On Cheap Publicity Stunts

Eons ago (as in, a week ago), there were two editorials published in the Strib, one from musicians, one from management. Sorry I haven’t gotten to analyzing management’s yet. Been busy assembling board member addresses and writing for Norman Lebrecht, among other things. And too I have a thing known as a “real life” that I occasionally indulge in.

Anyway, as the saying goes, better late than never. So let’s settle down, pop some corn, and analyze!

On Oct. 11, our commentary on the Minnesota Orchestra’s financial position appeared in the Star Tribune (“Orchestra makes a stand: Even in the arts, we can spend only what we earn”).

We were then six months into contract negotiations. The orchestra’s musicians had not offered a single counterproposal.

NO, THEY HAVEN’T. AND YOU WANT TO KNOW ONE REASON WHY??? BECAUSE. THE NUMBERS. YOU’VE GIVEN. CONTRADICT. THEMSELVES. How many times have I said that here? How many times have the musicians said that? And yet we’ve heard no explanation or clarification…not even a denial that the numbers contradict themselves. It’s like being at a family dinner, and asking your uncle if he could please pass the chicken, and your uncle not only refuses to pass the chicken, but starts talking pointedly about the salad, and you say, yes, I understand that the salad is delicious, but I’d like some chicken now please, but your uncle keeps yammering about how fresh and crisp the lettuce is. Stop – it! We’re not talking about salad! For Pete’s sake! Could you at least acknowledge there’s chicken on the table?

But they never do, so… I advise the Minnesota business community to take note. Either A) Jon Campbell and Richard Davis would happily approve of millions upon millions of dollars of investments even if the numbers within the deals contradict themselves, or B) Jon Campbell and Richard Davis are shameless hypocrites. Until they explain themselves, there’s not much middle ground there. This information may prove useful to you as you’re deciding whether or not you want to do business with them.

The orchestra board had planned for the possibility of a lockout in case the musicians decided to run out the clock on their contract.

Yes, just in case the musicians decided they didn’t want pesky things like salaries, health insurance, or jobs weighing them down…

At midnight on Oct. 1, we were obligated to make the decision to hold musicians accountable for a counterproposal rather than continuing to “pay and play” — an option that would incur losses to the orchestra of at least $500,000 per month.

Or “play and talk”, as it’s known on Earth. (And by the way, technically speaking, the MOA never “played and talked.” That practice is typically – if not always – done after the contract expires. Before September 30, the musicians were contractually obligated to play. We’ve discussed this before, but clearly they need a little reminder.)

Since then, the musicians have been busy with publicity stunts and attempts to discredit their greatest supporters and most generous donors.

So. For those of you keeping track at home…

Holding a vote of no confidence in a CEO after information comes to light that he misled the state legislature about the state of his organization’s finances = publicity stunt.

Releasing the entirety of a draconian proposed contract without letting the musicians know =/= publicity stunt.

Got that?

Also, as a corollary to that equation, if you donate a lot of money to an organization (even if this is a relatively small percentage of your overall income), you are above approach. This is what Campbell and Davis are saying: having a lot of money = automatic competence in all fields of endeavor, always, no exceptions, ever.

Here’s a little news flash for the MOA: the musicians aren’t the only ones who have been…”stunting.” (Or whatever.) What about we devoted patrons who have been following every twist and turn of this crazy saga? Who have been reading and parsing their press releases and editorials? Who have been combing through Strib articles dating back years? Who are at this moment analyzing their 990s from the past decade? Who had to figure out what percentage draw rates they were taking from their endowment because they wouldn’t tell us? Who have been begging the MOA, pleading with the MOA, to engage with us for months? What about us? Are we stunting? If so, why??? What the hell are we getting out of this, besides bad cases of carpal tunnel?

What if I would start a petition asking Michael Henson to resign? What if thousands sign it (as certainly seems possible, judging from the musicians’ Facebook page, which is nearing 6000 fans)? Would that be a publicity stunt? Listen to us! This isn’t just about the musicians. The musicians are secondary now. This is about a much larger group of people: your patrons – and, more importantly, the taxpaying citizens of Minnesota.

You’re having a meeting with your board on Thursday. How about a meeting with us?

Consider the motives of the volunteer members of this board. Why would we link our personal reputations to an institution that we didn’t care for greatly? Why would we seek harm for any member of this iconic organization? Why would we have any goal but to protect the future of this great orchestra?

Why would they link their personal reputations to an institution that they don’t care for greatly? Because it’s good PR! Especially in an era when a large percentage of the population, rightly or wrongly, believes that the ultra-wealthy frequently avoid their moral obligations to society. Exhibit A: Jim Ulland’s editorial, Enough with the big-bank bashing, from November 2011, where he uses Jon Campbell and Richard Davis’s seats on the Minnesota Orchestra board as evidence of their fundamental respectability and decency and goodness, and as a reason to not criticize the business practices of Wells Fargo and US Bancorp.

Mr. Campbell and Mr. Davis shouldn’t pretend that being on a board with other wealthy people isn’t a powerful networking tool. There’s absolutely no shame in admitting that. Wealthy individuals and institutions have always used music and musicians as tools to express their power and social status. That’s Music History 101 for you. Am I saying that none of you care for orchestral music? Of course not. Am I saying that there are other reasons besides love of the orchestra that might lead a powerful individual to want to be on the Minnesota Orchestra’s board of directors? Yes. So don’t even try to play such an easily refuted card. Your doing so suggests you have no case, and know it.

Another question… If you don’t seek harm, then why are you not following – or even acknowledging – the dire pronouncements of orchestra experts, who are tossing about the following phrases: “the Minnesota Orchestra’s reputation has been wrecked for years amongst musicians by recent events”, “The cure stands a high degree of probability for killing the patient”, and “An orchestra does not recover easily, from such drastic cuts, if ever”? Are you saying you know more about how orchestras work than Drew McManus, Robert Levine, Edo de Waart, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, and Neville Marriner combined? If you are, then I have one thing to say to you: ha ha ha. It would be better for the Minnesota Orchestra to be dissolved completely than to be led by the likes of you.

Good intentions mean nothing; knowledge, competence, and experience in the field are everything. I could become chair of a major bank, have the best intentions in the world, and still be completely capable of turning the international financial system upside down. (If the bankers in power haven’t done so already…)

Recently, orchestra musicians shared board meeting minutes with the Star Tribune in an effort to criticize financial decisions made by our board — decisions that had been made expressly to protect the Minnesota Orchestra.

Their sharing this knowledge is “an effort to criticize financial decisions”? Uh, I don’t think so. It was more like an attempt to drag some accountability out of Orchestra leadership after they manipulated numbers so they could get a better crack at $14 million in tax dollars.

We shared those board minutes, amid 1,200 pages of documents, with musicians in our negotiations last summer as part of the orchestra’s longstanding commitment to transparency with our players.

Yes, a longstanding commitment to transparency that includes not giving players important documents and analyses they request. That longstanding commitment to transparency also extends to members of the public, who have asked for a longer version of the Strategic Plan, a fuller explanation of where endowment draws are going, answers to literally hundreds of questions, extended interviews with leadership, etc., etc., etc…none of which have ever been acknowledged or granted. Transparent transparent transparent. Totally transparent.

Transparent

That musicians chose to give these documents to a reporter is not our issue;

Mmm, Dontcha love the smell of passive-aggressive non-accusations in the morning?

rather, it is that they feigned surprise at the revelation of our financial situation. Contrary to a quote from musician Tim Zavadil (“I’m not sure we were ever told how big this cliff was going to be”), the musicians were fully aware that we could no longer manage our deficit with precarious endowment draws. Mr. Zavadil, and all his colleagues in the orchestra, participated in three meetings — on May 28, 2010, March 18, 2011 and Nov. 21, 2011 — in which we plainly articulated a $5 million gap that would only grow each year.

Oh! So you’re climbing aboard the “We Were Facing A Fiscal Apocalypse At The Same Time We Were Asking For $14 Million In State Money And Telling Our Patrons And The Legislature We Were In A Golden Period” train? Sure, hop right on! I’m sure Mr. Henson would be glad to welcome you! The public will wave a fond good-bye to you at the station.

So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, good-bye...

So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, good-bye…

Question: why would 90 musicians want to deplete the organization’s endowment by 2018? Are you really suggesting that ninety of the best-educated people in the country are too stupid to do basic math? Really?

In 2010, we asked our musicians to help alleviate growing deficits by taking a 22 percent wage reduction. We told them that even this sizable reduction would not resolve our financial problems. It would, however, make the cliff less steep in 2012. The musicians chose not to participate in those reductions. That was their legal right, and so we must grapple with even bigger financial issues today.

Haven’t heard this allegation yet, and consequently, I’m a little suspicious. I imagine there’s more to this story than what fits in a Strib editorial. (Also, there’s the little fact that in the past, just about everything provable that management has said was obfuscation and/or lie.) However, even if a new standard for transparency is being set here, and Mr. Campbell and Mr. Davis are being completely honest, as Robert Levine noted in his blog:

Notice what wasn’t mentioned: the contract re-opener of 2009. And yet the minutes demonstrated pretty clearly that the Board was planning on running deficits even in advance of that re-opener. What did they ask for in that negotiation? If they needed “a 22 percent wage reduction” in 2010, why not in 2009? And why not mention that the musicians had already given back  wage increases in 2009? It’s not even clear why a 22% giveback in 2010 would have changed management’s demands this year. If the issue is really “sustainability,” whatever deficits were run in previous years were not going to have a big impact on what sustainable fundraising goals and endowment draws would be going forward.

As I’ve said before, what we need here is more clarification… Which apparently nobody wants to give us! Ever! So we’re forced to assume the worst! Fun! Yay!

The musicians also knew that the rest of the organization had taken salary, benefit and staff cuts and that we had trimmed other expenses as much as we could without destroying this institution.

Question: What are you doing now, exactly? Have you heard what the experts are saying these proposals will do to this orchestra? Go to Google Blog Search. Type in “Minnesota Orchestra.” Press Enter. And read.

They knew of and were thrilled with our plans to secure the Minnesota Orchestra’s future through a capital campaign that began in 2005.

Yeah, I was thrilled, too… Until I heard what terrible shape the Orchestra’s finances were in. And then I wondered if fundraising for the building might be taking money away from donations for operating expenses. And then Mary Schaefle came along and said, “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.” And then I started worrying that something somewhere had gone terribly terribly wrong.

And why not? That $110 million (scaled back by nearly 50 percent postrecession) would provide for a badly needed renovation of Orchestra Hall and would help cover additional musician, touring and recording expenses in the future. The successful completion of that campaign is in sight, thanks to generous donors who believe in the Minnesota Orchestra’s future.

So now Campbell and Davis are claiming that the Building for the Future campaign was originally slated at nearly $220 million. That’s a new exciting number to add to our ever-lengthening list of Contradictory Numbers The MOA Has Provided. I’d heard that the hall renovation was possibly going to go up in cost to $90 million as late as 2010, but nothing about management seeking $110 million for musician, touring, and recording expenses in future, as is implied here. Gentlemen, would you mind pointing me to the news articles where this major campaign was announced? I’d love to read all the details.

We understand that peering into one of this region’s most venerable arts organizations through excerpted meeting minutes might make for scintillating news coverage. That’s often part of the job when leaders must make tough calls. The leaders of the Minnesota Orchestra have nothing to hide.

Yes…there’s nothing that people love more than…scintillating news coverage of…orchestral endowment draw percentages. You remember the autumn tabloids. I think it went something like LiLo stars in Liz and Dick, the fallout from the Robsten cheating scandal, and the Strib coverage of the Minnesota Orchestra’s minutes. Who can resist the sex appeal of a large endowment draw? Yes, Graydon Royce is our Mary Hart; the Strib is the National Enquirer. They do nothing but facilitate the public’s filthy, filthy, filthy habit of finding fault with brave leaders making tough calls. Shame on us for being shocked by that article, and wanting answers, and being taken in by flashy news coverage. For shame, Minnesota. (And entire music world.) For shame.

Now, bringing the sarcasm down a notch or two… Question: Does the MOA honestly believe that if we think they’re hiding something, their telling us they’re not is going to convince us?

Nixon: I have nothing to hide.

Public: OK! Glad that’s settled!

*presidency continues*

Yeah. From what I remember, Watergate didn’t go that way. People who have something to hide don’t tell people they’re hiding something. Otherwise it wouldn’t be called “hiding something.” Do I think the MOA is hiding something? I don’t know. Would they be telling us if they were? No.

Our minutes in their entirety reflect the deliberations of a board that takes its fiduciary responsibility very seriously.

Do you want to know how seriously the MOA takes their fiduciary responsibility? They misled (or lied to; take your pick) the State legislature to get $14 million. You’re taking something awfully seriously if you mislead the state legislature to get it.

They reveal a methodical coming-to-terms with the structural deficits that threaten the stability of orchestras around the country. They show a board wrestling with how to continue to offset a mounting deficit during the recession through expense reductions and precarious endowment draws in order to preserve the 25 percent pay raise contained in the 2007 contract with musicians. They show it carefully considering the impact of the 2008 recession on a fundraising campaign that began three years before the “new normal” of 2008 turned the orchestral world on its ear. And they reflect the board’s absolute commitment to ensure every musician was fully aware of the pending budget problem and the need for contract change in 2012.

And unfortunately, they never ever show a board who is open and accountable to the public about this process.

The musicians’ negotiating team appears to be avoiding at all costs our request to come back to the table with a substantive counterproposal. While we have been clear that we seek savings of $5 million annually, the approach we use to reduce these costs can be adjusted through the course of good-faith negotiations. But we need our musicians to participate for this to happen.

Sorry; I think you got that backward. We need you to participate for this to happen.

Maybe I’m unspeakably stupid, but…what would be the downside to an independent financial analysis? The cost? By your own admission, you’ve just raised $110 million. Surely it wouldn’t be too difficult to raise a few thousand more specifically for this purpose. The time it would take to analyze the books? The musicians asked for an analysis back in early September, so the time it would take should be on your dime, not theirs. The fact that you’re hiding something? Surely not; you just said you had nothing to hide, and of course those who are hiding something never lie to the public about it…

So. Once again, behold! Yet another useless major editorial from Mr. Campbell and Mr. Davis! (Once again, notice how Michael Henson is…totally, completely, and utterly absent. Let’s hear it for bold, engaged leadership, guys!) No answers to the dozens of questions we patrons have raised. No answers to the experts in the field who are warning about the dire results of the MOA’s proposals. No explanation of why a financial analysis is off-limits (an omission made even more perplexing by the musicians’ Strib editorial which ran the same day). No explanation of why they manipulated the numbers to get the balanced budgets when they thought it would be convenient for them. No explanation of why Mr. Royce’s article isn’t under Industry News. No explanation of the changed mission statement. I’m assuming they have no answers for these questions. I’m assuming they know their case is on life support.

In other words:

Good thing so many members of the Orchestra have perfect pitch. At least some people in this mess aren’t tone-deaf.

22 Comments

Filed under My Writing

22 responses to “On Cheap Publicity Stunts

  1. Sarah

    If the Board members are such businesses whizzes, willing to make the tough decisions, then why the heck are they so determined to 1) destroy their product and 2) totally insult and alienate their present and supposedly future customers? In what Management 101 class is that on the syllabus?

  2. Amy

    Tossing roses at your feet. This was awesome.

  3. Matthew Probst

    One thing about the “nothing to hide”–don’t we have irrefutable proof that they did indeed hide documents from their website after this whole situation started getting stinky?

    These people are such masters of making words and ideas stand on their heads, that absolute proof of that lie might be useful against them. Kinda like how Al Capone got busted for tax evasion rather than his many many crimes.

    If there’s something small, yet _absolutely_ provable against them, it would be good to use it against them in court. I smell fraud on a massive scale, but so many of their statements are hidden behind layers of symbolic gesturing that they might not be open to the same kind of absolute proof. I’d settle for a smaller fraud being used to take them down.

  4. Ok actually though, why hasn’t someone started a petition to fire Michael Henson? Maybe I’ll start one…

  5. Alison

    I wonder if they are afraid that something might turn up, like the embezzling that went on at the Woodruff Arts Center, where the Atlanta Symphony plays?
    http://www.ajc.com/news/news/crime-law/more-details-offered-in-woodruff-embezzlement-case/nTHsh/
    “U.S. Attorney’s Offices are often requested to prosecute complex economic crimes, particularly when the theft exceeds $500,000 to $1 million, said Brian F. McEvoy, a former federal prosecutor, now in private practice.”

    “Unfortunately, this type of embezzlement is not all that uncommon,” McEvoy said, “particularly in a distressed economy.”

  6. I’m creating a Change.org petition for patrons! Please let me know if these details sound legitimate:

    1. who do you want to petition?
    Minnesota Orchestral Association

    2. What do you want them to do?
    Fire Michael Henson And Bring Back The Musicians!

    3. Why is this important?
    I believe that Michael Henson and the Board of Directors of the Minnesota Orchestra have mislead donors, lied to the Minnesota State Legislator, planned the current economic woes of the organization and are not negotiating in good faith with their Musicians. I believe that the vision and values of the Board and Management do not have the interests of patrons and community members at heart. Because of these reasons, I have lost my trust in the Board and Management of the Minnesota Orchestra and must conclude that Michael Henson is no longer fit to act as Executive Director. If these poor management tactics continue, the Minnesota Orchestra will be destroyed. I support the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, the musicians of “the best orchestra in the world.” I urge the Board and Management to cut the crap, “Play and Talk” with the Musicians, agree to an in depend financial analysis and negotiate in good faith to create a mutually agreeable contract that honors the cultural and artistic legacy of the Minnesota Orchestra.

    • This is lovely. Let me sleep on this overnight and I’ll get back and brainstorm with any additional suggestions.

      I think that such a petition would have a lot more power coming from a patron than from musicians. I hope it doesn’t hurt the musicians’ cause in any way (i.e., contribute to an idea that musicians are just bitter about Henson’s proposed wage cuts, when really that’s not the major story here). But hopefully if we remain independent from the musicians enough, it will be clear that this comes from PATRONS and CUSTOMERS, not anyone employed by the MOA…

    • Another thing I wanted to mention… I don’t think the musicians should have a link to such a petition on FB. Not very professional, IMO. However, I can work on publicizing a SOTL FB page, which is something I’ve wanted to do anyway. I bet we can get a big chunk of people from the musicians’ FB page to “like” SOTL as well, and that would put me in a position to spread the word about a petition, and leave the musicians out of it entirely.

    • Sarah

      SPCO audience members have just formed an advocacy group (I participate) at http://www.sospco.org. We’ve got our own petition up and it’s on our site and not that of the musicians for this very same reason. Take a look at it. We wordsmithed it heavily.

  7. Susan

    I think the proposed petition text looks great, but just have two edit suggestions: “Legislator” should be “Legislature” in the first sentence of point #3, and instead of “cut the crap”, how about “cease their obfuscation”? Thank you for all of your work on this blog, Emily!

  8. Walther von Holzhaufen

    Just a detail about a change.org petition. It’s the Minnesota Legislature, not “Legislator.”

  9. Here’s the revised part 3:

    I believe that Michael Henson and the Board of Directors of the Minnesota Orchestra have mislead donors, lied to the Minnesota State Legislature, planned the current economic woes of the organization and are not negotiating in good faith with their Musicians. I believe that the vision and values of the Board and Management do not have the interests of patrons and community members at heart. Because of these reasons, I have lost my trust in the Board and Management of the Minnesota Orchestra. Michael Henson is no longer fit to act as Executive Director and if his poor management tactics continue the Minnesota Orchestra will be destroyed. I support the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, the musicians of “the best orchestra in the world.” I urge the Board and Management to cease with their obfuscations, fire Michael Henson, “Play and Talk” with the Musicians, agree to an in depend financial analysis and negotiate in good faith to create a mutually agreeable contract that honors the cultural and artistic legacy of the Minnesota Orchestra.

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