Yesterday I got a call from Minnesota Orchestra bass player Kathryn Nettleman. (Well, Kate Nettleman. It feels weird to call our Kate “Kathryn.”) She wanted to make sure I heard about the big news.
The Minnesota Orchestra has had a lot of big news lately. In January 2014, the sixteen-month lockout of musicians ended. The CEO and board chair departed. Former music director Osmo Vänskä, who had resigned during the lockout, was re-hired. He married concertmaster Erin Keefe, who had been a leading candidate for the New York Philharmonic concertmaster seat. She decided to stay in Minnesota. The organization hired a new temporary CEO, Kevin Smith, who quickly became a long-term CEO. Recording sessions started up again. The third disc in the Grammy-winning Sibelius cycle was finished, and we’re waiting on the release date now. There was a trip to Cuba, planned and executed in record time. Then within a few days of the orchestra’s return to America, it was announced that musician contracts had been negotiated two years ahead of schedule (with modest raises), and that Osmo himself had signed on until at least 2019. Major multi-million dollar gifts were announced. The organization just posted its first surplus in a while (using a prudent endowment draw rate, no less).
If you take a step back, you realize what a veritable barrage of good news there has been here lately. Apparently we’re living in an era of sparkly unicorn rainbows. Thanks to a spirit of collaboration and mutual respect, the Minnesota Orchestra is proving that it is an organization on the move.
But Kate was calling me with even more big news to share. I didn’t know what to expect. Some kind of series devoted to the history of women in music? The construction of the Kevin Smith Room within Orchestra Hall, from which Kevin is never allowed to leave? (He would be fed well.) The first orchestra tour to the moon? After the past two years, nothing seems impossible.
As she spoke, I realized that one vestige of the lockout still remains: the musicians’ independent 501c3. This was the organization that the musicians used to self-produce concerts during the lockout.
“We’re dissolving it,” Kate said.
I felt a squeeze of the heart at her words. Don’t get me wrong. I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the Minnesota Orchestral Association nowadays. But I’m sentimental, and back in the day, lots of time and energy (and money) was put into that 501c3. Look in the blog archives. To provide some context, two years ago, lots of patrons were telling the musicians to resign en masse and form their own full-time orchestra, maybe using that organization as a springboard. As recently as the summer of 2015, the musicians were using the 501c3 to produce their own programming. That programming included the ambitious Symphonic Adventures series (self-organized concerts by full orchestra presented in area high schools), as well as “Sensory Friendly” concerts for people with disabilities.
So. The organization that put on all those concerts is dissolving.
But! The 501c3 is not going gently into that good night. The $250,000 left in its coffers – money raised during the lockout via donations and ticket sales – is going toward the creation of the new Bellwether Fund, which will exist under the auspices of the Minnesota Orchestral Association. According to the press release, the Bellwether Fund will “help underwrite education and community programming that is aligned with the mission of the musicians’ former 501c3 ‘to inspire an ever-widening audience to seek a lifelong relationship with great symphonic music’ and to use engaging programs to ‘increase access and deepen connections among musicians, the community and the Minnesota Orchestra.'” Another quote from the press release: “A committee of musicians will oversee the Bellwether Fund and decide how funds will be allocated, collaborating with management to implement projects.” In future, the Symphonic Adventures and the Sensory Friendly concerts will be presented by the Minnesota Orchestral Association.
As best I know, this is a unique (and uniquely innovative) development in the orchestra world. It brings the favorite buzzwords of CEOs and arts consultants – words like community, service, and education – to actual, practical life. And it does so in a very concrete, get-‘er-done Midwestern way.
The more I thought about it, the more upsides I saw.
- This donation, as well as the partnership resulting from it, sends a potent message to the community. The musicians are saying loud and clear: “Don’t worry. We are done with labor unrest for another generation, at least. When we praise our management, we are not just giving cynical lip service. The doors of communication and collaboration are open, and we are grateful.”
- This development also sends a potent message to donors. The musicians are giving everything they have. Literally. If any donors (individual or corporate) have expressed doubts as to the wisdom of investing in the Minnesota Orchestra, this move should effectively erase those doubts.
- It garnered good press! Bad news is always more interesting than good news. (Trust me, blog entries in which I b*tch are always exponentially more popular than ones in which I praise.) I guess the secret is to make your good news interesting. The Cuba trip, for instance, was good and interesting, and consequently journalists covered it. The Bellwether Fund is also interesting, and, like Cuba, it has gotten good press from a variety of outlets. Press coverage is important. People talking about what you’re doing is important.
- It inaugurates an era of innovative musician-management partnership. This new fund and project is a bit like a Moibus strip: where does management end and musicians begin? Here, divisions that do not serve the art or the community are discarded. Ego and politics are put aside. Everyone benefits.
- It provides an example to other orchestras going through labor turmoil of their own. Allow me to list the platitudes I’ve learned. Things can get better. Things can get better quickly. Leadership is key. Yes, the Bellwether Fund is an extreme example, but it also provides a potential road map for musicians stuck in dysfunctional organizations on how to move their energies from deconstructing to reconstructing. Maybe it is possible for disgruntled musicians to build something up independently and then, provided certain conditions are met, work to fold it back into the original organization. We’ll see if any other groups take this tack, or if Minnesota was just unique. (Minnesota may have been unique.)
- It underlines the importance of musicians having a substantive say in organizational direction.
- The Bellwether Fund is yet another important initiative that differentiates Minnesota from the other great American orchestras. Once a job has been won, musician career advancement obviously tends to be limited. Maybe opportunities to help direct the art off-stage will increase the Minnesota Orchestra’s already considerable appeal as a destination orchestra. This orchestra is sending a message: we want first-rate musicians AND citizens to join us. From there, surely excellence feeds excellence.
- It provides a touching tribute to late orchestra advocate Lee Henderson, who passed away at the age of 59 on the eve of the orchestra’s game-changing trip to Cuba. Lee was on the front lines of reconstruction, and we all owe him. The Bellwether Fund is a lovely way to see his legacy live on.
All that being said…
Obviously the musicians’ gift was huge and unexpected news. But the development that surprised me the most came later in the afternoon. I was waiting for a bus and mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed. I saw a post directed at a friend: “You coy thing, you!” What? And then I read, and I gasped.
The Minnesota Orchestral Association has invited MaryAnn Goldstein to join their board of directors.
As in, my MaryAnn Goldstein. As in, MaryAnn Goldstein who founded Save Our Symphony Minnesota. My indefatigable golden-hearted conference call and brunch partner. My reader. My MaryAnn Goldstein, who once ranted to me: “How do people get on the MOA board? We don’t even know!”
A founder of an audience advocacy group is officially on the board of a major American orchestra.
Someone go back and time and tell me.
No, wait. I don’t want to ruin the surprise.
[Edit: Pamela Espeland herself pointed out to me on Facebook, Paula DeCosse is also on this list! Paula DeCosse is one of the founding forces behind another important advocacy group, Orchestrate Excellence, as is MOA board member Laurie Greeno… I should have mentioned Paula and Laurie and the OX crew in my first draft of this entry, but better an edit than never! That will teach me to write quickly before a rehearsal!]
So I think it’s safe to say: it’s really, truly over now. This gift was the ending I didn’t know we needed. In her MinnPost coverage, Pamela Espeland reported this lovely Kevin Smith quote: “A year from now, we will reconvene to review this current fiscal year. I’m not sure what my remarks will be, but I can assure you there will be no reference to the lockout or our post-lockout history.”
I agree with him. But I won’t deny it: my heart squeezes reading his words. Why? Because I don’t want to forget the Minnesota Orchestra lockout. I don’t want to forget the lessons learned (they’re relevant to other institutions now). I don’t want to forget the example of teamwork, selflessness, and good humor. I don’t want to forget the hard work or dedication. I certainly don’t want to forget the friendships forged during that time. (I can’t.) But maybe now I can see the lockout and all of the things associated with it as a memory: a formative adventure, now firmly in the past, and merely the beginning.
My bloggy brother Scott Chamberlain also featured coverage of the gift and its ramifications here.