On Friday, representatives of Save Our Symphony Minnesota (SOSMN), along with a few dozen of their closest friends, came together on very short notice to rally outside Minneapolis’s Hall.
That evening, as the lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra musicians entered its twelfth month, the Minnesota Orchestral Association hosted an exclusive “Private Patron Party” in the brand new $50 million lobby. (You can see the white table and chairs set up above the “Orchestra Hall” sign.) If you paid $750 or more for a ticket to September 20th’s Symphony Ball, you also gained entrance to the Private Patron Party. On Friday night, the Private Patrons came via glass climate-controlled skyways, looked down on the plebian “malcontents” (as one party-goer called the crowd in the Minneapolis Star Tribune comment section), and continued onto their exclusive soiree.
The SOSMN event was not meant to disturb the party. (Trust me, SOSMN would have planned things very differently if disturbing the party had been the goal.) Rather, the event was meant to raise awareness of the situation, give supporters a way to network and make their voices heard, and inform the board that the community cares about this orchestra, desperately, and that we are ready and willing to have a substantive two-way conversation about what the audience can do to help, and what we think the board needs to do differently. Over the past eleven months, zero meaningful interaction has occurred between the community and board. The vast majority of the public’s emails, phone calls, and letters have gone unanswered. Therefore, many reasonable, level-headed patrons have come together, talked, and agreed that an energetic physical presence outside the hall is the next logical step to take in an attempt to engage with MOA leadership.
Well, Minnesota Orchestra CEO Michael Henson had something to say about this most recent development.
“We hope that Orchestra musicians and the volunteer groups expressing support for musicians will join our fundraising efforts rather than protest them.”
Okay. I’ll bypass the obvious question: when did it become okay to passive-aggressively ask people to fundraise for an organization they obviously have no trust in? I’ll also bypass the observation that many of the people demonstrating on the sidewalk were generous donors to the MOA pre-lockout, and are eager to donate even more after the lockout is lifted…if they only could engage in dialogue with and trust the people at the top. But like I said, I’ll bypass those obvious questions and go to the next one…
Michael Henson: how do you want me to “join” your $750-a-person fundraising party? Seriously. Go into my checking account and tell me how I’m supposed to make that work. I’ll give financially – and I’ll give what is, for me, generously – but based on your words and actions from the past eleven months, I’m getting the vibe that that the most I can give won’t matter. There were donors out on the sidewalk who have given a lot more than I’ll ever be able to, and you clearly don’t want to talk to them, so why would you want to “join” in fundraising with me? (For those who don’t remember, Michael Henson was not among the handful of board members who came to the neutral Grammy celebration concert in February, which was sponsored by the mayor and the Orchestra’s largest donor of all, Judy Dayton…despite the fact they were specifically invited.) If you don’t want to join with Judy Dayton, who has given millions upon millions of dollars to the Orchestra, why would you want to join with us? Are you, in effect, saying there is no place in the Orchestra family for me, or for any of the other people at that rally that could not afford to buy a ticket to that party?
I’ll say it out loud: I’m POOR. The P-word. I have multiple chronic health issues that, barring extraordinary medical advances, I will die with. Consequently I’ll never be able to hold down a traditional full-time job. I will never ever be wealthy. (Despite this, I gave a pretty big chunk of my income to the orchestra during the 2011-2012 season…in fact, if public records are any indication, a larger chunk than many leading board members…)
If you want to discount contributions, ideas, and opinions from people who can’t afford to buy $750 a person tickets for Private Parties, and if you want to view Orchestra Hall as nothing more than a glitzy playground for the uber-wealthy, then be brave, and be honest, and come out and say so! Make that case to Minnesota and to the world, that orchestra patrons’ concerns should be ignored because they can’t buy $750 a plate dinners. Try to square that sentiment with your Strategic Plan (which commands you to “serve” the community). Tell that to the spirit of generous democratic philanthropists who founded this mighty institution. And most importantly of all, next time there’s a rally of devoted patrons outside Hall, step outside into the heat and tell it to their faces.
If that thought triggers hesitation…as it should…let me propose an alternative viewpoint. It may be that I – and many others – are of no use to you, assuming you’re only concerned about those who can afford to pay $750 a plate. But. We can raise something else for you. We’ll raise ideas. We’ll idearaise. We’ll use our brains, our experiences, our connections in the worlds of the arts, the humanities, and education. We’ll serve as conduits to reach out to the people who stand to benefit the most from an orchestra. We’ll all pull together and employ our unique strengths to create a vibrant, inclusive organization…and that in turn will help the orchestra’s fiscal stability. I’d be happy to volunteer time and energy to brainstorm how orchestras could and should use blogs and social media. (Heaven knows the MOA needs some tutoring on this subject.) Others can be part of a team to launch a vigorous community-wide fundraising effort to raise musicians’ salaries. Another reader can launch some kind of resource to make the orchestra more accessible to music teachers and their students. The Young Musicians of Minnesota (YMM) kids could design and create a unique groundbreaking program to make our audience the youngest, and best educated, in the United States: luring in the donors of the future. And those are only the first few ideas that come to mind. There’s so much more. Think of all the resources the people on that sidewalk have that aren’t financial. And think how expensive it is for you not to tap into them. Think of how expensive it is to treat them so dismissively.
Yes, I admit it’s true: with a lot of ideas and no money, organizations will collapse. But the same fate will befall an organization with lots of money and no ideas. And right now, the MOA is bankrupt in the ideas department. A year-long lockout doesn’t happen without someone hitting an intellectual dead end somewhere. Remember, the MOA isn’t just running a financial deficit. It is running an ideas deficit…not to mention a trust deficit, and a good-will deficit. Those other deficits may prove, in the end, to be even more damaging than the financial ones. To be blunt, the people on the sidewalk deserve respect and an honest debate and conversation.
Yes, we need the wealthy men and women of Minnesota to give, and to give generously. We need the Private Party-goers if we’re going to fund a world-class orchestra in Minneapolis. But the orchestra won’t be a worthwhile return on investment for them without the work of the common man whose specialty is idearaising. Simple as that.