Minnesota Orchestra fundraising group WAMSO rolls with the changes

The Minnesota Orchestra’s main volunteer group seeks a fresh identity.

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Construction of a new wing of Orchestra Hall continues in Minneapolis.

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When the going gets tough, the ladies who lunch rebrand.

It’s been a tumultuous season not only for the Minnesota Orchestra, but also for its chief fundraising auxiliary, known until recently by the acronym WAMSO. One of the Twin Cities’ most venerable and successful volunteer fundraising groups, its leadership always has been adept at attracting socially prominent, well-heeled women. The 63-year-old name, which stood for Women’s Association of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, was changed last week to the more accurate and modern Friends of the Minnesota Orchestra.

Friends they are indeed, having raised more than $10 million for the orchestra since the first Symphony Ball in 1956. Trouble is, it’s touchy being pals with people at loggerheads — the orchestra’s management and its locked-out musicians — without seeming to take sides. It’s also hard to drum up enthusiasm, never mind dollars, when a contract dispute has led to a concertless season.

“We are trying to remain neutral,” said Cheryle Caplinger, who was named the group’s executive director a month ago, replacing Eloise Breikjern, who resigned last fall. Caplinger and an assistant are the only paid staffers.

The rebranded Friends still somewhat fits the “ladies who lunch” demographic of well-connected women who can make event planning a full-time unpaid job, but these days many of its members also have busy careers, including board chair Sara Sternberger, executive director of the nonprofit Bridging, which gives donated furniture to people in need.

“We want to be more inclusive and reach a wider variety of people,” said Caplinger, whose most recent jobs were communications director for a small city in Iowa and marketing director for the Apple Tree Theatre in Chicago.

The group has allowed men for years, and has a handful already among its more than 200 members, including one on the board. Post-name change, it hopes to attract more. Other elements in the rebranding include joining both the Minneapolis and St. Paul chambers of commerce to ramp up networking, and a new mission statement — “To create opportunities which bring the power of music to children, families, and adults” — that omits the previously included phrase “provides support for the Minnesota Orchestra.”

“We feel that our support for them is inherent in our new name,” Sternberger said. “We view the orchestra as one entity, and we desperately want both parties to go back to the table.”

The musicians released a statement congratulating the Friends on their new name, and hoping that beyond the rewritten mission of bringing music to the public, “the Friends will also continue in their rich legacy of support for the orchestra itself.”

The organization has an operating and programming budget of about $500,000, some of which is also put into investment vehicles so the interest can be used on programs like a young artists’ competition. Also at issue now is the problem of how to continue these programs, including the beloved Kinder Konzerts for preschoolers, that have always been performed by orchestra musicians.

“We wouldn’t go outside [for musicians] on that,” Sternberger said.

Another change this year, due to both the lockout and Orchestra Hall being under renovation: The Friends used to have two fundraisers preceding the annual Symphony Ball, held every June, and this spring they will fold those into a gala at the downtown-Minneapolis Marriott that in effect replaces the ball, themed “Midnight at the Oasis.” Sternberger said they hope to raise $100,000 at the gala, and that the money will probably go toward children’s music education, as it typically does.

According to the plans, the June gala attendees “will be transported into a fairy tale filled with mystery and magic, romance and revelry, excitement and color. All the traditional gala elements will be there, but with a Moroccan twist.”

Who might not be there, if progress isn’t made on contract negotiations? The musicians, who in the past have performed free at primary fundraisers and galas, have not been invited — as yet — to play for this one. According to their statement, they “anticipate being invited to perform to support concerts for children’s music outreach.”

 

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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