On “Patron Advocates”

In the latest Minnesota Orchestral Association email blast, there was a sentence that could not have irritated me more if it had been specifically designed to do so (which, knowing the MOA, it probably was).

“It is the Board’s privilege and duty to serve as responsible fiduciaries for the Minnesota Orchestra. In many ways, we serve as advocates for Orchestra patrons [my bold] and our goal is to ensure that these patrons—you—have a sustainable orchestra for many years to come.”

As Dr. John Watson would say:


Want to know why this was especially galling? I had to rely on a friend to forward this email to me, because the MOA hasn’t written or called my family in about a year, despite the fact all our contact information is complete and up-to-date. Many of my most vocal readers have met the same fate (while, ridiculously, musicians and their families are routinely hit up for money).

So. That being said, I have some stories to tell you.

I have a faithful reader. She and her husband have been orchestra patrons and donors for years. Months ago, she heard that Michael Henson, the CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra, was giving a Q&A session for patrons. So she dressed up in her best clothes and diamonds and went to the MOA’s temporary offices. She was met by a secretary who looked at the list of pre-approved guests and said she wasn’t allowed in because she wasn’t “on the list” and there “wasn’t room.” Awkwardly, it was obvious there was room. The secretary offered to have someone from development call her to discuss her concerns. That development person never called her. Is the board and management advocating for her? Hell no.

I have a couple of readers who banded together this spring to ask the Minnesota Orchestral Association to play and talk during the spring season. They assembled a petition and sent it to as many board members as they could contact. They didn’t hear a word back from anyone. Not even a “we appreciate your efforts and your passion and we will consider the idea and be in contact with you.” Is the board and management advocating for them? Hell no.

I have readers who were told all sorts of bald-faced lies on the phone by MOA fundraisers. Things like

  • musicians in Chicago have taken massive pay cuts
  • musicians in the Cleveland Orchestra are playing without a contract
  • a terrible thing will happen to the Minnesota Orchestra in six months if more donations aren’t received

Is the board and management advocating for the poor uninformed people who didn’t know they were being lied to, who then, out of sheer misinformation, wrote them checks? Hell no.

And speaking of that, is the board and management advocating for the men and women who funded a $50 million lobby, without being told massive cuts in musician compensation were coming…despite the fact the board and management knew? Hell no times two. Times three. Times fifty million!

I know of hundreds upon hundreds of patrons who have tried to contact the board of directors via phone and email. Most of the time they’re ignored. On the rare occasion they’re acknowledged, they’re completely condescended to. You can almost see the disdain, the ugly ugly paternalism, dripping off their replies. Is the board and management advocating for those patrons? Hell no.

In July, a group of passionate articulate brilliant young musicians visited Richard Davis’s US Bancorp headquarters and performed Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony on Nicollet Mall in a desperate plea to end the lockout. They have a right to be concerned; their teachers and mentors are leaving Minnesota at a heartbreaking clip. All of them are acutely aware that the youth symphonies in the Twin Cities are inextricably linked with the best talent at the top. If Richard Davis was interested in advocating for them, he would have come out to shake their hands, explained why he disagreed with them, or reached out to them afterward in private to discuss their concerns. Have they heard a word from him or his representatives? Hell no.

There was a tiny disabled woman who lived in Wisconsin and lived a very sedate and quiet life. The two things that brought her the most joy were playing the violin and hearing the Minnesota Orchestra. She started writing about the orchestra’s contract negotiations in August of 2012. After a while, she became aware that the Minnesota Orchestral Association was reading her, but never actually responding. This, frankly, creeped her out – not to mention pissed her off – but she continued to write, all the while begging over and over and over again that they contact her and answer her questions. When she found out that the management had bought at least thirteen domain names like “save our orchestra” and “save our Minnesota Orchestra”, her discovery got international press. Still, the Minnesota Orchestra did not contact her or reach out to the patron advocacy group that she and her readers helped to found.

Is the board and management advocating for her? Or for any of her thousands of readers?

I tell you on the very best authority:


To sum: the Minnesota Orchestral Association board and management has refused to advocate for broad swaths of the patron population. This is a fact. It is not an opinion, and it is not open for debate. Period.

So. Just so the MOA is clear: this is what real patron advocates look like. Real patron advocates realize that blogs are actually useful tools to get to know customers. (In fact, in reality-based economies, customers are often at the very center of a business’s mission.) Real patron advocates answer emails with care and attention and respect. Real patron advocates call their donors and customers back when they have concerns. Real patron advocates don’t scrub patrons off contact lists when they start complaining about how the organization is being run. Real patron advocates have multi-way conversations with patrons: online, in phone calls, via letter, in person. Real patron advocates show up in huge numbers at events like lockout concerts and the Orchestrate Excellence forum, and even schedule community-wide town hall meetings on their own. Real patron advocates listen to and absorb what patrons have to say to them, no matter how crazy and off-base they feel those patrons are. Real patron advocates share information rather than hoard and hide it. Real patron advocates let patrons know when an orchestra is facing a financial cliff, instead of letting PR people decide what size deficit to report when. Real patron advocates include patrons in their strategic planning process. Real patron advocates praise young people when they stand up for what they believe in, even if they disagree with those young people. Hell, real patron advocates are…wait for it…easily accessible to patrons. The fact I have to even write that sentence makes me shudder.

In short, real patron advocates constantly seek out what patrons want, and then stand up in front of powerful men and women to…advocate for patrons.

The moment I see real advocacy actually happening, I will notice it and praise it and get giddy over it. I will pop open a bottle of champagne to celebrate – and I don’t even drink. But until that moment happens, I suggest the MOA mulls over the definition of “patron advocacy” long and hard. And then it should get in touch with the largest patron advocacy group to date, Save Our Symphony Minnesota. If the board and management accept our open invitation to have tough substantive fact-based talks with us, I can guarantee a fascinating discussion on all sides about what patrons really want, plus explanations of exactly how we want to be advocated for. I’m guessing those answers will be enlightening for board and management alike. And I’m sure we patrons will learn a lot from the exchange, as well.

For more on this whole fascinating topic, please listen to my recent WQXR interview: “Protesting or Praising, Classical Music Fans Become Activists Online.”


As Drew McManus writes…

The Minnesota Orchestra cross-blog event is a collection of more than a dozen bloggers, musicians, patrons, and administrators writing about the orchestra’s devastating work stoppage. You can find all of the contributions in the following list and the authors encourage everyone to participate by sharing, commenting, or publishing something at your own culture blog.


Filed under Labor Disputes, Minnesota Orchestra

23 responses to “On “Patron Advocates”

  1. Pingback: A Journey Of Legacy, Appreciation, and Heart | Neo Classical

  2. Karin

    Right on as usual….from someone who was galled at the full page ad in the Star Tribune….a slap in the face.

  3. Sarah

    “And who are YOU??” just had to say it . . .

    Seriously awesome, even more so than usua.

  4. PianoGirlAnn

    And to your blog post I write: Hell. Yes.

  5. Pingback: always look for the union label | Walk In Brain

  6. Pingback: Cross-blog event focuses on Minnesota Orchestra | EarRelevant

  7. Excellent, Emily! I could not agree more. Especially after the truly disgusting full page ad yesterday in the Mpls. Star Tribune in which the Board made it look like it’s been the musicians all along who’ve kept the negotiations from moving forward. Now all of a sudden, there’s this “urgency” to save the orchestra, save Osmo, save the future of the organization and only the musicians can make that happen by “cooperating” with the Board. Yuck.

  8. Amy

    The Minnesota Orchestra Hall Association will be just…so…puzzled by the end of the day.

  9. Performing Artist52

    Thank you Emily! The patrons have been ignored and have been placed in a very difficult situation when and if this is over. Do they support the musicians by attending concerts and lend financial support or do they say “Hell No!’ and refuse to attend concerts or lend financial support to stick it to the MOA which in turn will cause more harm to the musicians? The MOA has made this situation impossible.

  10. NYMike

    Emily, you have done yeoman service on this issued for more than a year.
    Thank you!

  11. Pingback: An Orchestra and its Community | Timothy Judd

  12. From Tom Peters blog of Baseball and Beethoven:-
    “There is no doubt that the situation in Minneapolis is something that neither the MOA nor the musicians want, but it exists nonetheless and must be addressed head-on by those onstage and those in the front office. It is my hope that the MOA management understands that the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra have the same goals as they do, and that 90 musician allies will go much further toward solving the Minnesota Orchestra’s crisis than 90 adversaries.

    So long as there is silence at Orchestra Hall, nobody wins.”

    At this late stage that really is the issue.
    I agree the board are politically inept. They have treated patrons, like my self abominably. I am now back on their mailing list by the way.
    As Alan Fletcher said however, “they are the board we have.”
    People, including those on this blog, now have to decide if the want to save the MO as the clock runs out.
    If the MO as we have known it is to be saved, it has to mean negotiations and discussion at break neck speed, between the MOA and the musicians starting tomorrow.
    I have no sense as to how people really want this to play out, MAO board, patrons and musicians. At this stage that is the only issue to be determined.
    I suspect in if there is no agreement in two weeks, to guarantee this season, and appear at Carnegie Hall, one of two things or both will happen.
    The musicians may mount a season, and try and form a new organization. As Alan Fletcher pointed out, this course has a negligible chance of success.
    The board will go ahead and hire musicians, and likely non union ones.
    Since they have the money, this has a much better chance of success, but certainly not a certainty.
    Don’t discount an orchestra of young players. I just watched the Mahler Youth Orchestra at the Proms a couple of days ago. These players are all under 26 years old. In my view they played at least at the level of the MO and gave among the best performances of the Ravel Piano concerto, and the Shostakovitch Symphony No. 5 I have ever heard.
    Jean-Yves Thibaudet, was effusive in his praise of the Orchestra.
    I have no idea if we have the pool of talented young players that Europe has.
    I would really like honesty, from all parties at this time. Do you want the Minnesota Orchestra as we know it to be saved?
    Unfortunately, I have a feeling that from one or two of the parties, the answer is no.
    If it is yes, there, has to be rapid compressed negotiations in good faith right away.
    We will not help stocking the sense of grievance of either party at this late stage. Anyone who indulges in this behavior at this time, must have answered no, to my question.

  13. Pingback: Minnesota Orchestra Musicians: Let Them Play! | Giocosity


  15. You are a treasure – thank you for your unflagging advocacy.

  16. osagegelder

    Do Wells Fargo and USBank have anything equivalent to patron advocates, or feel any need to address their customers as anything more than numbers? Do their corporate executives have any reason to extend such accessibility and openness in a situation that prioritizes bottom lines over community health or civic pride?
    In your well-chosen phrase, Emily—Hell, no.

  17. Huzzah! This is how so many of us feel.

  18. Concerned

    “It is the Board’s privilege and duty to serve as responsible fiduciaries for the Minnesota Orchestra. In many ways, we serve as advocates for Orchestra patrons [my bold] and our goal is to ensure that these patrons—you—have a sustainable orchestra for many years to come.”

    A sustainable orchestra for many years to come?! Seriously? At the rate they are going, the management are going to have to take it in turns to bring in their mp3 players to ‘hold concerts’ because they’ll be the only ones left getting payed to play in the new “Sustainable Orchestra” business model!

    I really don’t think board members have a clue as to how and why managing an orchestra organization is different from private sector business. The end product for one isn’t just for shareholders benefit, not that they aren’t important, but the enrichment of the entire community. It’s not about hoarding the benefits of success but about sharing it with as many people as you possibly can to enrich *their* lives in addition to your own.

    When it comes down to it, I guess we know where management stand and where the board stand – for opportunism, for getting paid no matter what, even if that means right now, as it stands, a group of 5 year olds could do a better job of doing nothing in public while throwing temper tantrums behind the scenes than they are. Limiting access for those who deign to disagree with them? Honestly? I take it back, 5 is clearly far too mature, maybe 2 is more like it.

    There should be a call to suspend any and all financial compensation to anyone currently getting paid in the MOA during the lockout until such time as the lockout is ended. Then, and only THEN, if they still want to go on about “Sustainability” of the orchestra’s financial model, so be it. Otherwise they have far too much growing up to do, with a shocking lack of hubris in (and subsequent lack of accountability for) their actions, to be taken in any way seriously when they publicly spout the nonsense they do about looking out for the best interests of anything remotely related to the Minnesota Orchestra.

    Sorry for the megabeast of a post (good blog entry, btw). The problem I’m having is that I wanted to *think* they *were* looking out for the best interests of the MOA. I honestly did. The longer this went on the more disillusioned I’ve become with regards to that though. The more angry I’ve gotten with myself for hoping what they were doing wasn’t motivated by shear incompetence, less greed even. They were supposed to be the leadership that kept the orch on top. The rally point to gather behind when *Everyone* was facing difficult times, decisions, and realities.

    But they are just not.

    And they’re becoming self evidently more and more so as more time passes and more and more of their duplicitous nature gets exposed.


  19. Jerry Lee Fischer

    Time for a march on Orchestra Hall!

    Lets organize a March from the North end of Nicollet mall to Orchestra Hall. With a petition being created demanding the present board and Henson resign. We need a marching band, a few actors dressed up as famous composers like Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner, Bach etc. as well as musicians, lyricists, composers, all who appreciate music regardless of the genera to participate.

    Can you imagine if any of the aforementioned composers were alive today what their comments would be? Maybe more than a few would say ‘ We were never paid as well as we should have been all of our lives and we will stand with the musicians of the Minnesota orchestra and say Not A Note! We won’t have our music played unless a fair and equitable solution is reached.’

    Seriously, present management and the board has really blown it here and there is now no way for them ever to save face or gain respect in the eyes and ears of the public whom they are supposed to serve, of the musicians whom they are supposed to encourage and of the audiences hearts who should be captured.

    A march on the hall might just tip the balance. 50,000 to 100,000 people should do it.

  20. Dexter Green

    The board’s financial calculations assume continued revenue from its endowment. An argument could be made — by the Minnesota Attorney General in her statutory role or by donors (or their descendants) — that gifts to the endowment were made with the expectation that they be used to support a first-tier orchestra. Henson’s stated decision (in an MPR interview) to maintain a second-tier orchestra or, as will happen when attendance drops and the orchestra folds, only a performance hall, could create the opportunity if not the requirement to distribute all or part of the endowment to organizations that more closely carry out the donors’ intentions. For example, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. The board would find itself not only without an orchestra but with a venue it cannot maintain. This very real possibility might be pressed upon the board as an incentive to settle the current dispute.

  21. Dexter Green

    Also. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts received in its last fiscal year $11 million from the citizens of Hennepin County. The vehicle for their contribution is the Park Museum Fund, a tax levy established by statute on the county’s real property. The amount of the levy can be changed by legislative action. A levy to benefit the Minnesota Orchestra is as easily created. Has the Minnesota Orchestra’s board considered this option?

  22. MichaelD

    It seems obvious that the current orchestra, in any world-class form, is doomed. The management’s apparent intent is to chase away the best musicians and conductors, and continue with what the lowest amount of money possible will get.

    The will never be another moment like this. Someone needs to start a movement for a NEW Minnesota Orchestra, a good one, with top performers and a good conductor. I bet many of the old patrons are ready for something to happen, and could be lured away to a new, non-dysfunctional board, and a new, quality band, composed of real musicians, not the lowest, cheapest level of almost-non-professionals that the old MSA seems intent on having in their orchestra.

    There are many areas that have more than one orchestra. The current group is being well-positioned to be second-rate. There’s room at the top like there will probably never again be. What’s everyone waiting for?

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