In case you didn’t know it yet, the Minnesota Orchestra lockout and the Atlanta Symphony lockout are following eerily parallel courses.
Some of the Minnesota folks likely aren’t following the ins and outs of the Atlanta story, while some of the Atlanta folks probably don’t know how much of this s*** has been pulled before. So I think it’s time to assess our shared history. The more patrons know, the more powerful we are.
First, a disclaimer. A lot of the terrible things the Minnesota Orchestra did during the lockout, they’re not doing anymore. The more inclusive leadership style of new board chair Gordon Sprenger and interim CEO Kevin Smith has been working wonders. Leadership is key. There is still a long way to go to rebuild trust, and any number of things could derail the (rather miraculous) progress made so far. But at least we’re headed in the right direction. I feel that’s an important disclaimer to make, because I have zero interest in rehashing a painful past for no reason. At the same time, I feel it’s important for people to know what happened.
So in the interest of bringing the Minnesota and Atlanta communities together, and educating those new to modern orchestral labor disputes, here are ten major similarities between the two lockouts. My longtime readers can doubtless add more in the comment section.
SECRET MISSION STATEMENT CHANGE!
As an open letter on the Atlanta Symphony Chorus blog says:
On May 11, 2011, the WAC’s Board of Trustees voted to revise its Articles of Incorporation, eliminating the ASO from its stated purpose.
Yep. Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt. In a Minnesota Orchestra strategic plan dating from November 2011, the board revealed a new mission statement:
“The Minnesota Orchestral Association inspires, educates and serves our community through internationally recognized performances of exceptional music delivered within a sustainable financial structure.”
In other words, the board wrote the orchestra out of the mission statement, thereby opening the door to the MOA becoming nothing more than a presenting organization and operator of Orchestra Hall.
This radical change – done in secret and without public notice or input – raised musicians’ and patrons’ ire. The subject was even addressed in the press by an MOA board member in December 2012. It took a long time, but on 27 August 2013, the MOA reverted to its old mission statement, with a bullet point added about fiscal sustainability. This backtrack occurred at the height of the Domaingate kerfuffle that led to the rapid growth of Save Our Symphony Minnesota. I still don’t know if that was coincidence or not.
For the curious, the current statement can be found on the Minnesota Orchestra’s website.
CONTROVERSIAL BUILDING PROJECTS IN THE LEAD-UP TO LOCKOUTS!
Once again, from the Atlanta Symphony Chorus blog:
The down-grading of the WAC’s credit rating was consistently cited as a major reason for demanding concessions from the ASO in spite of the fact that the down-grading was chiefly a result of the debt incurred by the WAC in building the Verizon Amphitheater.
Been there, done that, bought the $50 million T-shirt.
In Minnesota, the $50 million 2012-13 renovation of Orchestra Hall, including $14 million of state taxpayer bonding money, was such a priority for the board that they planned balanced budgets and deficits four years in advance to aid their fundraising efforts. In September 2009, Bryan Ebensteiner, the MOA’s VP of Finance, was actually quoted in board minutes as saying, “Balances in 2009 and 2010 would support our state bonding aspirations, while the deficits in 2011 and 2012 would demonstrate the need to reset the business model.” “Reset the business model” means, of course, sharp cuts in musician compensation.
Something else unfortunate that happened during the renovation fundraising campaign was that unrestricted donations for general operations suffered. One of my guest bloggers wrote here back in November 2012:
Unrestricted gifts decreased by close to $750,000 in three years, or almost 25%. I wondered whether focusing on the campaign would have a dampening effect on general, or annual, contributions. We can’t say for certain, but it’s tempting to think that the same effort for the Orchestra as a whole would have eased or erased the deficit.
In both Atlanta and Minnesota, you could argue that building projects weakened the organization’s finances ahead of pivotal negotiations.
BONUSES IN THE LEAD-UP TO LOCKOUTS!
The Atlanta Symphony Chorus blog again:
[CEO] Stanley Romanstein received a reported $45,000 bonus from the WAC for his good work the preceding year. Others at the WAC also received substantial bonuses.
Been there, done that, bought the $202,500 T-shirt.
Yep, Minnesota Orchestra CEO Michael Henson was paid $202,500 in bonuses between September 2011 and August 2012. (The lockout began in October 2012.) The revelation caused a bit of a scandal, and his compensation was one of the reasons he lost community support.
Thankfully Henson and Romanstein are now both gone from their respective organizations.
COMPLAINTS ABOUT MARKETING!
There has been no evidence that the people who are in positions of marketing and development at the ASO have any experience in the arts or any real interest in the music itself.
Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt…sort of.
I say “sort of” because I don’t think there was any accusation of the MOA marketing staff not being interested in music, at least that I heard. But we did have a similar problem in that at the start of the recession, the orchestra’s marketing budget was cut by 27%. No doubt combined with other factors, this helped lead to a 17% decrease in ticket revenue from FY2009 to FY2011.
Things have now changed. Widely respected Minnesota Orchestra interim CEO Kevin Smith recently said at a community meeting:
The marketing budget has been increased. “You are going to see a visual outdoor image that you haven’t seen before.” Starting next month, watch for orchestra ads on buses, at transit stops, and on banners around downtown Minneapolis.
And it’s true. When I was on Minneapolis light rail in September, I sat down and saw a picture of the orchestra in the ad above my head. I was so excited I uploaded a picture of it to Facebook.
DECREASED NUMBER OF CONCERTS AND DECLINING REVENUE!
Unfortunately, these combined efforts did not compensate for a continued decline in overall attendance and accompanying revenue.
I’m assuming that at least part of the reason the Atlanta Symphony is seeing a decline in attendance is because in the last contract they decreased the number of weeks the musicians play. If an orchestra plays fewer concerts, it might save some money on expenses, but it will also bring in less revenue.
And guess what? Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt.
Michael Henson had a theory. He thought that if he reduced the number of concerts the Minnesota Orchestra gave, he could ultimately save money; in essence, he believed you could cut your way to prosperity. This theory even had a fancy name: it was called “scoping concert series to align supply and demand.” In fact, this philosophy was so prominent, it was one of the five pillars of the plan that the MOA presented to the state legislature when seeking money for the hall renovation (see page 23 of this PDF from the Legislative Auditor).
Unfortunately, earned revenue plummeted during Henson’s 2008-2014 tenure, a trend that was exacerbated by the recession.
Nowadays, the Minnesota Orchestra’s pendulum of philosophy is swinging in the opposite direction. They’re presenting 24 subscription weeks now instead of 16. It’s an ambitious gamble, and by the spring we should get a better idea of if this artistically well-advised decision was also economically well-advised.
HISTORICALLY OUTSPOKEN MUSIC DIRECTORS!
The ASO’s music director Robert Spano and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles both wrote a letter to stakeholders in September 2014, saying that the second lockout was threatening the organization: “There are artistic lines that cannot and must not be crossed.”
Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt with Osmo’s face on it.
Esteemed Minnesota music director Osmo Vänskä was seen at various musicians’ concerts throughout the lockout, suggested tacit support of their cause. In February 2013 he conducted a neutral concert meant to commemorate the Orchestra’s Grammy nomination. The event was spearheaded by the mayor of Minneapolis and major donor Judy Dayton…and MOA board and administrative leadership pointedly did not show up at it. Later that year, Osmo threatened to resign if his Carnegie Hall concerts were canceled. Surprise, surprise: they were. Immediately after Osmo’s resignation, he conducted the locked-out musicians in a historic weekend of concerts in October 2013. After the settlement, he also made it clear that if the board wanted him back, it would have to reconsider keeping Michael Henson and his philosophies aboard.
Osmo’s honesty was ultimately rewarded. Henson has left and Osmo has returned as the Minnesota Orchestra music director for at least the next two seasons (and there are more than a few audience members who want him to sign on for longer).
In October 2012 there was also a historic letter that appeared in the Star Tribune, in which three former music directors condemned the lockout in the strongest possible terms: “An orchestra does not recover easily, from such drastic cuts, if ever.” Despite their rebelliousness in signing that very public letter, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and Edo de Waart both appear on Minnesota Orchestra subscription seasons this season.
Lots of people were surprised at how quickly the flustered moderators of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Facebook page snapped at the slightest hint of criticism and shut down all public commentary.
Well… I knew before the Atlanta lockout even started to Always Screenshot, because I’ve been there, done that, bought the T-shirt.
Basically the same thing happened in Minnesota, just on a longer time table. Not all of our comments were deleted (although some were!), but eventually everything patrons wrote on their wall disappeared into the black cyber-void. I wrote an entry about that here.
(Orchestral Facebook wars, however, weren’t actually pioneered by Minnesotans; they originated with the rabble-rousers of Detroit during the Detroit Symphony strike of 2010-11, as this NPR article notes.)
WEIRD ACCUSATIONS OF A POWERFUL UNION!
In Atlanta, Woodruff Arts Center CEO Virginia Hepner just claimed:
The national musicians’ union believes it can divide and conquer and then intimidate our boards into imprudent decisions through its acrimony and misrepresentations. This has been their go-to tactic in labor negotiations for decades. We will not give in to those efforts.
Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt. Just a few months ago, MOA board member (indeed, current executive committee member) Doug Kelley claimed in an interview with online publication MinnPost:
The union did give us some, and then said, “no more.”…
What we didn’t anticipate was that the union was going to take a stance and make Minnesota a test case for the industry.
ADDENDUM: And Scott Chamberlain just offered another even weirder Doug Kelley quote I’d forgotten about… From November 2013:
I think the reason that Minnesota is such a battleground is because the International union has said they are really trying to change the business model in Minnesota and we can’t let that happen.
Notice that both Hepner and Kelley refer to the musicians as The Union instead of…well, as the musicians. Because the people negotiating were the musicians. As an example, Tim Zavadil, the chair of the Minnesota musicians’ negotiating committee, is a clarinet player. His biography actually notes that he lives in a Minneapolis suburb with his wife and three kids and “a cockapoo.” This is not a man heading up a shadowy national cabal. And I highly doubt Tim’s equivalent in Atlanta, Paul Murphy, is much scarier. I mean, dude’s a violist. Damn. If the board’s that afraid of a violist, they’ve got problems way bigger than closing their organization’s deficit.
On September 12, a Facebook page sprang up: Save Our Symphony Atlanta. As of this writing, they’re almost to 9200 likes. Scroll down and read the wide variety of comments from patrons and music lovers who feel neglected and disrespected, distrustful of the story they’re hearing coming from Atlanta management.
Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt…and the domain name.
In Minnesota in the early summer of 2013, a group of my readers felt the exact same way. Sensing how increasingly dire the situation in Minnesota was becoming, they got together to form Save Our Symphony Minnesota. (Two other audience advocacy groups had also formed by this time: Orchestrate Excellence and Young Musicians of Minnesota.) We were thinking of naming our organization Save Our Minnesota Orchestra, but that domain name had been bought…by the Minnesota Orchestral Association, a revelation which led to the orchestral scandal Domaingate. Ultimately we wanted to follow the example of Save Our Symphony Detroit, a patron advocacy group which formed during the 2010-11 strike.
At first SOSMN was completely ignored by the Minnesota Orchestra leadership. But then conversations began to occur with board members, and within a matter of months, SOSMN was being praised in an official Minnesota Orchestra press release. Patrons and board members are now learning to work hand-in-hand. It took time, leadership change, organizational change, mutual respect, hard work, and love for the institution to get to that point, but it happened. If it can happen here, there’s a chance it can happen anywhere.
It’s unclear from the outside what exactly is happening with federal mediation in Atlanta, but right now, things do not look promising. This article from October 24 reads:
After three weeks of federally mediated contract negotiations, talks between Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians and ASO and Woodruff Arts Center administrators again appear near impasse.
Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.
In the summer of 2013, the Minnesota Orchestra thought about using Sen. George Mitchell as a mediator. Yep, the same guy who helped bring peace to Northern Ireland. Mitchell suggested a sort of play-and-talk proposal to be used for a few months while he facilitated negotiations. The musicians agreed to this, but the management dismissed it, since it would cause them to “lose leverage.”
This failed mediation was one of many triggers that brought the situation to a boiling point. Local and state political pressure weighed heavy, and eventually a compromise was reached and an organizational housecleaning began. Ironically, the Minnesota Orchestra probably would have gotten a deal more favorable to them – certainly less disruptive on the administrative level – had they accepted Mitchell’s proposal.
These are only ten of the ways the two lockouts are similar. Seriously, I could go on. And on. And on.
I bring these similarities up for a couple reasons…
First, those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Therefore, I urge Atlanta audiences to study the history of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout. Connect with one another, speak out, write, express your concerns, and lobby people in power in whatever way possible. Do not become disinterested. And I urge Minnesotan audiences to have the Atlantans’ backs, to offer support, and to stay informed. Everyone should donate to the Atlanta Musicians. It really is the same battle, just in another city.
Second, if we managed to make so much progress in Minnesota while facing so many of the same impediments… Who’s to say that Atlanta won’t eventually overcome, either? A lot of very smart people said the Minnesota Orchestra was dead, and for quite a long time. It’s not over until it’s over. The most important thing in a seemingly hopeless situation like this is to keep hope alive. Indeed, once that dies, there’s nothing left.