I am a classical music lover and Minnesota Orchestra lover. I am also one of many in our community who have given time and substantial support over the decades to steward the orchestra through both good times and challenging times. Like other concertgoers, community and school leaders, I cannot imagine life here without our orchestra.
As we begin the 17th month of a labor dispute that is as difficult as any I have seen, I am reflecting on the tremendous opportunity we have to maintain momentum and start an exciting next chapter for our orchestra on a sustainable foundation. That reflection is based on my hope that the orchestra’s musicians will seriously reconsider a compromise proposal that this community can afford.
I am optimistic about this next chapter for three reasons. The first reason for my optimism is the musicians themselves. They are extraordinarily talented professionals who appreciate the time and effort it takes to become a world-class ensemble. After they are back at work, many of them will still face financial challenges as we work together to find a way to secure the orchestra for future generations.
Yes, the players were aware of the orchestra’s mounting deficits. They also can do the math that the board members did: The savings from wage reductions in the initial contract proposal would have come close to closing the financial gap. But initial proposals are starting points. That’s why I hope with all my heart that our thoughtful musicians will seriously consider last week’s compromise proposal in the spirit of fairness and good faith, doing their part to make sure the orchestra endures beyond the end of this decade.
Reason Two for my optimism is that once the musicians perform again in the renovated Orchestra Hall, they will discover better practice rooms and facilities, as well as improved onstage acoustics in the performance space, along with more room for concertgoers to move about the various levels of the lobby — many more opportunities to raise incremental revenue through food and beverage sales and by renting these spaces to others.
All of these new dollars will go to support the orchestra’s classical music mission. I am overjoyed that the people in this community who give generously to building projects such as the Guthrie and the Ordway chose to invest these critically important dollars to entice future audiences to experience excellent classical and other forms of live music here. This new Orchestra Hall is, at last, worthy of a world-class orchestra.
Reason Three is the Minnesota Orchestra endowment. This community is blessed with forward-thinking leaders who understand that a healthy endowment is the only way to secure an arts institution’s future. Just as rural Minnesotans know not to eat their seed corn, the Orchestra Board must manage what is drawn or “harvested” from the endowment to help fund ongoing operations in a way that does not put the endowment’s principal in jeopardy.
Safeguarding the future is Job One for an organization’s board of directors. In 2008, when all things financial were turned upside down, the Minnesota Orchestra’s board realized that it could not continue to spend its seed corn to pay for a contract that was created before the Great Recession. Our compromise proposal will not eliminate the $6 million annual deficit. We will still be eating into our seed corn stocks. But the rate of consumption will decrease as we partner with the players in a creative collaboration to build new revenues to help offset the losses.
Time is short. But it is long past time to sit down together, counterproposals in hand, to settle this contract. It is what the Orchestrate Excellence coalition (composed of audience and community members) proposes, too: “Return to the negotiating table, without preconditions, until an agreement is reached.”
I urge the musicians to speak with their union representatives and join us in saving and perpetuating what has been lovingly and generously created over more than 100 years. At this point, the orchestra’s future is truly in their hands.
Marilyn Carlson Nelson is former chair and CEO of Carlson, a travel and hospitality company based in Minnetonka. She is also a Minnesota Orchestra life director.