What We Know About Minnesota Orchestra’s Finances – And What We Don’t, Part III

Once again, I’m turning the floor over to Mary Schaefle, our resident non-profit number cruncher…


If you’ve been following the financial posts, you know the previous posts focused on income – endowment and investments in Part I, and ticket sales and fundraising in Part II. It’s time to take a look at Minnesota Orchestra’s spending habits, or expenses. We’ll be able to review detail in some areas but will more often be looking at expenses grouped into categories.

The Big Picture – What Got Cut?

The nonprofit tax forms (990, available via Guidestar.org) categorize costs, allowing us to see what increased or decreased between 2009 and 2011. The single largest drop, $966,802, was in travel (Part IX, p10). 36% of costs cut by Orchestra management were the result of the calendar and lack of an international tour.

The second largest decrease is “other fees for service” at $742,701. Fees for service are payments to any organization or individual providing a service to the Orchestra, for example legal or audit fees. The “other” subset includes payments to a guest artist, to a soloists’ management company, and to the architect and project management company for the Hall renovation.

We can look at “other fees for service” in a different section of the 990 where the highest paid contractors (Part VII, p8) are listed. The types of organizations shifted from 2009 with more than half of the contracts paying guest artists to 2011 when 4 of 5 were related to Hall renovation and capital campaign contracts. From my point of view, what’s important about this shift is the decrease in guest artist fees. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed seeing Orchestra musicians as soloists, but I don’t know if or how the star power factor – or lack thereof – impacts ticket sales.

Going back to line items with the largest cuts, advertising and marketing came in third with a decrease of $579,655. We know management cut the number of concerts (see Part II), but I’m not sure that would have a proportional impact on advertising. You still have to print a season brochure, advertise concerts and so on. It could be a shift to online promotions versus paper. It could also be more obvious – a decrease in the volume of advertising.

The second and third cuts – guest artist fees and marketing – are troublesome to me. When you combine these with the decrease in number of concerts, it looks like a recipe for decreased income for the Orchestra. There may be other reasons for those changes. My previous posts suggested an outside expert review of the Strategic Business Plan, and this is one more reason for the review.

Who Gets Paid How Much?

Musician base salary is eighth among symphony orchestras (2011 data). My comparison shows Mr. Henson’s pay eighth among US symphony executives (2011 990 data), while Osmo Vänskä is seventh among music directors (McManus, 2010 data). Viewed through this lens, pay seems comparable between groups.

In response to the recession, musicians agreed to a one-year pay freeze contributing $4.5 million in savings to the Orchestra. In exchange, Mr. Henson and Maestro Vänskä agreed to 7% and 10% decreases in pay respectively. Their actual decreases were 3.5% and 4%. Executive contracts often include scheduled annual increases (just like the musicians’ contract) which would explain the difference. Two additional paid staff are included on the 990. COO Neu took a slightly larger decrease of 7.5%, while CFO Ebensteiner saw a substantial increase of 25.5%. Compensation of the most highly paid musicians is also listed. When viewed as a group, salaries and total compensation were flat. I chose to look at them as a group since pay fluctuates with solo appearances. This only includes five musicians, so can’t be considered definitive.

Neither the financial statements nor the tax forms split musician and administration costs, but we do know that 74% of the Orchestra’s costs are salary and benefits. Management has pointed to rising musician costs as a critical issue in their financial challenges. A Star-Tribune business columnist jumped on board writing “Orchestra’s Disease is Economic”. If you want to learn more about the argument that orchestras aren’t or can’t be efficient, I highly encourage you to read Drew McManus’ recent blog post on the topic – including the comments section. As someone who has worked in nonprofit service organizations for decades, I can tell you that employee costs are always a significant portion of the budget, and the conversations about how to control those costs never seem to go away.

So – Is There a Conclusion?

Frankly, the reason it has taken me so long to write Part III is my attempt to define a conclusion. I’ve stared at the numbers over and over, waiting for something to pop out. I’ve charted, analyzed, sliced and diced. Is it income? Is it expenses? Is there something else we could or should change? Is it a tweak or are dramatic changes needed?

I decided the answer is in the title. My guest posts were intended to shine some light on the facts of the financials, and I hope I’ve done that. In labor disputes – or really any dispute – figures and percentages are thrown around to prove and disprove points of view. They can be taken out of context. Financials are facts to me, and should be verified.

Although they are fact, the financials do represent something I believe is more important. They represent how an organization chooses to do its work. I ended the last post saying we needed to get the Minnesota Orchestra playing and keep them playing. After working through their financials, I’m convinced that is possible, and also convinced that an objective, outside view will help us get there.


Amen, Mary.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of posts as much as I have. They’ve been a fantastic little peep into how the Minnesota Orchestra operates behind-the-scenes. A round of applause and a brava for Mary is in order.

Please feel free to join Mary in the comment section. I’ll be there, too, once I digest the information in this post.

And MOA…we’re looking at you. Let’s get a dialogue going. We’re adults. We can handle it!



Filed under Not My Writing

8 responses to “What We Know About Minnesota Orchestra’s Finances – And What We Don’t, Part III

  1. It is my understanding (and I could be mistaken) that the MO European tours have been subsidized by various super-doners, who have been able to write checks of 1 or even 1.5 million to send them across the pond.

  2. Mary Schaefle

    I saw a reference to endowment funds restricted to touring, but I wasn’t able to find the link for this post. It also makes sense to get large gifts for touring.
    If you’re saying MO seeks specific income for it, you’re absolutely right. When management says they cut expenses, but it’s really a matter of timing and tours, important context and information are omitted.

  3. OK, so going to attempt to comment on this one!

    First of all, it’s very interesting that such a large chunk of the decrease in expenses is tour- and calendar-related. Hate to say it but I bet that the tours (and lack thereof) from 2009-2011 were scheduled in such a way that management could make their cuts from 2009 to 2011 look more impressive when it came time to come to the negotiating table. Strategizing tours for leverage in negotiating…the brain boggles. I wonder if the Orchestra had decided not to tour, if they would have simply lost those donations, or if that money would have come into the Orchestra in another capacity (i.e., as donations for the endowment, hall, operating expenses, etc)… I also wonder what this / these individuals was/were told about the orchestra’s fiscal health when s/he/they made the donations in 2009 or 2010 for the summer European tour. And what s/he/they thinks/think now.

    I agree that lack of big-name artists is troubling. (Although don’t get me wrong; I do love seeing orchestra members soloing, too. Tony Ross and Erin Keefe and many of their colleagues can play just as well as the biggest names out there!) I obviously love the Orchestra, but over the past ten years, it’s almost always been a guest soloist who has actually roused me to buy tickets and plan a trip out. I wonder how true this is for others…or if any analysis was done before the decision to highlight Orchestra talent was made.

    I also wonder what the “fee for service” might reveal in the FY2012 990s. Would you be able to tell how much they’ve spent on PR consultants, lawyers, etc.?

    And interesting to hear numbers behind my guess that marketing has been decreasing. I’ve noticed it over the years, and I’m not even in Minneapolis…

    Onto Mr. Henson… *twitch*

    I’ve expressed annoyance on the blog before about his salary, which I feel is ridiculous. (If he was doing his job better, I’d have absolutely positively no problem with his salary. It’s just that $400,000 strikes me as being a lot to pay someone for obvious incompetence.) I do wonder why, if he wants to bring musician pay to something like 16th or 17th in the country, why he’s not proposing a cut to bring himself down to that level, too…? Do we know what percentage that would cut his salary down to?

    And Ebensteiner – what’s going on there?? Why would someone receive that large of an increase when his colleagues are all seeing decreases? Was his position underpaid pre-2009?

  4. Mary Schaefle

    Emily, Mr. Ebensteiner was new to the CFO position during the 2008-09 season. The increase listed is between August 2010 and August 2011. Since I don’t know his job description, whether the position changed during that time, and haven’t compared to other orchestra CFOs I can’t say whether the pay is comparable or not.

    • Anon

      Sorry I’m late to this, but well done all the same Mary, and Lark of course.

      Mary, do you think it would be worth it to attempt to reach out and ask other orchestra’s CFO’s about, well general financial stuff? They could give statements under condition of anonymity if there’s a concern there.

      I’m reasonably intelligent but I find I’m no expert in most, if not all, things, lol. Sometimes asking people who are helps to discover, if not answers then better questions to ask.

      Anyway, again thanks Mary. Your efforts were not all in vain. I very much appreciated you taking the time and going to the effort to do what you did. :)

  5. Mary Schaefle

    Looking at orchestra models that are succeeding is the right thing to do. Pull in all the stakeholders in the community and get the best ideas
    But first there needs to be a willingness to listen and compromise by all, and I mean ALL sides.
    My holiday wish this year…

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