Mr. Henson Goes to St. Paul, Part 2

Click here for part one of my “Mr. Henson Goes to St. Paul” series.

***

Well, after that marathon transcription session, I’m ready to dig into the meat of the matter. Please feel free to join me in the comment section.

Margaret Kellihan: …There’s a wonderful packet that they’ve put together for all of you, including the impact on your own districts of the Orchestra.

Some questions… What specifically did this packet say? Did it include anything about the Orchestra’s financial situation? If so, what? Can a person or organization face consequences for submitting false or misleading information in writing to the state legislature? I highly doubt that anything illegal occurred; I’m assuming the leaders of the MOA were extremely careful to check with their lawyers to make sure that everything was done within the bounds of the law. But just the fact that I have to say “I’m assuming the leaders of the MOA were extremely careful to check with their lawyers to make sure that everything was done within the bounds of the law” leaves a terribly rotten taste. I’d be very interested in seeing what claims were made in that packet, or to the state government in general. How closely did lawmakers look at the financial situation of the Orchestra while deciding whether to entertain the request? What information did they need? What answers were they given? I don’t know how this all works, and I’d be interested in finding out.

MK: Over 900 jobs will be created with this little bit of state money, partnered with a lot of private money.

MH:  Our private fundraising efforts are going very well, but public funding is critical if we are to reach our ultimate goal. Our private donors are keen to hear that the state is a partner in our project.

Of course we already knew about the synergy between public and private money within the Building for the Future campaign, but hearing it here again really underscores how desperately important this bonding request had become to the MOA and their vision of the organization’s future. I doubt the renovation could have even happened without it. So I completely understand what a temptation it must have been to manipulate numbers to, as Mr. Ebensteiner said in 2009, “support our state bonding aspirations.” I don’t agree with that tactic, at all, but I certainly understand it.

MK: The Orchestra has been winning terrific acclaim all around the globe, including the London Daily Telegraph, as well as the New York Times. And you can also know the reach of this Orchestra by the fact that it’s one of the only – it is the only American orchestra with a regular broadcast on the BBC. I think that’s pretty amazing, Madame Chair, and members.

It appears from the Speaker’s words that a major reason this request was entertained was because the Minnesota Orchestra is a world-class ensemble…or, in other words, a destination for world-class orchestral players. Implication: if they were to secure this money for the renovation of Orchestra Hall, Mr. Henson and the board had ethical (if not legal) obligations to do everything they could to maintain the status and the reputation of the Minnesota Orchestra. But I’ve yet to hear anyone in the orchestra business suggesting that the current leadership team is doing that. Indeed, Robert Levine has called for the entire board’s resignation, as well as Henson’s dismissal. We all remember the joint editorial that Marriner, de Waart, and Skrowaczewski published in the Strib in early October, in which they said, “An orchestra does not recover easily, from such drastic cuts, if ever.” And Drew McManus recently wrote in the comment section of his blog:

I would also add that provided everything in Royce’s article is accurate, the public trust is likely damaged beyond repair at this point as well. It’s difficult to separate the accounting decisions vis-a-vis the public bond funding and the corresponding decision to then reverse the policy for the purpose of artificially exacerbated negotiation leverage.

As the situation unfolds, it is depicting an increasingly sad state of affairs for an organization that once held one of the highest reputations in the field.

If we hear from dissenting respected voices from within the orchestra business praising management’s handling of the conflict, I’d be happy to feature them here. But I personally have found none.

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.

The slickness of that sentence just… It makes me queasy. It’s so terribly upsetting. As a commenter on violinist.com said, “Henson uses an interesting choice of words: ‘…we have announced balanced budgets…’ rather than saying they achieved, attained, or just plain had balanced budgets. I could ‘announce’ tomorrow that I am indeed the Queen of Sheba. Doesn’t make it so.” Well, exactly. He’s allowing himself wiggle room. And listen to the tone of his voice as he says it. He doesn’t stop; he doesn’t hesitate. He’s owning that obfuscation. It’s not troubling him at all, even though he’s clearly constructed the sentence to allow him to backpedal later if necessary.

We could debate whether the “we have announced balanced budgets” line is false or simply misleading, but personally, I consider the bit about “we are facing the current economic downturn with stability” to be a lie. A total fabrication. You might disagree with that assessment; “stability” is a subjective word, and it can mean a lot of things to lots of different people. But personally I can’t begin to conceive of a “stable” fiscal future that involves a 20-40%+ pay-cuts for musicians and endangers the quality of the core product. I wonder why Mr. Henson even included this phrase? He could easily have stopped after the slippery “we have announced” bit. Nobody would have noticed.

In general, the orchestra is musically enjoying a Golden Period with music director Osmo Vänskä.

Sigh.

This is obligatory now

Since I joined the Orchestra, we have tested and re-scaled the scope of the hall project in light of the very challenging economy.

This is a point I would love to hear more about. What did the testing and re-scaling consist of? Did anyone ever consider postponing the project for a few years? Did the public have any input into the decision-making process? If not, why not?

Our private fundraising efforts are going very well, but public funding is critical if we are to reach our ultimate goal.

Yes, fundraising was going so well that, a few weeks after testifying to the legislature, Mr. Henson said to the Strib…

“You recall that the project was downsized from $90 million,” Henson said, referring to a previous plan announced in 2007. “If we can generate more money through our fundraising, then it would make sense to grow the project, but it’s too early to say that, and we’ve made a priority to be fiscally responsible.”…

KPBM was expected to deliver sketches last December, but that likely was delayed to see whether fundraising might be robust enough to expand the project.  – Star Tribune, 15 March 2010

I know I mentioned that point a few days ago, but I think it deserves repetition, especially in light of Graydon Royce’s recent article. Because now we’ve got to wonder: did Mr. Henson really believe he could grow the project, or was he just saying that to manipulate the public? Your guess is as good as mine. This is incredibly disheartening. As Mary recently said in the comment section of Drew McManus’s blog: “A nonprofit’s most precious asset is trust of the community and donors that they are doing the right thing.” And right now we have a major trust deficit. Which will lead to exacerbated financial crisis. And so the downward spiral continues.

In other words:

We’re aiming to maintain the vast majority of that orchestral series, and the object has to be to actually retain that audience, so that when we close the hall and reopen it in a year’s time, we have retained as much of that audience as possible and retained that enthusiasm. So hopefully in the next couple of months we will be announcing that, and we are trying to minimize the amount of disruption.

Hmm. Yeah, about that…

(You know, now would be a fascinating time for minutes to surface in which MOA leaders discuss the possibility and likelihood of a work stoppage. Paper proof that Mr. Henson and his colleagues were anticipating a strike or lockout in January 2010 would add a whole new level of sleaziness to this entire affair.)

(Also, I’m eagerly anticipating the release of the Orchestra’s 2013-2014 schedule. Then we’ll have a much better idea of how many classical concerts the MOA really wants to put on relative to other non-renovation years.)

If I could also supplement that, we’re also aiming to increase our state touring for that year as well.  And we’ll be looking at between two to four weeks of activity. So I think we’re going to see a smaller main season, but we’re also going to take that in terms of increasing our presence across the whole state.

Great idea! Unfortunately, it never happened. Most (if not all; I’m not sure) of the Orchestra’s state touring is now done via the Common Chords project. In the 2011-2012 season, when the Orchestra was still in the hall, there were two Common Chords residencies, one in Grand Rapids and one in Willmar. In the 2012-2013 season, there was only one week scheduled, in April, in Bemidji…even though the Orchestra’s performance calendar was totally blank from September to mid-October. Is this an indication that the MOA was anticipating a work stoppage back when they were scheduling the season? Read the tea leaves as you will.

Well, those were the gist of my thoughts. I might have more as time goes by, and if I do, I’ll flesh those out in the comment section in conversation with you.

7 Comments

Filed under My Writing

7 responses to “Mr. Henson Goes to St. Paul, Part 2

  1. Amy Adams

    Emily, in your post yesterday, I read and re-read this part of the transcription – Notice the Pointed Avoidance of LC’s statement. (Would’ve been nice if it had been phrased as the question: So, you’re still going to perform?) I swear, I can almost hear crickets chirping, underneath the chuckles:

    MH:………We’re aiming to maintain the vast majority of that orchestral series, and the object has to be to actually retain that audience, so that when we close the hall and reopen it in a year’s time, we have retained as much of that audience as possible and retained that enthusiasm. So hopefully in the next couple of months we will be announcing that, and we are trying to minimize the amount of disruption.

    LC: So the main point is that you’re still going to perform.

    MM: Maybe in Duluth. [laughter and chatter]

    LC: He never said which downtown.

    MH: If I could also supplement that, we’re also aiming to increase our state touring for that year as well. And we’ll be looking at between two to four weeks of activity. So I think we’re going to see a smaller main season, but we’re also going to take that in terms of increasing our presence across the whole state.

    • Dear Mr. Henson – last time I checked there was already an orchestra performing in Duluth. I’m thankful to still have a job in one of the only prifessional orchestras left standing in the state. Our hearts certainly go out to our friends and colleagues in the MO and SPCO.

  2. Terry

    Mr. Henson testified that “we are facing the current economic downturn with stability.” He did not say “with relative stability” but rather “with stability.”

    “stability” – the state of being stable.
    “stable” – firm and dependable; subject to little fluctuation; not likely to change or fail; firmly established.

    His testimony was not truthful.

    • Matthew Probst

      Technically, if at that time they were facing the current economic downturn such that we could depend on them continuing their unchanging, unfluctuating, cynicism and intent to mislead, until the current time, the manner of their facing would be “stable”. In other words, what’s “stable” between then and now is not whether they’re telling the truth, but rather their poisonous attitude. And he told us such himself. The stability with which “we” face the current economic downturn is the self-assurance of an ostrich with its head in the sand.

      Mr. Henson is making the words dance for him, making them turn on end. There’s been no change in his business ideas between then and now. And he even told us in plain sight! I can imagine him thinking, as he says this, “If they can’t see through this obvious confession there’s no helping them.” He’s been in a consistent state of mocking us the whole time.

      • Terry

        Ha! That could certainly be the case. The mind boggles. But it’s no way for the largest arts organization in Minnesota to behave, and I think it’s becoming clearer by the minute to the citizens of the state that something has gone terribly wrong at the MOA.

  3. Sarah

    I have no idea where the construction project is at right now, but if there is state money involved then there has to be some sort of reporting going on throughout. And it would seem to me that these reports should be public – or would be made available if asked (they aren’t necessary posted ASAP on the website). Hmmmmmm.

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