Kevin Smith has put out the word: If you want to help the Minnesota Orchestra, no idea is dumb and no donation too small.
Last week’s announcement of $13.2 million in private donations, including an extraordinary $10 million gift, certainly buoyed Smith’s new job as the orchestra’s interim president.
But the windfall doesn’t lessen Smith’s ardor for democracy and collaboration as he leads Minnesota’s largest and oldest performing-arts group out of its darkest period.
“The dynamic here is not out of control, but it’s wild right now,” said Smith as the orchestra prepares a month of season-opening concerts and events — including a gala Friday with Renée Fleming. (Remember? She sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl.)
So if you have thoughts on how the orchestra can avoid long lockouts, big annual deficits, public scorn and international ridicule, come on in.
Smith is betting team spirit will sell tickets to the orchestra’s first full season in three years, win grass-roots donations and burnish a brand badly damaged by the longest lockout in American symphonic history.
Smith, longtime head of the Minnesota Opera, is only temping as the orchestra board searches for a permanent replacement for the departing Michael Henson.
He is determined to harness the heat of pitchfork crowds who cried for revolution a year ago.
Ultimately, Henson resigned and former leaders Jon Campbell and Richard Davis left the board.
“One of the great outcomes is that the community realized it can’t take the orchestra for granted,” Smith said. “The energy that was focused on strife has been transferred to supporting the organization.”
Smith, soothing as a therapist, says the orchestra needs “successes.” The big donations qualify. Increased ticket sales for Sommerfest were a good baby step. A fiscal 2014 deficit under $1 million on a $21 budget (preliminary and unaudited numbers) was better than expected. Ticket sales are brisk for the new season. Community activists recently shared some love with staff, board and musicians — and raised another $290,000.
“Corporate, music lovers, citizens, board, musicians — it takes an entire community to support an orchestra,” said board chairman Gordon Sprenger.
Twelve directors left the board, disenchanted with how Henson was ushered out. But Sprenger and the board pivoted toward recovery by hiring Smith, an eminence grise in the Twin Cities arts community. Perhaps more significant, Dianne Brennan has taken over as chief fundraiser. Brennan spent 15 years heading development at the Guthrie.
The orchestra cannot say yet if it reached a goal of nearly $10 million for the fundraising year just ended. Last week’s big gifts are aimed at the endowment and next year’s budget.
Brennan has been working the phones, hearing from disaffected donors but also from people happy to give again.
“The fog is dissipating, and we’re finding that most people are still with us,” she said.
Former rivals join forces
Donations of $13.2 million are nearly impossible to upstage, but Smith’s summer of love manifested itself best when former rivals sat down together.
Karen Himle, a board vice chair, convened community groups, musicians, staff and board members in meetings described as initially awkward. Himle quickly instilled a sense of purpose: This was an effort to raise money and sell tickets, not the place to grind axes.
“I was very impressed with her ability to bring people together,” said Greg Milliren, a flutist with the orchestra. Forty-eight musicians ultimately donated to the $290,000 total raised by the task force. Ultimately, it was less about money, and more about process.
“I can’t forget the past but I’m ready to dive in and move on. … That’s healing,” Milliren said.
Lee Henderson, who raised $115,000 from people who pledged support after he wrote several opinion pieces during the lockout, called the task force “a beginning.”
Paula DeCosse, who founded the citizens’ group Orchestrate Excellence during the lockout, found hope in continuing projects that surfaced in the group. She has targeted senior-citizen housing, while her Orchestrate Excellence compatriot, Ken Huber, tries to develop the youth audience.
“People are eager for this,” DeCosse said.
Compared to the board and administrative upheavals, the orchestra itself is surprisingly intact — despite hyperbole from bloggers last fall that it was decimated by the lockout.
In 2012, before bargaining began, the orchestra had about 83 musicians.
“The contractual number was 95, but in any orchestra there is an ebb and flow of departures and hires,” said Gwen Pappas, orchestra spokeswoman.
Four musicians retired at the end of the 2011-12 season. Two others retired after medical leaves in the next year.
Several musicians took leaves during the lockout, but most have returned. Only four players left permanently — although they included assistant concertmaster Stephanie Arado and principal clarinetist Burt Hara. The orchestra opens the season with “around 75 musicians,” Pappas said. Three auditions are planned this year.
Maestro Vänskä has been back since spring, honing a sound that was praised before and during the lockout.
“There’s a strong sense we’re moving forward,” said Milliren. “Not that the past is taboo and we can’t talk about it. We do. But the thrust is, ‘What can we do now?’ ”
Structural deficit remains
Mariellen Jacobson, a consultant and amateur musician who represented Save Our Symphony Minnesota (SOSN) on the task force, is impressed with Smith, his leadership style, and the new openness to community groups.
“We have been vocal to bring the whole community in,” she said.
Jacobson tempers her enthusiasm with a reminder that SOSMN plans to monitor the orchestra’s future. Her skepticism focuses on financial transparency and board governance.
“We want to see quarterly and annual financial statements and forums where people can get their questions answered,” she said.
Smith said the board is studying its structure, which he called typical in the symphonic world. He was shown financial numbers during the lockout and said, “Quite honestly, they were pretty transparent.” There were the endowment draws taken in 2009 and 2010 to balance the budget at a time the orchestra was seeking state funding, but the numbers were reflected in the audits, he said.
“It’s more a perception than a reality,” Smith said about the accusations of fiscal impropriety.
Peering at his laptop, Smith ticks off numbers that appear positive: In addition to good returns at Sommerfest, ticket sales for the year just ended exceeded goals by $115,000. Rentals and concession income is 25 percent over goal, and the board last Wednesday approved a budget of $29 million for 2014-15 — down from $32.4 million in 2009 but more than the board’s stated goal during the lockout of cutting annual expenses to $26 million. The endowment had a good year (up to $163 million from $147 million); last week’s donations will help even more.
He’s savvy enough to know, however, that the orchestra still has a structural deficit — common in arts nonprofits — that was left unsolved by a contract settlement that cut musicians’ wages by 15 percent.
“What worries me most is if the organization reverts to the way it was,” said Smith, drawing a contrast with what he said was a much looser environment in the opera world. “I’d like to see this organization lighten up. It’s so serious, but there should be a lot more joy projected. Orchestras are very orthodox and this orchestra is truly experimenting with new ideas and ways of making it work.”