Faced with a strike that threatened the Minnesota Orchestra’s 1994 season, arts philanthropist Kenneth Dayton played a key role in ending the walkout after just 2½ weeks.

Now fast-forward to 2013 — a decade after Dayton’s death — and try to name a civic leader who could help broker a settlement in the bitter orchestra dispute that threatens not only the orchestra’s current season but its very future.

Kenneth Dayton’s greatest generation of Minnesota arts and business leaders is largely gone. But one notable Dayton family member remains a powerful figure in the state: Gov. Mark Dayton.

Much as St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman recently brokered a deal ending the 191-day standoff at the smaller St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO), we urge the governor to use the influence of his office to prevent a catastrophe at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.

The Minnesota Orchestra is a cultural asset worth protecting, and the lockout — now in its eighth month — has become an embarrassment for the state’s arts community. If the dysfunction continues into a second season, it could destroy an ensemble that’s been described as among the world’s best.

We’re not suggesting that Dayton personally negotiate the terms of a settlement. He has a legislative session to complete, and his prolabor leanings would put some on guard.

But the governor can use his bully pulpit to make the stakes clear to Minnesotans and urge the two sides to get back to the table before it’s too late. If the two camps are open to further mediation, Dayton could call upon a trusted, impartial community leader or leaders to fill that role. Names such as Arne Carlson and Walter Mondale come to mind.

Admittedly, the business-model challenges the orchestra faces today are more difficult than they were in 1994, when negotiations broke down over the size of pay increases rather than wage and benefit cuts.

Today, orchestras across the country are facing the reality that support from paying customers and donors is eroding as competition is growing and costs are rising.

Despite its artistic success, the Minnesota Orchestra recorded deficits of $2.9 million in fiscal 2011 and $6 million in 2012, and its board has cited a need to cut $5 million in labor costs. The musicians have countered that management has failed to work with them to expand the kind of community outreach that could attract new patrons and donors.

The lockout started Oct. 1, when musicians rejected management’s first contract proposal calling for a 32 percent cut in annual minimum salaries. Negotiators have only met once since — on Jan. 2 — and the musicians have not made a formal counteroffer. (The issues at the heart of the dispute — pay, benefits and work rules — have been thoroughly reported by the Star Tribune’s Graydon Royce.)

Meanwhile, across the river, this week SPCO musicians ratified a three-year deal that cuts base salaries 18.6 percent to $60,000 for a 32-week season. The contract also cuts overscale pay, trims the size of the ensemble from 34 full-timers to 28, and improves the retirement package for musicians 55 and older.

“We knew that if we didn’t get back on stage this spring, the consequences next season and further down the road would be so much more destructive,” Carole Mason Smith, who led the St. Paul musicians’ negotiating team, told the Star Tribune.

The same can be said in Minneapolis, where the labor dispute drags on with no progress and where donors and subscribers are growing increasingly restless.

The situation became more dire Thursday, when respected music director Osmo Vänskä informed board chairman Jon Campbell and chief executive Michael Henson that he will resign if the lockout causes the orchestra to lose out on a November engagement at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Vänskä’s letter went on to detail the departure of Burt Hara, the orchestra’s principal clarinetist, and the possible loss of concertmaster Erin Keefe. If top players and competing orchestras start treating the Minneapolis lockout like NFL free agency, the team will suffer.

In an interview with an editorial writer, negotiators for the musicians seemed to welcome the Vänskä letter as a supportive plea from their musical leader.

But viewed objectively, there was nothing positive about the development for anyone who cares about the future of the orchestra. The two sides need to get back to the bargaining table and find a way out of this mess and a new path forward for the orchestra.

If it takes a push from the state’s top political leader, let that pushing begin before the damage done to a great orchestra is irreparable.


Editor’s note: Star Tribune Publisher and CEO Michael J. Klingensmith, who serves on the orchestra’s board, was not involved in developing the recommendations included in this editorial.

An editorial of the Star Tribune (Minneapolis). Follow the editorial board: on Twitter  |  on Facebook   |  on Instagram | on Google+