More Misrepresentation, More Realities…..More Misrepresentations of Reality

Today is the Minnesota Orchestra’s annual meeting – a “sober, closed-door affair“, according to Graydon Royce: “the most downbeat meeting in the orchestra’s 110-year history.” Part-y! I’ve been wondering for a while if they’re going to discuss canceling concerts through February or March (or heck, maybe even June, while they’re at it). You know, since they’ve got the whole gang in one place. Here’s some evidence to back that depressing idea up: there are some new Misrepresentations vs. Realities on the MOA’s website. (You’ll remember that the “Misrepresentations vs. Realities” chart initially appeared on the Orchestra website right before they announced the last batch of cancellations.) And bizarrely, new Misrepresentations and Realities are sprinkled among the old Misrepresentations and Realities. Not sure why they didn’t just add them to the end of the chart, or the beginning, but…whatever.

If you’re just joining us, I debunked the old “Realities” here a month ago. So let’s take a peek at the new ones!

Misrepresentation: The Board has presented its final offer and refuses to negotiate further.

Reality: While the Board has been clear that it seeks savings of $5 million annually, the approach we use to achieve these savings can be adjusted through the course of good faith negotiations. We need our musicians to participate for this to happen.

I have a story to share with you…

Pretend you’re in a car. An MD is driving, and recklessly. You get into a terrible car accident. You’re thrown from the vehicle, and are badly injured. The MD – whose specialty is obviously not surgery – investigates your wounds and determines that in order to save your life, he must remove a limb with a chainsaw he keeps in the trunk.

“Which one?” you moan.

“I’m open to negotiation,” he says.

“What? How about a second opinion?” you gasp.

“Not necessary,” he says, revving the chainsaw.

“An outside analysis?”

“Why don’t you trust me? I’m an excellent MD, not to mention driver.”

A surgeon rushes up to the scene. (Let’s say his name is, oh, I don’t know, Dr. McManus.) He says that the cure has “a high degree of probability of killing” you.

However, despite this dire warning, the MD not only ignores Dr. McManus, but pretends he does not exist. “The approach we use to decide which limb to cut off can be adjusted through the course of good faith negotiations,” he says. “But you need to tell me which limb.”

You then bleed out onto the pavement, get a Grammy nomination, and die. The end.

I humbly submit: this is not negotiation. It’s insanity. (Or a deleted scene from Misery. Either/or.)

Misrepresentation: The Board has “cooked the books” to mislead musicians and the public.

Reality: Absolutely not. The Board has appropriately fulfilled its fiduciary responsibility to the Orchestra during extraordinary times.

Hear that? They are absolutely not cooking the books! At all! Ever! Such an accusation is shocking and uncouth and uncalled for! Robert Levine? I think someone’s taking a jab at you… (Mr. Levine, of course, posted a blog entry not too long ago about the Minnesota Orchestra expressly titled “Cooking the books.”)

In fact, the MOA went so far in its effort to not mislead the public that in mid-October 2012 they removed a misleading article from 2010 that had been on their website, which celebrated the Minnesota Orchestra’s sound fiscal health, even though they knew at the time that they were in desperate trouble. They reached backward in time to set the record straight. That’s how committed to the truth they are. Pretty impressive stuff.

The Board signed a contract with musicians in 2007 that called for a 25 percent pay increase.

The Board’s decision to rely on the MOA endowment to help cover these costs through the recession was appropriate and responsible.

At the same time, Board and management were creating a strategic plan that would eliminate the organization’s structural deficit once and for all.

We began talking publicly about our structural deficit as soon as the board had ratified that plan.

Our financial position has always been clearly outlined in public documents that include our annual audited financial statements and our 990 tax returns.

“We began talking publicly about our structural deficit as soon as the board had ratified that plan.” Well, gee whiz, thanks for including patrons in the planning process, guys!

Seriously, though. This aspect of the story never fails to amaze me, and no matter what perspective I come to this question with, I just can’t conceive of an explanation for it. Why would you not include the community in your Strategic Planning? Businesses don’t go radically altering established product lines without going out to speak to actual customers. This is akin to Coca-Cola taking Coke off the shelves and replacing it with a drastically different brand new drink, without ever once talking to a single actual consumer about what they actually want in a soft drink. It just strikes me as being ridiculously reckless and irresponsible. If the MOA would like to explain their strategy, go ahead. Comment section’s open.

Also, note how neatly they sidestep the fact that they knew there was a problem back in 2009 and 2010, when they were saying things were so great and were seeking state money (and your money). FYI, you don’t need to formulate a formal plan to address a problem before you talk about it. (Same way you don’t need to formulate an entire counterproposal before you talk about it. But I digress…) If people had to come up with solutions to problems before we even discuss our problems, then we’d be as dysfunctional as the Senate. It would not be pretty.

Misrepresentation: Musicians had no idea what the true financial picture of the Orchestra was or how steep the current fiscal cliff would be.

Reality: Dating back to 2009, the Board has very thoroughly shared the full financial picture of the Orchestra with our musicians in a series of comprehensive meetings.

In 2010, the Board asked musicians for a 22 percent wage reduction—a clear indication of how steep our challenges were. We said those reductions alone wouldn’t solve our problems but it would make the financial cliff we face in 2012 less steep.

The players chose not to take that reduction, as was their legal right, and so instead we are now grappling with these compounded problems.

First of all, I addressed this point in my last major blog entry, basically deciding that we didn’t have enough information to be able to assess the truth of these statements.

Second… Why is every single person from the MOA saying the exact same thing? It’s creepy. Here’s an example. I bolded the repeating phrases.

Campbell and Davis’s editorial

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. 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.

Mr. Eisele’s MinnPost editorial

The best we can do is request that our players consider midterm contract modifications, and this is exactly what we did in both 2009 and 2010. The musicians agreed to a one-year wage freeze in 2009, but they turned down our request for a 22 percent salary reduction in 2010. It was the musicians’ legal right to do so, but it has made the cliff we face today all the steeper.

And then now again in this chart…

In 2010, the Board asked musicians for a 22 percent wage reduction—a clear indication of how steep our challenges were. We said those reductions alone wouldn’t solve our problems but it would make the financial cliff we face in 2012 less steep.

The players chose not to take that reduction, as was their legal right, and so instead we are now grappling with these compounded problems.

We – are – all – robots. We – are – all – saying – the – exact – same – thing – in -exactly – the – same – way. We – are – apparently – incapable – of – expressing – original – thought.

Greet – ings – Minn – e – ap – o – lis – mus – ic – lov – ers.

Okay, yes, I’m a politics and media geek; I’ll admit it any day. I know what talking points are; I know their purpose; and I know that they are specifically designed to be repeated ad nauseum, ad infinitum. And the musicians certainly have their talking points, too. But the extent to which the MOA is repeating itself (and this “cliff” metaphor is only one example of this) is seriously unnerving. Their repeating the same soulless phrases over and over and over again – simplistic phrases that never seriously grapple with our complicated questions – only plays to the stereotype: that they are all inflexible, robotic, disconnected big businessmen, more concerned about the bottom line than the experience and concerns of their patrons, unsure if their ideas can withstand public scrutiny if they vary one syllable from the pre-written focus-grouped script. The MOA has even coordinated words about how they feel: the meme de jour is “heavy hearts” and “perplexion.” (Seriously. Keep an eye out for those two phrases in MOA literature. You’ll find them. Frequently.) These guys need to put the talking points in the shredder, come down from the tower, and engage with the patrons one-on-one, or in multiple in-depth interviews. They need to talk to us from their hearts.

Misrepresentation: The musicians simply do not have enough information to have a clear picture of the Orchestra’s finances.

Reality: Our Board negotiating committee trusted musicians with exhaustive amounts of information in the current negotiations in order to be transparent. This information includes our most recent independently audited financials; three years of monthly Finance Committee, Board and Executive Committee minutes; detailed reports on all our fundraising activity; quarterly investment reports dating back three years; our investment policies and objectives; and a comprehensive actuarial report on our defined benefit plan.

Aww, come on, MOA. Make this at least a little difficult for me. Here’s all I need to say to debunk this: they never actually answer the misrepresentation here.

Misrepresentation: An independent third party analysis is required to assure musicians that the Board has properly managed its finances.

Reality: The Minnesota Orchestra board is comprised of top business and philanthropic leaders in the Twin Cities, who volunteer their time and money to support the Orchestra. Why would the Board want to do anything but protect the Minnesota Orchestra for the long-term?

Question: do the top business and philanthropic leaders in the Twin Cities commonly put the future of their businesses and philanthropic organizations into the hands of volunteers who know little about how those organizations work? Are you willing to go on record saying that these volunteers, no matter how golden-hearted or well-intentioned, know better about orchestras than Drew McManus, Robert Levine, the past music directors of the Minnesota Orchestra, and others? I’d love to know.

Any financial examination would begin and end with a rigorous analysis of the Orchestra’s income and expenses—in other words, with an independent audit, which is the highest level of objective assurance regarding the state of the Orchestra’s finances. The MOA opens its books annually to an independent auditor and shares these certified results with musicians. The musicians could conduct their own analysis based on the audited financials, the MOA’s annual tax return, its forward-looking strategic plan and the 1200 additional pages of information the Board has shared in negotiations.

But they’re not asking for just a financial examination; they’re asking for something larger and more comprehensive, something that looks ahead as well as backward…just like what Mary Schaefle suggested before she knew the scope of what the musicians were requesting. We’re talking about two completely different things here. And you’re businessmen, and so you know it. So now you’re just trying to mislead us. Or, in other words, you’re frolicking and detouring. Not cool, guys.

Misrepresentation: President Michael Henson is an “obstacle” to achieving a contract resolution with musicians.

Reality: The obstacle standing between Board/management and musicians in achieving a contract resolution is the musicians’ perplexing refusal to put forward a single contract proposal of any kind in any form. How can negotiations possibly succeed if one side refuses to participate?

Perplexion!!! Told you! I’d suggest that we’d start a drinking game every time the MOA mentions the words “perplexing” or “perplexion”, but we’d all die of alcohol poisoning. (Also, this sentiment is lifted from Campbell/Davis’s editorial, in which they write, poetically: “We are perplexed by this standoff. What purpose can it possibly serve?” Just add in some line breaks and you’ve got yourself a haiku.)

Look, I’ve already extensively documented Michael Henson’s extensive failures of leadership during his time at the MOA, so I’ll just leave this “reality” unrebutted here. Check the apocalypse archives if you want more details about how terrible Michael Henson is at his job.

Misrepresentation: The Minnesota Orchestra is unique among orchestras across the country in the financial issues it is facing.

Reality: The recession severely impacted the orchestral industry, as it did most nonprofits that rely on charitable donations and investment returns. Musicians in many other major orchestras across the nation have helped their Boards to address these issues by making significant contract concessions. These include the major orchestras of Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Detroit, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Other orchestras, such as Cleveland, have not sought wage concessions but have announced major structural deficits. Every community must find its own solution to the challenges that its orchestra faces, based on what its community can afford.

This brings up a good question… What can our community afford? Robert Levine has that same question in a thought-provoking blog entry… The whole thing is worth reading, but here’s a taste.

A close look at recent Minnesota Orchestra contracts begs a different question, which is: how did the orchestra manage to run balanced budgets for so many years?…

Essentially the board is claiming that they’re unable to pay, not only tor the orchestra they have now, but for the orchestra that they had for a long time before the most recent settlement. No wonder the musicians want an independent analysis of the orchestra’s financial situation. How does an orchestra go from running balanced budgets year after year, well into the deepest recession in our industry’s history, and then start running massive deficits – far above any increase in overall orchestra compensation – when the economy is coming out of that recession? And all this while raising major sums for hall renovation?

I don’t know, Mr. Levine. It certainly is…what’s the word for it?…perplexing.

On a closing note, the Industry News page has been updated. And I can’t help but notice the “curious incident of the dog in the night-time”: Graydon Royce’s bombshell article of 11/26 is not among the articles cited there. I don’t understand, guys. It’s almost as if the MOA isn’t happy about the revelations contained therein…

2 Comments

Filed under My Writing

2 responses to “More Misrepresentation, More Realities…..More Misrepresentations of Reality

  1. Sarah

    Meanwhile, the orchestra (i.e. Osmo Vanska and the musicians) has just been nominated for a Grammy Award.

  2. No time to rest MOA. Now it looks like you better start preparing for your
    perplexing presentation to the state legislature. It will be a good dose of reality for you to actually have to look at faces while you try to spin your way out of this disaster that you, alone, have created.

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