Minnesota Orchestra costs can't be sustained

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 7, 2013 - 6:25 AM

Without a settlement soon, institution could slip away.

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A crowd gathered in front of Orchestra Hall during a rally in support of Minnesota Orchestra musicians who have been locked out for nearly a year, in Minneapolis, Minn., on Friday, September 6, 2013.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Nearly a year has passed since the music died at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, and during that time the animosity between the Minnesota Orchestra’s management and its locked-out musicians has only deepened.

Not even former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who brokered peace in Northern Ireland, has been able to bring the sides together. Unless something changes within the next several days, the music — at least the music as we’ve known it and loved it — may not return.

This is an existential moment for one of the nation’s most admired classical ensembles. The bitter dispute over wages and work rules could very soon cost the Minnesota Orchestra its renowned conductor, Osmo Vänskä, its upcoming dates at Carnegie Hall, its recording contracts, its upcoming season and, most tragically of all, its hard-earned reputation for exceptional performance.

Silence may even greet the reopening of its handsomely renovated concert hall, once anticipated for the end of this month. “We may have a new hall but no season,” said a grim-faced Jon Campbell, chairman of the orchestra board, at a meeting with editorial writers this week.

The orchestra’s managers made it plain that they’re prepared to sacrifice all of those things to preserve, as they see it, the orchestra’s long-term viability.

“Osmo may have to leave,” said Richard Davis, chairman of the management’s negotiating team. “The board is resolved to know that that is a risk.”

The underlying message is a sobering one: The Minnesota Orchestra in its current form, and perhaps at its current level of excellence, cannot be sustained. As much as both sides would like to think that the orchestra is all about the art, it’s really, at this dreadful moment, all about the money. There’s simply not enough of it.

Not enough to pay the musicians the wages they’ve come to expect; not enough to keep the orchestra going in its current form, and perhaps not enough in the pipeline to support the world-class aspirations of an orchestra in a city with a fraction of the population and wealth of Chicago, Boston and the other top symphonic markets. The chore of supporting two classical orchestras in the Twin Cities only compounds the problem.

This is a bitter pill for a proud arts community and for a region that cherishes its quality of life. But no amount of wishing can erase the $6 million shortfall that the orchestra now faces every year. And that doesn’t include pension problems that the current dispute has failed to acknowledge.

A financial analysis by AKA Strategy, a New York firm specializing in cultural organizations, spelled out the orchestra’s structural problem. Management agreed to an ample wage increase for players in 2007 just as the Great Recession was about to ravage its invested assets, slash its revenues, shrink its endowment and chill the generosity of its donors.

“It is unrealistic to think the orchestra can fundraise its way out of its current financial difficulties,” the report concluded.

The musicians detest that analysis, and many don’t believe it. But, absent any convincing evidence to the contrary, the numbers are hard to refute.

The sad truth is that times have changed for classical music. Its business model is under stress worldwide, with musicians suffering the same fate as workers in other sectors who find themselves losing ground against the forces of globalization, technology, demographic change, market fragmentation and a relentless push for productivity.

Media and the arts are no exception. Like any product, live classical performance is worth only what customers are willing to pay, and customer/donor growth in many markets isn’t matching the cost of operating big orchestras. It’s ironic, indeed, that some wealthy donors, mindful perhaps of the growing gap between rich and poor, are shifting their giving toward social needs and away from the arts.

It may be true, as the musicians point out, that the Minnesota Orchestra has been tragically inept in asserting its brand and less enterprising and forthcoming than it might have been. Cleveland, for example, is a smaller, weaker market, yet maintains a superb orchestra that has parlayed its talent and reputation into lucrative seasons in Miami and Vienna, helping it to generate twice the revenue of Minnesota and a budget that’s 50 percent larger.

But management’s past failures, however valid, don’t change the cold, hard realities of the moment. A gap must be filled. And very soon bad things will begin to happen unless an agreement is reached.

The clock is ticking. There’s much to lose in the days just ahead, or much to gain. The hope is that both sides will use these final days well — that both will heed Samuel Johnson’s proverb: “When a man knows he is going to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.”

The musicians should make a concessionary counter­offer. They should recognize that the agenda of their New York labor attorneys doesn’t match the best interest of Minnesota audiences.

  • RAISE THE BATON

    “The public just wants the music to start again. I hope we get a chance to restore the orchestra to what it was.”

    Tony Ross, principal cellist

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