individual philanthropists wondering if they should throw as much money to symphony orchestras when someone needs to combat climate change, or starvation, or a million other horrors. http://www.mellon.org/news_publications/annual-reports-essays/presidents-essays/the-orchestra-forum-the-orchestra-forum-a-discussion-of-symphony-orchestras-in-the-us

  3. Amy Adams

    Paula and Cy’s eloquent words have sparked over a dozen equally heartfelt and intelligent messages…Not One, yet, in support of management’s position. Not even a “devil’s advocate” attempt to reconcile their strategy. Look at the damage to the arts community that’s being done. How can any of those responsible…stay?

  4. bfelt

    Great letter that seemed to open up the floodgates.

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