8 Non-Profit Lessons From The Minnesota Orchestra’s Cuba Tour

The Minnesota Orchestra recently returned from a groundbreaking trip to Cuba. It was the first time an American orchestra had performed there since the process of normalizing relations began in December 2014. It was also the Minnesota Orchestra standing up on the international stage and saying, in a particularly badass way, we’re back, baby.

Lots of people who were lucky enough to be on the trip have been sharing their ideas about what the week meant. We’re all still digesting. But the people on the ground in Cuba weren’t the only ones to come away with exciting new perspectives. Eight big ideas keep repeatedly swishing around my brain like Caribbean waves along the shore…

You too can recover from disaster, because damn the Minnesota Orchestra is back in business. Their performance of the Eroica in particular was probably the greatest I’ve ever heard of that piece. It certainly far, far outstripped the intensity of their live performances I heard in April 2015 and July 2012. The Eroica was also the first symphony they played after the lockout ended in February 2014, and the difference between the two performances was mind-boggling. Can this orchestra play even better? Oh, I’m sure. But do they currently stand with the great ensembles of the world? F-, yeah. Give them a few more years and I have no doubt whatsoever that the lockout will recede into organizational history, eclipsed by fresh artistic triumphs from a new era.

One-on-one interaction is beyond priceless. Look at this photo gallery and tell me otherwise.

Twitter is an amazing tool to use during big live events to cement connections with readers and patrons. I associate Twitter more with political live-blogging or passive-aggressive celebrity feuds, but it actually works really well for documenting big live events like this tour. I’m still split about the idea of “Tweet seats.” But for a radio broadcast, where I was holed up in my bedroom and my furious typing wasn’t bothering anyone, it was a marvelous format. (And I definitely understand the appeal of Tweet seats now way more than I did.) I gained lots of new followers and had some truly meaningful exchanges with readers, including the official Classical MPR and Minnesota Orchestra accounts. That loops back to my preceding point.

At big events, non-profits need to employ someone whose main responsibility is creating content for social media. The Cuba trip was unique in that not all the responsibility for documentation was laid on the Minnesota Orchestra’s staff, since many major media outlets were toting along their own photographers and videographers. But the lesson still stands. All of my friends are sharing the Cuba pictures with all of their friends, and I have no doubt all their friends are, too. I wish it was possible to convert the value of that increased enthusiasm and engagement into dollars. But I have to believe the Orchestra at least broke even on the $1 million that Marilyn Carlson Nelson and her husband invested into this tour. Maybe even more than that, because a lot of the positive experiences we had cannot be bought…since they’re not for sale.

Speaking of which….

The greatest work of non-profits is, at the end of the day, not about the bottom line. There was a group of us who argued passionately during the Minnesota Orchestra lockout that the worst thing to do would be to regard the Orchestra’s bottom line as its sole metric of success. I hate to say I told you so, but… (Haha, KIDDING. I don’t hate saying that at all. I TOLD YOU SO.)

In future, all orchestras need to employ musician-writers the caliber of Rena Kraut and Sam Bergman. Click here to read a Rena entry; click here to read one from Sam. Yes, finding others with their talents may be a tall order, but it needs to happen. Rena and Sam’s accounts of their trip brought on countless of tears and bonded many hundreds of hearts closer to the Orchestra. I have to believe there are equally talented writers at every American orchestra who would be willing to step up to the plate. (I don’t know how – or if – it could work, practically speaking, but… If there were two candidates for a position in a major American orchestra, their musical abilities roughly equal, and one was a ridiculously talented writer, or photographer, or interviewer, or podcaster, or whatever, you might just want to go with the candidate whose talents extend beyond music-making.) (Might this be a way for young musicians to distinguish themselves as competitors in a particularly cutthroat marketplace? How do we train young artists to write well, and whose responsibility is it to teach them?)

Crowd-funded arts journalism is a potential game-changer. Yes, blogger Scott Chamberlain had the chance of a lifetime to go on the Cuba tour after readers chipped in several thousand dollars to get him there, but he also had quite the responsibility: he couldn’t disappoint the people who had given him that money with the expectation of top-notch writing. Because those people were, in large part, his friends. Of course, he disappointed no one. The roaring success of his coverage brings up an interesting question: what comes next in the field of entrepreneurial arts journalism? If a blogger can finance a trip to Cuba…can a writer make a part-time job out of creating online content about classical music? A full-time job? Soon somebody is going to try. And I’m excited to watch content creators (I don’t like the limiting term “bloggers” in this particular context) push the envelope even further. We will all learn a lot about our art from the successes and failures that lie ahead. I’m not saying that crowd-funding is a magic bullet, especially if / when the marketplace becomes saturated. But it could be a potent weapon nonetheless.

When you’re recovering from institutional trauma, one healing tactic is to find a big goal and go for it. I’m thinking about the Atlanta Symphony in particular. They’re in a process of real institutional flux right now. They’re searching for a new CEO and trying to establish an identity of stability and relevance. I’m wondering if the best thing they could do right now is spearhead a major artistic project. Easy for me to say that, obviously; I have zero idea what that project could be. The Cuba idea, for instance, never would have occurred to me, which is why I write about the arts and don’t administer them. But I think the incoming Atlanta Symphony president, whoever he or she may be, should find one. Atlanta needs (and deserves) a “Cuba moment.”

So let’s take a moment to appreciate what Minnesota Orchestra CEO Kevin Smith and board Vice Chair Marilyn Carlson Nelson accomplished here. They acted boldly and smartly, and they refused to act out of a place of timidity or fear. I’ve learned a valuable lesson from them both. The best way to bond a group of people together is to work toward a major goal, all together. The board gave their money. The musicians gave their talent. The staff gave their time and expertise. And together they created something far more valuable than what any one group could have accomplished on its own. And consequently, lots of healing took place. Caveat: you must be reasonably sure you can achieve your major goal. If any number of things had derailed the Cuba tour, then… Well, let’s not go there. But the potential rewards were obviously worth the risk.

Those were my big takeaways from this extraordinary weekend that all Minnesota Orchestra lovers were privileged to share.

What were yours?

***

2 Comments

Filed under Minnesota Orchestra, The Orchestra Business

2 responses to “8 Non-Profit Lessons From The Minnesota Orchestra’s Cuba Tour

  1. Thank you, Emily, for the beautiful and cogent summary of points that are right on the mark related to the Minnesota Orchestra’s unique and miraculous return to a robust and invigorated state after standing at the edge of the abyss.

    This story is THE story, in my opinion, for musicians of all ages in this time of transition in the Classical music world. The emphasis everywhere, and certainly in higher education where I work, is on “innovation and entrepreneurship” —two words that have become as overused and meaningless as “excellence.” It is tempting to see what the orchestra did as innovative, and the use of Twitter, among other things, was, indeed, brilliant. But as I listened to the live streaming broadcasts from Cuba, as I had listened to Maestro Skrowaczewski and the orchestra in Beethoven’s Eroica in February in their historic return to Orchestra Hall, I realized again that the true accomplishment of the orchestra through this entire challenge from the corporate view of music as a product is that the musicians and their musical leaders held to the idea that music is a gift. They remembered:

    “That art that matters to us—which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience—that work is received by us as a gift is received. Even if we have paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us which has nothing to do with the price.” [Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World]

    And, in my opinion, the source of this inspired return to the real reason that we all need music was the sense of community that the orchestra developed from living through a period of uncertainty and extreme stress TOGETHER, as you so rightly note. The real innovation that we should teach is that when a group of people are drawn together in community, there is nothing that they cannot do. And when they happen to be extraordinary musicians, you can expect something wonderful.

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