New ideas must follow settlement at Minnesota Orchestra

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 16, 2014 - 10:48 AM

Settlement is welcome news, but now the real work begins.

It’s natural to want to declare a winner in the ugly labor dispute that shut down the Minnesota Orchestra for more than a year and led to the departure of esteemed music director Osmo Vänskä.

Minnesotans who care about the orchestra tend to care deeply, and most took a side during the dispute. This page did not, in part because sorting fact from spin in behind-closed-doors labor negotiations is next to impossible.

It’s similarly difficult to know, based on the details released so far, if the 15-month ordeal ended with a settlement that ensures a stable financial future for the orchestra. Our guess is that it did not, and that the board and musicians still face myriad challenges that will only be successfully met with new creativity and collaboration.

The deal calls for salary and benefit reductions as well as changes in work rules. The board, which had said it needed to cut $5 million in annual labor costs, also gains more flexibility in hiring players. The expected cost savings in the first year of the deal: $3.5 million.

“It won’t solve our deficit problem, but it will go a long way,” board negotiator Doug Kelley told the Star Tribune. Kelley also described the settlement as a “true compromise,” which appears to be accurate.

The dispute started after the board announced deficits of $2.9 million for 2011 and $6 million for 2012, arguing that it could no longer rely on large endowment withdrawals to balance the books. The lockout that followed became more acrimonious as the months ticked by without a deal, finally resulting in the cancellation of the 2012-13 season and in Vänskä’s resignation.

The settlement is welcome news, although overdue for an organization that needs to be focused intently on reaching a broader audience and new donors. Numerous orchestras across the country have struggled in the face of changing demographics and market fragmentation, with some falling into bankruptcy. The Minnesota Orchestra, revered by critics as one of the nation’s best, has avoided that outcome with this three-year deal, but for how long?

It’s now incumbent upon the musicians and the board to work collaboratively to rebuild the orchestra brand while exploring new ways to appeal to potential ticket buyers and donors. Those efforts should be based on broader and more consistent statewide outreach. In return, we would hope Minnesotans who were outraged by the lockout would channel their passion into ticket buying and donations, or by increasing their support.

In separate meetings with the Editorial Board last year, orchestra board members and musicians blamed each other for not being open to new ideas. If nothing else, the 15-month standoff should convince both sides that a status quo approach is not acceptable. As critic Anthony Tommasini argued in the Jan. 8 New York Times, artistic excellence is no longer enough.

Editor’s note: Star Tribune Publisher and CEO Michael J. Klingensmith serves on the orchestra’s board.

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