One Night for Art: An Open Letter To Mr Henson

Dear Mr. Henson,

So. About this Grammy concert.

I was going to be good and accept the spirit of a one-night truce. I really was. I was going to say, “Yes, my personal rhetoric has been heated (and to be perfectly honest, I don’t regret that); HOWEVER, I’m going to follow the example of our political and philanthropic leaders and, at least when it comes to discussing this particular show, tone the rhetoric down. I am going to view this concert the way its hosts have said they want me to: as a celebration of the Orchestra’s excellence, not as an opportunity to advance my own deeply felt agenda.”


Your statement in response to the concert announcement was shockingly bad, and you need to learn how to write better ones. (Maybe next time run them past a few actual patrons first. I could assemble a focus group for you at the snap of a finger. Contact me!)

Let’s take a look at everything the mayor said about this concert:

Jan 9 press release – “The difficult labor dispute has taken its toll, but for this one night, we ask everyone to set negotiations aside and come together as a community to celebrate the Orchestra’s extraordinary achievement and listen to their beautiful, Grammy-worthy performance,” Mayor Rybak said.

Jan 10 press release – “Judy Dayton and I are very excited that this public celebration of the Orchestra’s great accomplishment will happen, and that Osmo Vänskä and the musicians will celebrate it with an undoubtedly stellar performance,” Mayor Rybak said.

“Now it’s time for this community to put its money where its mouth is. I’m getting my tickets on Monday, and I encourage everyone who loves Minneapolis music and arts to do the same — and to join me in buying a copy of the recording as well.”

Jan 9, MPR – “On one special night, we ask everybody to take the dispute and go into neutral and come together and have one celebration,” said Rybak…

“We obviously have a very complicated labor issue, but we also have a moment that should not pass in this community, where a great orchestra, with great musicians and great management is nominated for a Grammy. Let’s celebrate that,” Rybak said…

“This isn’t about signs or messages or anything other than saying we love this institution,” the Mayor said. “And I hope also have a call to all of us to say a relatively few people have held up this institution for literally generations, and now if we really care about this, and we do, more people who haven’t been buying the tickets, who haven’t been part of that, have to support this, because we want greatness and we want financial stability, and the only way for us to make sure that happens is for us all to make sure we support this institution.”

Jan 10, Strib – “We thought it was important to create a neutral setting,” Rybak said. “It is being hosted by the mayor and a longtime benefactor who are not on either side of this but want to get the community focused on where we have to be. We ask everyone to put down the dispute for a night and come together to celebrate the accomplishment.”

For reference, here’s your tone-deaf response:

“We share pride in this Grammy nomination and appreciate that the Mayor understands the importance of this cultural institution and the need for it to be financially sustainable in the future. In last week’s negotiations, all parties agreed to a fresh start and we are currently in discussions with the musicians about the parameters of an analysis that will seek to verify the Orchestra’s financial position. Following this review, we are hopeful that the musicians will put forward a counterproposal to help us resolve these challenges.”

And here is your statement’s musical equivalent:

I could say many things, but I’ll stop at two.

So: two things.

First: the MOA has pride in the Grammy nomination? Believe it or not, this is actually news, because the MOA still hasn’t issued a press release about it. Don’t take my word for it. Look at your virtual press room. Yeah, apparently the article “Minnesota Orchestra Board to accept offer to speak at Board meeting after musicians return to table with substantive proposal” is more important to your organization than A GRAMMY NOMINATION. Then again, I never have claimed to understand your PR tactics.

Second, it is never a good idea to shove words into a politician’s mouth (especially when you are under investigation for potential misuse of public funds by other politicians). You are delusional if you think that this concert is proof that the Mayor of Minneapolis believes the first priority of the Minnesota Orchestra is to be financially stable – or that the MOA shares no blame for this mess – or that the reason this concert is happening is because of unreasonable intransigence on the musicians’ part. I understand you had to say something, and were likely blindsided a bit by this announcement, but that’s simply no excuse for such a terrible statement.

Here’s an example of how it’s done. From the musicians:

The Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra are honored to be invited by Mayor R.T. Rybak and Orchestra benefactor Judy Dayton to perform at a Grammy celebration concert on February 1st, 2013.

The Musicians recognize the significance this Grammy nomination holds for our community and the Orchestra’s reputation, as well as the importance of joining Osmo Vänskä  in performing these Sibelius works for our audience.

“This is a tremendous gesture by the Mayor and Ms. Dayton,” Principal Trombonist Doug Wright said.  “It will be the Musicians’ distinct honor to accept their invitation and join our Music Director on stage for a performance of these Grammy-nominated works for our community.  It should be a concert to remember.”

No talking points. Just gratitude. And even an acknowledgement of the audience, the entire reason the orchestra exists. That in particular is a nice touch!

Mayor Rybak said to put the negotiations aside for one night. One night! One night without talk of counterproposals – financial analyses – fiscal stability. One night. It’s one night where we don’t talk about how we get to the product; it’s one night where we celebrate the actual product. One night for art. Is that really such a difficult concept to grasp?

The following paragraph is not in the spirit of the concert, and I may regret it later, but I feel compelled to write it anyway. Mr. Henson, you should count your lucky stars that Minneapolis even remembers that we have a world-class symphony orchestra. You were the one who refused to “pay and play” back in October. You were the one who refused any in-depth interviews. You were the one who turned down binding arbitration. You were the one who resisted financial analysis (if you’d agreed to it back when it was initially asked for, we’d be four months closer to a resolution – four – whole – months!). Every single step of the way, you have stood in front of getting this orchestra back on the stage, refusing to explain yourself, consistently refusing opportunities to listen to outside opinion or input. That’s not me talking as a partisan; that’s a verifiable fact. You and the MOA are frolicking and detouring all the way to the bank. So be glad that your public has stuck as long and devotedly with this silent orchestra as it has. Another city would have run out of patience and interest long ago.

I’d love to post your response to this, and open a dialogue with you about this, but unfortunately I can’t imagine you will. On the very very very off-chance you want to acknowledge I’m here, feel free. You know how much I’d love to talk to you. Otherwise, whatever. I’m looking forward to the concert. I just really, really, really wish Minneapolis could have relied on the Minnesota Orchestral Association to put it on, instead of Judy Dayton and Mayor Rybak. Since putting on concerts is, of course, the primary justification for the MOA’s existence…not to mention your career.



Filed under Labor Disputes, Minnesota Orchestra

22 responses to “One Night for Art: An Open Letter To Mr Henson

  1. Amy Adams

    My comment above was intended to be “crickets chirping”.

  2. Truly Emily, this is one of your greatest pieces in a long string of really greats! I’m trying hard to put the sword down for one night but right now, all I can think about are those cute little street sweepers in Paris that tool around town sweeping garbage from the gutters into the sewer system. But I will try to have happy thoughts for the concert

    • Sarah

      Agree – every time I think you can’t write anything better, you top yourself. Michael Henson has been drawn and quartered.

  3. MN Orchestra Board should jettison the management, find a CEO who knows something about music (and business management, of course), and pay Emily mega-bucks to be their PR person.

  4. Sandi

    Great commentary. Although I have to say thank heaven that I have a dress rehearsal for my choir’s concert that night, because I in no way could ever be neutral, not for one moment. If I could come, I would be there with my buttons and my tshirt and I would be cheering the union musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra who earned this nomination. So, if everyone has to behave, it’s bet that I can’t come!

    • Terry

      I hear what you’re saying! If Michael Henson and the board will be in attendance, it will be best if I stay away. Being in the same building with them (and remaining civil) would be too much to ask.

  5. Andy Buelow

    Dear Sarah: I’m an executive director at a per-service orchestra and have been working in orchestra administration since the late ’80s. I was PR Director at the Milwaukee Symphony for a lo-o-o-ong time. I wanted to tell you how impressed I am with your insights, your sharp wit, and your fairness. (Also you write really well!) I think your characterization of “tone deaf” is dead on, and I’ve felt this way several times as I’ve read his statements. I say this as one who is sympathetic to all sides in this issue. As an ED, I work my ass of DAY IN AND DAY OUT to market the concerts, attract an audience, and raise the money to pay my musicians and staff fairly and pay for the rest of the production and overhead. I do this because of my love of the music and my admiration and respect for the musicians. And it has made me very empathetic to orchestra administrators everywhere. Most are incredibly dedicated, hardworking and well-meaning, whatever their level of experience or competence. That being said, it is difficult to understand the MOA administration’s tactics in this situation, nor have they done a very good job of communicating them.

  6. Terry

    The fact that Henson is still around speaks volumes about the current orchestra board. Maybe it’s because there’s a construction project currently in progress, but for whatever reason, the Executive Committee of the Board has dug its heels in and refuse to budge. Oh, the January thaw in negotiations may look good at first blush, but it would appear to be part of the plan. Make no mistake: They will have their rental hall with or without an orchestra (keeping the orchestra’s endowment money, no doubt) and that is all there is to it. It’s just a good business decision, after all (not!).

    By the way, who supervises the supervisors? Is there no state agency responsible for overseeing this madness at the state’s largest non-profit arts organization? Who has dropped the ball there, Gov. Dayton? Please look into this! Is there really no way to remove a board when it goes completely off the rails?

    • Sarah

      Well, the Board is supposed to supervise the CEO. That is, unless you are Dobson West and you are Board Chair AND CEO and President of the SPCO. Both Board and Staff. That’s a little something that needs to be looked into, but someone has to do it.

      • Terry

        Absolutely agree with you. Does the state attorney general or secretary of state oversee these nonprofit organizations? Who “supervises” the Board, as it were, especially when state taxpayer dollars have been given to support these organizations? Maybe the upcoming legislative hearings will provide us with some answers.

  7. Quoting Emily in her open letter to Mr. Henson: “You and the MOA are frolicking and detouring all the way to the bank.”

    “The bank, the bank!” Why does Wells Fargo–i.e., “the bank”–keep popping up in this dispute? Wells Fargo? That’s the west coast bank that was supposed to be subsumed in a merger with Minneapolis based NorthWest Bank Corporation a few years back–remember the “weather ball?” Well, it is no more. But while being subsumed, the corporate headquarters were soon moved to San Francisco, California. (Remind anyone of Al Checchi and Northwest Airlines)? And isn’t it Wells Fargo that has been administering the MOA endowment, the endowment that seems to be so often at the center of the controversy?

    What’s really curious is that a Wells Fargo “Vice President for Community Relations,” Mr. Jon R. Campbell, is the current chair of the Minnesota Orchestra Association, the MOA. What’s even more curious is that he shows no skill whatsoever in community relations. Why does Wells Fargo put up with him? Is he someone’s son-in-law? What’s the deal?

    I wonder, do the other high rollers and VPs at Wells Fargo know what he’s up to in his spare time? Or–I shudder to think–is this, somehow, actually a part of his duties at Wells Fargo as “Vice President for Community Relations.” Are the members of the Wells Fargo board of directors, as well as the CEO and other VPs, doing their duty and asking the right questions in meetings? Wouldn’t it be cheaper and more cost effective to give the Minnesota Orchestra, say, ten or fifteen million dollars as recompense for the damage caused by their maladroit and ham-handed “Vice President for Community Relations,” plus another ten or fifteen million to show a bit of good will?

    Of course, the chair, and Wells Fargo, too, should be memorialized with a brick on the wall in the new lobby.

  8. Wasn’t Jon Campbell “off” by about $100 million dollars in his financial projections–the issue where he laughed and said “the musicians are wondering what I was smoking” I’m thinking lead paint. I don’t get it either. He doesn’t seem competent at anything.

  9. There is possibly a nepotism connection at Wells Fargo.

    Jim and Jon Campbell are brothers. I don’t know who got who the job – if there was a family connection that got them both the jobs, if one or the other got the other the job, or if they’re both absolutely brilliant at what they do and managed to get each of their high-power jobs individually based solely on their intelligence, passion, and talent. Might be something worth digging into. Mr. Campbell’s qualifications are obviously relevant to the discussion of what’s going on at the MOA.

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