Minnesota Orchestra: A $5 million, five-year plan

  • Article by: LEE HENDERSON
  • Updated: May 7, 2013 - 8:18 PM

Great music is not found on a spreadsheet. So here's a plan to return the focus where it belongs.

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Locked out musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra, led by conductor Osmo Vanska, center, played a concert at the Minneapolis Convention Center in February.

Photo: Joles, David, Star Tribune

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My wife and I traveled to Los Angeles last week to hear a world-class symphony orchestra. Last fall, we went to Chicago for the same ­purpose. How sad is that?

We have (or had) a world-class symphony orchestra in Minnesota, but the orchestra does not play (because of a lockout and bruised egos on all sides). As we checked the news in our L.A. hotel room before the concert, we read of Osmo Vänskä’s latest letter to Minnesota Orchestra management, voicing his ­concerns about the Carnegie Hall concerts scheduled for the orchestra this fall.

As a lawyer who works in the business world, I understand the need for revenue and expenses to balance. Management’s goal of making sure the orchestra sits on a stable foundation for years to come is important. Yet, I have not heard management express that its goal is to maintain a world-class orchestra.

I would think that the board and management would understand that you cannot cut your way to prosperity. When you have some of the world’s finest musicians and conductors making world-class music, it is not a lack of a quality product that is the problem. You need to look inward — it is management’s responsibility to sell tickets, raise money and balance the budget. Very few organizations cut their way to more success. Great music is not found on a spreadsheet.

Meanwhile, as a one-time musician, I understand that musicians want to make music and probably do not have MBAs in finance. The world did change in 2009, and lots of organizations and people took serious hits. Many have not yet recovered. So times have changed, and the musicians will have to change, too. Refusing to bargain because you were insulted so deeply by the initial offer does not advance the cause. Blaming management for manipulating the endowment funds does not advance the cause, either. Great music is not found on a spreadsheet.

The communities of Cleveland, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles have found a way to support world-class orchestras. We should expect no less in Minnesota. Attempting to replicate the orchestra models in Indianapolis or Baltimore would be a sad commentary on the intellectual energy and quality of life that is supposed to exist in the Twin Cities.

It is time to set aside the bruised egos on both sides. As a lawyer, I spend my life solving problems. This problem did not arise overnight, and it is not going to get fixed in one simple negotiation. Great music and art have always been, since at least the time of J.S. Bach, a patron-sponsored business, not a profit-generating business. Seeking to squeeze business efficiencies in a traditional context may not be the answer. Here is the outline of a plan to start the process rolling:

We need a five-year plan — one that will assign responsibilities on all sides to find a more stable platform for the continuation of our world-class orchestra. Management says there is a $5 million problem. For the next five years, do the following (all with new money):

• Musicians must reduce their costs by $1 million a year. How this is done can be determined by people much more familiar with the numbers. The parties should look for creative solutions that do not change the quality of the orchestra musicians.

• The orchestra needs to extend Vänskä’s contract for five years so that there is no change in artistic leadership during this transition period.

• Ordinary season-ticket subscribers need to contribute $1 million a year. If 500 of us will contribute $2,000 per year to the orchestra, we can meet this goal.

My wife and I will be the first to commit to this goal. If other readers are willing to join us, send an e-mail to worldclassorch@gmail.com with your contact information. When we have enough volunteers, we can demonstrate that the season-ticket holders are willing to help solve the problem. Let’s show the board that this can be done.

• Management needs to raise $3 million per year from those people with an eight-, nine- or 10-digit net worth and the large numbers of stable companies in the Twin Cities. Six gifts of $500,000 each would get this done rather quickly.

Perhaps Wells Fargo and U.S. Bancorp can set an example and be the first to commit.

• In the third, fourth and fifth years of this plan, the donors have the option of reducing their gifts by 20 percent each year. That forces the parties to figure how the economic model is going to work.

Over the next five years, the parties need to work together to figure out the long-term sustainability issues. It may mean that the orchestra needs to play more concerts (although not as background music at corporate events, as has been reported).

Management is going to have to be better at fundraising and marketing. The musicians need to be in the schools sharing their passion for music. (Does the fact that we have struggled to fund the arts in our schools for the last decade have a role in the current environment?)

After listening to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, we concluded that we have a better orchestra.

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