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Aspen Music Festival CEO: Lockout should end, sides should talk

  • Blog Post by: Claude Peck
  • August 27, 2013 - 3:00 PM

Here is a complete transcript of the keynote address by Alan Fletcher, president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival, to a public forum organized by the group Orchestra Excellence in Minneapolis on Aug. 20. Graydon Royce of Star Tribune reported on the forum here.

Speech by Alan Fletcher:

Everyone in the world of music cares very deeply about what is happening, and will happen, here in Minneapolis. Our profession is knitted together in profound ways, and no one can be indifferent to the problems faced by musicians, by management, by philanthropists, and by this whole community, that has such historic importance in supporting music.

There’s an important particular connection between Minneapolis and my place in Aspen: the first summer of music in Aspen was 1949, when Dmitri Mitropoulos and the Minneapolis Symphony came to the mountains for a landmark residency. They came back the following year, and helped establish a tradition of music that has been unbroken for 65 summers. Now we depend on our school and our faculty rather than on a visiting orchestra, but we wouldn’t have gotten where we are without your city’s great orchestra.

The United States is a beacon to the world for its unique forms of philanthropy, and Minneapolis has long been a beacon to America for its own commitment to the arts: to world-class theater, to the cutting edge in the visual arts, and, always, to an unparalleled variety of great music making. Choral music, chamber music, new music, and symphonic music have long enjoyed the Twin Cities as a place of world-wide significance.

Thus there is a special pain for us all in these past many months of conflict and struggle. If bad things can happen here, they can happen anywhere. As a citizen of the world of music and a teacher of future musicians, I have found it impossible to be silent.

But I would not presume to come here as a visitor and tell you what you can, or perhaps must do. I can only offer observations that I hope might be part of a conversation in which you affirm for each other what is to be done.

Because the only solution that will stick will be one you have found for and with each other.

A fundamental question is: What do you, the citizens of Minnesota, want?

What will you support?

Do you believe the orchestra is important? Are you confident the orchestra can survive?

All other decisions will flow from your answers to these questions.

If it is no longer important that you have a world-class orchestra, then so be it. Other cities in other times have made this decision, or allowed this to happen.

But if it is part of the DNA of this great community that it should be the home of an equally great orchestra, then there is work to do. 

I will go so far as to be definite about one thing: the current lock-out of musicians should end, and end unconditionally.

I have recently read the point of view that the lock-out can only end as part of a larger bargain, because the Association must have the leverage of this tactic. Even the word “leverage” in this context signals that the plan has failed. That plan should now be abandoned.

Because one of the things that must happen is that all sides speak to each other. I know that an important point of view is that the musicians refused to make a counter-offer and thus, in effect, refused to talk. But the lock-out, if it is seen as a resulting fact, is not symmetrical. Only the musicians are living without salaries, without a means of supporting their families, without access to the hall that is their home.

To sit around a table arguing, negotiating, searching for viable solutions is to be, potentially, partners in creating a future. To be locked out is not. 

But then, the musicians must also come to the table in earnest, and deal with who is at the table. Another side to much poisonous rhetoric we’ve experienced is the view that the management, or board leadership, or both, must go, before the discussions can begin for real. A rhetoric of exclusion is a rhetoric of failure. The hall is not only the musicians’ home: it is equally the home of the management and of the board. Real estate can be owned, but the spirit of music cannot be owned, and to make music requires the collaboration of many, not a few; all sides, not just one side.

In my time as a chief executive in Aspen, mistrust and fear led to a conviction that someone had to go. (For many, that person was to be me.) It doesn’t matter now how it happened, but it happened that I stayed. There was still confusion and unhappiness about how to move forward. A turning point was when a leading musician said in a faculty meeting that, as it was clear I would be staying, it was necessary to find a way for us to talk together. And, from that moment, we began to talk together. We did lose donors, both because some disliked the specific steps we were taking towards financial stability, and because many donors just hate conflict. But we are now ahead of where we were, and a great many of those who stepped aside have stepped back in. We agreed – among musicians, our board, our administration, and our community – to operate with a deficit for a brief time, while challenging ourselves to emerge from it. We agreed to cuts in our compensation but no cuts in our expectations of ourselves. We did not reduce our artistic aspirations.

Istvan Szabo has a great film about a labor dispute in the musical world – maybe this doesn’t sound like a wonderful idea for a film, but take my word for it: his movie MEETING VENUS is wonderful. As a recurring theme – a leitmotif – in this story, everyone – a great diva, the conductor, the impresario, members of the stagehands’ union, orchestra players – at some point says to someone else, “You don’t love music!”

In our music world, that really is the ultimate disparagement. And, as is so clear in the movie’s parable, it isn’t true. Anyone involved with an orchestra must love music, or they wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, be involved.

So what about a central element of the dispute here: that the business plan of the orchestra will not allow things to continue as they have been?

It is a plain fact that an organization can’t exist indefinitely on a horizon-less deficit. Financial planning requires a viable connection among annual costs, annual fundraising, management of an endowment, and true forecasting. It’s not enough towish that salaries that once seemed to make sense can continue rising, or even staying the same, forever, if sources of income aren’t adequate.

From my outside viewpoint, there has been much unreality in the discussions about the orchestra’s finances.

For instance, a key argument is over the past use of transfers from the endowment to cover deficits. This practice is completely usual (my own organization had recourse to it in two years of the recession). Furthermore, it isn’t and cannot be secret, as all these numbers are reported in a public way. I understand if many people didn’t know how this works, but the way it works is reasonable and normal. One has a good reason to close a fiscal year showing no deficit, perhaps in order to qualify for essential grants. But this can’t go on forever, so in another year it is necessary to show the extent to which expenses outstrip income. This has been viewed as an underhanded negotiating tactic, but it’s not a mystery at all, and any reader of IRS forms can understand it.

Capital fundraising is also clearly different from both annual fundraising and endowment fundraising. This difference is not a contrivance or mystification. Philanthropy is not a faucet that is turned on and off to varying degrees. (In my organization, during a difficult time, one faction suggested that I had neglected to raise enough money, as if it were simply a matter of willing it to be so.) Raising money is instead a complex web of relationships, all based on belief and confidence.

A major point of contention is the lobby project, which has come to assume the aspect of a boondoggle or at least a colossal misstep. But what if it will later be understood as a benefit to the very community that is crucial to the future support of the orchestra? Not everyone responsible for music-making is on the stage. Indeed, one of the pillars of the organization is to be found precisely in that lobby, before and at the intermissions of every concert: the audience.

If a plan is to emerge that solves the persistent deficits, it will be based on increased fundraising, and the community itself – the audience – is going to be responsible for it.

The idea that philanthropists have an obligation to give, and to give to any particular thing, is mistaken. An organization must make the case that it has a worthy, indeed a crucial mission, and make the case that it can deliver on that mission in a superior way. This is the belief and confidence I mentioned. The Minnesota Orchestra, for generations, has accomplished this. Will it, can it, continue to do so?

Speaking of philanthropy, we must recognize that the solutions have to happen within our existing system. Perhaps the United States should abandon its philanthropic traditions, abandon the charitable deduction that has so dramatically contributed to our national well-being, and adopt a government-centered model of funding. I don’t think so, myself, but it’s part of our current political debate.

But it’s not a discussion relevant to this crisis, because we have to work with the rules we now have, and they are rules governing the functioning of non-profits.

A successful bank is a crucial part of the social fabric, and so is a successful orchestra. They are not the same thing, and, while some business aspects of any organization are similar, some aspects of for-profit and not-for-profit business are different. Perhaps a better term is social-profit. The fundamental aim is not to make money, it is to make music.

Once again: if the aim of the Minnesota Orchestra is to make music worthy of any stage in the world, then every step now taken, every statement made from here on out, should conduce to a process of talking together.

I know from intense personal experience how hard that will be. I had to sit at a table, over and over again, with people who had wanted me to be fired. But the people I was talking to felt the same way! In my executive capacity, I had ended the Aspen careers of some of their colleagues. There’s no soft way of putting that. We had profound disagreements.

I believe things began to be viable again in Aspen when we all realized how deeply we mutually cared about great music in Aspen – that was something we shared, and we started by acknowledging that it was possible to see different ways forward, or criticize different things from the past, without negating each other’s sincerity.

I cannot tell you that every action that brought you to this pass was right, or rightly-motivated, but I can predict that you won’t make it over this difficult pass if you go it alone.

I have real hope for the Minnesota Orchestra because I believe that the generous people and the devoted audience who have sustained it for generations still want it to be great. I believe that the administration entrusted with it wants the orchestra to succeed. I know that its musicians have given their whole lives to be prepared to make great music on its stage. How this impasse can be left behind, an impasse which many have created, not only some, despite their essential love of the orchestra, is something I cannot predict. I can tell you from personal experience that seemingly impossible problems can be solved, and I can hope, with you, that great music will again flourish in this great city.

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