If the Minnesota Orchestra’s management has made one thing perfectly clear during its year-long dispute with the musicians, the only thing it cares about are the numbers.
Defenders of the music can cry all they want about the loss of top players to other orchestras, the inevitable decline in orchestra’s musical quality and reputation, the unimaginable tragedy of losing Osmo Vanska, and the grievous blow to the Twin Cities as an incubator of world-class arts institutions—but none of it matters. Because what the orchestra’s board has been telling us is precisely what it means: it’s all about the numbers. And until the numbers on their spreadsheet line up the way they want them to, the orchestra’s management isn’t going to budge.
Many people wonder how this dispute could have dragged on so long without a resolution—and why even the intercession of George Mitchell, a man who brokered peace in Northern Ireland, couldn’t break the logjam? It’s because the process is playing out precisely the way the orchestra’s management and board want it to.
Occam’s Razor comes into play here: It’s the only explanation left that makes any sense.
Having come to the conclusion that the orchestra’s finances are unsustainable, the orchestra’s board has adopted what amounts to a “starve the beast” strategy of financial attrition. This strategy, common in business, essentially turns cost-cutting into a moral imperative, and makes it possible to justify even the most draconian slash-and-burn cuts in the name of financial “responsibility.”
The reason the behavior of the orchestra’s board looks peculiar from the outside is that these people are operating under a different set of principles from everyone else involved in the dispute—especially music lovers. To wit:
—They want Osmo Vanska to resign, so that they can hire a younger, less demanding artistic director at half the price.
—They want the orchestra’s top players and senior members to quit or take jobs elsewhere, so that they can replace them with younger players who will accept a lower pay scale.
—They want the orchestra to abandon its mission to be “world-class,” because international accolades, glowing CD reviews, and praise in the New York Times doesn’t sell more tickets—it just costs money.
Without coming right out and saying it in so many words, what the Minnesota Orchestra’s board is communicating—through its decisions, or lack thereof—is that it wants to change the orchestra’s mission: from that of a world-class ensemble with an all-star conductor to a moderately competent regional orchestra that plays the sort of popular classical music most people want to hear. A nice side benefit is that most classically trained musicians can play the bulk of the standard repertoire in their sleep, so they don’t really need a conductor. Any idiot can put on a tux and wave a stick, right? So why not hire any old idiot to do it?
Sadly, from a business standpoint, this approach makes a certain amount of sense. If the chase to be one of the best orchestra’s in the country doesn’t put any more butts in the seats, or motivate donors to cough up more money, and no one buys the CDs—what’s the point? Only a small number of snobby aesthetes can tell the difference between a great orchestra and a pretty good one anyway, and most people hate that plunky atonal modern crap, so why not give people their Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, and Dvorak, and be done with it?
Besides, younger audiences aren’t sophisticated or knowledgeable enough to appreciate anything new or challenging in classical music. The best way to lure neophytes into Orchestra Hall is to play the classics their teachers tell them they ought to hear. So there again, even if growing future audiences is the goal, it makes no sense to muck up the works with more obscure music that only a relatively few people care about. And even the people who do care about it are old and quiet. If we wait long enough, they’ll go away on their own.
That’s the business mind at work, at any rate: Only do what makes financial sense. Art be damned.
Last week, the Minnesota Orchestra released an independent financial review by the New York firm AKA Strategy. It’s a long, boring report, but there's a key passage buried on the third page:
“The Orchestra has had a history of overestimating its ability to generate revenue, particularly contributed revenue, hoping that it would be able to close the ever-growing gap in the operating budget through fundraising. But the combination of adverse economic circumstances and limits on donor capacity and interest have hindered the orchestra’s efforts to reliably bridge the gap in recent years.”
The Great Recession has been largely blamed for the predicament the orchestra is in—by raising musicians’ pay and expectations at the same time the economy tanked, taking the endowment and donations down with it. Corporate profits have rebounded almost entirely since then, however, and the stock market is back to record highs. Yet this business recovery doesn’t appear to factor into the orchestra board’s decision-making. The key phrase is “limits on donor capacity,” because it assumes there is a limit, when there really isn’t. Companies all over the Twin Cities could donate more to the orchestra, but don’t. They have their reasons, but lack of money isn’t one of them.
Here's what the orchestra’s board is doing to resolve the situation:
—Exerting relentless pressure on musicians to accept severe pay cuts in order to lower the orchestra’s overall operating budget.
—Allowing “market forces” dictate the fate of the orchestra, in the belief that “responsible” financial stewardship sometimes requires the tough love of a firm and unyielding “no.”
—Pretending they have the moral high ground because they are the only ones willing to face the hard “reality” of the orchestra’s financial situation.
What the board clearly isn’t doing is:
—Anything substantive to change the orchestra’s financial “reality” other than demand concessions from the musicians.
—Using its influence to put pressure on leaders in the local business community to close the gap through more generous corporate financial support.
—Making a persuasive enough case to the larger business community that having a world-class orchestra in the Twin Cities is a cultural asset that helps companies like Target, Best Buy, Medtronic, Ecolab, 3M, etc. woo high-quality employees from other, warmer parts of the country.
—Insisting that companies that benefit from the Minnesota Orchestra’s cultural cachet put a dollar value on that benefit and pony up.
—Making the case that the larger business community has a civic responsibility to do more than it currently is to support and maintain the area’s world-class arts institutions, especially if one of them gets into financial trouble.
In all likelihood, then, here’s what’s going to happen:
—Osmo Vanska is going to resign.
—Music lovers and arts supporters will voice their outrage.
—More musicians will depart.
—At some point, the remaining few members of the once-mighty Minnesota Orchestra will accept a 20-30 percent pay cut.
—A newer, younger conductor—maybe a woman, possibly Sarah Hicks—will be given the artistic director job.
—Younger, less-expensive players will be hired to replace most—though not all—of the musicians who have left.
—A younger, less-expensive orchestra will emerge that plays mostly popular, not particularly challenging music from the standard repertoire.
—People will come to hear this orchestra and grudgingly admit that it’s “okay,” and maybe even better than they expected.
—The orchestra’s board and management will feel vindicated, as long as the numbers on their spreadsheet add up.
But if you are a business in town—especially a large, competitive one—here’s what’s also going to happen:
—You are going to interview an extremely bright and promising prospective employee who is so good and so smart that he or she could take a job almost anywhere.
—He/she will not accept your job offer, but won’t tell you why—only that they got a better offer somewhere else.
—You won’t know it, but one of the deciding factors in their decision was the city’s declining reputation as an arts mecca, particularly in the area of classical music.
—As a result, that brilliant missed hire is going to accept a job with your biggest competitor, and spend years out-innovating and out-competing you, costing you millions in potential revenue.
But if you are a businessperson, you already understand this: because it’s all about the numbers.
Make your decisions accordingly.
Oh, and that $50 million renovation of Orchestra Hall is now finished. Among other things, the acoustics have been improved. Why, standing in there now, one can hear almost everything—everything except music, that is.