I’ve ended each day this week by sharing any and all Orchestral Apocalypse ’012 news with my mother. She wants to be kept up to speed with the situation; she feels just as emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually invested in the Twin Cities orchestral scene as I do.
Last night I was explaining to her about the artistic goals in the Minnesota Orchestra’s Strategic Business Plan Summary. I told her there was a section devoted to “key targets for artistic programming.”
“What are those targets?” she asked.
I opened the document and read them off. “Symphony orchestra of the highest caliber.”
“That doesn’t seem very realistic if management has their way,” she said. “Won’t a lot of musicians leave?”
“Outstanding classical concerts in Orchestra Hall,” I read.
She considered. “They might be outstanding, but they probably won’t be as outstanding as they have been.”
“National & international touring to significant venues…”
“Why would they want to tour if they have so many subs? Wouldn’t that be embarrassing?”
“Live at Orchestra Hall series to feature popular & jazz artists.”
We both shrugged; we don’t care for most popular and jazz artists enough to warrant a two-hour drive to Minneapolis. We can see those here in Eau Claire.
“Exceptional artistic leaders & guest artists…”
“Will they want to work with a demoralized disorganized orchestra?”
“Vital summer & holiday festivals.”
“Meh. Depends what’s on the program, I guess…”
“New concert formats & content.”
“What does that mean?”
“Forward-looking digital and traditional media initiatives to reach broad audiences & raise visibility.”
“Sounds good, but if the quality of the orchestra goes down the crapper, do they really want to be broadcasting that?”
I was going to flip the page forward to read more but I accidentally clicked backward, to this page, and there I found a sentence that I hadn’t read before. And it made me stop dead in my tracks.
“With renewed financial sustainability, the Minnesota Orchestral Association will:
Heighten artistry through excellent concerts at Orchestra Hall…”
Yes, you read that right. Management says they plan not just to sustain, but to heighten artistry.
Before I read that sentence, I’d thought they were merely, maybe disingenuously but still technically honestly, aiming for a “symphony orchestra of the highest caliber.” There’s some wiggle room there; you could decrease the quality of the Minnesota Orchestra somewhat and still have a pretty damn high caliber orchestra.
But, no. That is not the future they say they envision. We have it in writing that they want to heighten artistry.
So, if heightening artistry truly is a primary goal…what would that entail on behalf of management? Especially when they’ve been entrusted with safeguarding one of the greatest orchestras in the world, whose level of artistry is already sky-high?
Well, first of all, if your professional background wasn’t in the arts, you would listen, hard, to what the artists themselves have to say about heightening artistry. Especially when said artists are some of the greatest in the world. You would humble yourself and learn from them. You would go to dozens and dozens of concerts before offering any advice or opinion or direction at all, and continue going to dozens and dozens of concerts as you worked with the orchestra (I’d love to know how frequently various board members actually attend shows; is this information public? I want it). You would treat your musicians like royalty. You would cultivate relationships with them…get to know them as people…find new ways to let them know they are appreciated, admired, loved. You’d be terrified if you had a 10% vacancy rate. You’d be kept up awake at night if you knew there was a possibility that rate would climb – even temporarily – to over 30%. You’d move heaven and earth to find the cash to pay for what your artists say they need to stay in town, so they can focus like a laser on their job of achieving the goal you set for them. You would apologize profusely to them if, despite your very best efforts, your organization couldn’t afford internationally competitive salaries and benefits. If push came to shove, you would be honest with your public and say: “We can’t afford these wonderful people, and we’re terrified and devastated we’re going to lose them. They have done us proud. We’re so sad to see them go.”
There are many things you might do, but here are some things you wouldn’t: you would not say very very very publicly that your goal is to heighten artistry, and then when asked about potential turnover shrug, “those who can leave, will,” or “the number of highly trained musicians that this country is producing every year is really quite remarkable…[so] there may be some changes.” You would not launch an entire website devoted to insinuating that your musicians are greedy unaware self-centered bastards. You would not shut down the blog of an orchestra member who has written informative eloquent posts since 2007, and if you did, you’d give him days, if not weeks, of warning, and at least let him write a good-bye post. You would not go behind your musicians’ backs and release a contract to the public that you’re still negotiating. You would not belittle a request for an independent audit of your organization’s finances, if for some reason your musicians wanted one. You would not send out an email to patrons saying that the musicians have known about the budget problems for years, implying it’s largely or solely their fault, when you have known about the problems for just as long. You would not offer a less than world class salary, benefits, and working conditions, and if you couldn’t offer that to them, you’d apologize. You would not propose a 28% salary cut and 200+ changes in a contract with a straight face.
After thinking it all over, I can come to no other logical conclusion: the Minnesota Orchestra management doesn’t really want to heighten artistry. And therefore, management is lying to us.
And they’re not sweet bumbling well-meaning incompetents who have the organization’s best interest in heart but just don’t understand how the orchestral world works, bless their hearts, they mean the best. No. Because if that was the case, they’d humble themselves and listen to what the experts on heightened artistry say that heightened artistry requires, and then apologize to them if they can’t, for whatever reason, fulfill those demands. And then they’d take the phrase “heightened artistry” out of their literature and settle for a less glamorous but much more honest “high standards.” They might be arrogant oblivious incompetents, but they’re not sweet bumbling well-meaning ones.
Jon Campbell, board chair, is, if I’m interpreting my Google search results correctly, Executive Vice President of Wells Fargo. Money is his world. Artistic excellence is my world. So let’s turn the tables for a minute. Pretend I’ve been elected to a Wells Fargo board. I’m going to have an integral say both in running Wells Fargo and negotiating Campbell’s new contract. (Bizarre thought, right? But is hiring an artist to make major financial decisions really all that different from hiring financial experts to make major artistic decisions?) I meet with Mr. Campbell and I say enthusiastically, “My primary goal for us is to heighten Wells Fargo profits. I haven’t spent much time in the financial sector – I only dabble in it, really, to give back to my community – but luckily I know what to do to make this organization successful.” He then protests and tells me I don’t understand how the financial world works. I pretend to be concerned but thankfully don’t need to worry because I know I’m right. After all, I’ve done a pretty good job in the artistic world; my first short story was published in a major international magazine when I was twelve; people from all over the world have read this blog since it began; my work has received praise from Grammy winners; I’m sure those professional skills translate to the world of finance! I glance over some papers and see that executives are being paid a lot of money. “Great,” I say, “I’m seeing savings already. How about we reduce the salaries of the executives and then hire newer ones for cheaper? There are a lot of young people out of work nowadays, and the number of highly trained financiers that this country is producing every year is really quite remarkable. If you just take the top echelon of business schools in the U.S. – ” He interrupts: “But – it’s not that simple. We’ll have massive turnover! You can’t just hire anyone for these jobs! It’ll be a huge headache for you to hire all those people that quickly!” I shrug. “Besides,” he says, “you just said you wanted to heighten profits; we won’t be able to do that long-term with an inexperienced workforce, even if we do temporarily save money on salaries.” I then break it to him that he’s behind the times and needs to adapt to the new business model. I then shuffle through some more papers and say, “Hmm, Mr. Campbell. I see you’re earning a lot of money. Wells Fargo would be in a much better financial state if I reduced your salary by 28%. Also I want to change many of the working conditions that your predecessors have bargained for over the last forty years. That way I’ll have more flexibility in our goal of achieving heightened profits.” “But – I could go elsewhere and earn a lot more, and have better working conditions!” he says. “Well, not to dismiss the fact that we don’t want to lose you,” I say, “you’re a wonderful executive vice president, but there may be some changes. Those who can leave, will. It’s going to be a personal decision where you want to have your career. Why are you crying?”
If I behaved like that, anyone in their right mind would call me a menace to Wells Fargo. They would see I was in miles over my head and be screaming for me to get my hands off the company. And rightly so.
So why would it be any different if the roles were reversed?
The more I read, the more I think, the more I feel management is playing a game with us. They’re betting on us. And they’re hoping we don’t notice. They’re hoping we assume they have the Minnesota Orchestra’s best interests in mind. They’re hoping we assume they’re experts on the orchestral world and artistic excellence and what it entails. They’re hoping we assume that just because they’re powerful, they’re competent. If I’m right, management is playing us like Erin Keefe plays her fiddle.
Do you think I’m totally nuts? If you do, write in the comments. Convince me I’m wrong: refute me, paragraph by paragraph. I’d love to be wrong. I’d love to be utterly humiliated by the thesis of this blog post. I’d love to trust management, and feel confident they know what they’re doing and know the consequences of what they’re proposing. The idea that the future of the Minnesota Orchestra is in the hands of people who either don’t care about it or are too arrogant to realize they know nothing about the organization’s very reason for being…that thought is so painful it literally takes my breath away. But right now… Given management’s stated goal of “heightening artistry” … Given the disrespect they’ve shown in the press this past week to the musicians, the only people who are able to maintain (much less raise) the orchestra’s artistry… Given management’s refusal (so far) to acknowledge that you can’t heighten artistry while simultaneously alienating your musicians…
What other conclusion am I supposed to come to besides “they are lying to us about where they want to take this orchestra“?
Well, whether they’re lying, or merely being dangerously oblivious, I feel compelled to repeat what I’ve said on this blog before. Minnesota Orchestra management: either fully commit yourself to heightening artistry, with all the cost and effort such an endeavor involves, or strike that phrase from your literature, and be honest with us about your real goals. Your public deserves to know what you really want to do.