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Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

Orchestra board members: Publicity stunts won't solve crisis

  • Article by: JON CAMPBELL and RICHARD DAVIS
  • November 28, 2012 - 7:44 PM

On Oct. 11, our commentary on the Minnesota Orchestra's financial position appeared in the Star Tribune ("Orchestra makes a stand: Even in the arts, we can spend only what we earn").

We were then six months into contract negotiations. The orchestra's musicians had not offered a single counterproposal. The orchestra board had planned for the possibility of a lockout in case the musicians decided to run out the clock on their contract.

At midnight on Oct. 1, we were obligated to make the decision to hold musicians accountable for a counterproposal rather than continuing to "pay and play" -- an option that would incur losses to the orchestra of at least $500,000 per month. Since then, the musicians have been busy with publicity stunts and attempts to discredit their greatest supporters and most generous donors.

Consider the motives of the volunteer members of this board. Why would we link our personal reputations to an institution that we didn't care for greatly? Why would we seek harm for any member of this iconic organization? Why would we have any goal but to protect the future of this great orchestra?

Recently, orchestra musicians shared board meeting minutes with the Star Tribune in an effort to criticize financial decisions made by our board -- decisions that had been made expressly to protect the Minnesota Orchestra.

We shared those board minutes, amid 1,200 pages of documents, with musicians in our negotiations last summer as part of the orchestra's longstanding commitment to transparency with our players. That musicians chose to give these documents to a reporter is not our issue; rather, it is that they feigned surprise at the revelation of our financial situation. Contrary to a quote from musician Tim Zavadil ("I'm not sure we were ever told how big this cliff was going to be"), the musicians were fully aware that we could no longer manage our deficit with precarious endowment draws.

Mr. Zavadil, and all his colleagues in the orchestra, participated in three meetings -- on May 28, 2010, March 18, 2011 and Nov. 21, 2011 -- in which we plainly articulated a $5 million gap that would only grow each year. In 2010, we asked our musicians to help alleviate growing deficits by taking a 22 percent wage reduction. We told them that even this sizable reduction would not resolve our financial problems. It would, however, make the cliff less steep in 2012. The musicians chose not to participate in those reductions. That was their legal right, and so we must grapple with even bigger financial issues today.

The musicians also knew that the rest of the organization had taken salary, benefit and staff cuts and that we had trimmed other expenses as much as we could without destroying this institution. They knew of and were thrilled with our plans to secure the Minnesota Orchestra's future through a capital campaign that began in 2005. And why not? That $110 million (scaled back by nearly 50 percent postrecession) would provide for a badly needed renovation of Orchestra Hall and would help cover additional musician, touring and recording expenses in the future. The successful completion of that campaign is in sight, thanks to generous donors who believe in the Minnesota Orchestra's future.

We understand that peering into one of this region's most venerable arts organizations through excerpted meeting minutes might make for scintillating news coverage. That's often part of the job when leaders must make tough calls. The leaders of the Minnesota Orchestra have nothing to hide.

Our minutes in their entirety reflect the deliberations of a board that takes its fiduciary responsibility very seriously. They reveal a methodical coming-to-terms with the structural deficits that threaten the stability of orchestras around the country. They show a board wrestling with how to continue to offset a mounting deficit during the recession through expense reductions and precarious endowment draws in order to preserve the 25 percent pay raise contained in the 2007 contract with musicians. They show it carefully considering the impact of the 2008 recession on a fundraising campaign that began three years before the "new normal" of 2008 turned the orchestral world on its ear. And they reflect the board's absolute commitment to ensure every musician was fully aware of the pending budget problem and the need for contract change in 2012.

The musicians' negotiating team appears to be avoiding at all costs our request to come back to the table with a substantive counterproposal. While we have been clear that we seek savings of $5 million annually, the approach we use to reduce these costs can be adjusted through the course of good-faith negotiations. But we need our musicians to participate for this to happen.

Instead, they choose to embark on attention-diverting tactics and inflammatory accusations against the very people who give time, talent and money to support the musicians. We are perplexed by this standoff. What purpose can it possibly serve?

Our hope is that some of the energy that musicians are putting into these activities will be diverted to helping the Minnesota Orchestra find a solution to a serious financial problem and to giving our audiences the season of music they deserve.

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Jon R. Campbell is board chair of the Minnesota Orchestra. Richard K. Davis is chair of the board's negotiating committee.

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