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Minnesota Orchestra's 'fresh start' needs to go beyond talks with musicians

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Emily Hogstad
Emily E. Hogstad: It will not do to have the leaders of our cultural institutions ensconced in such bubbles.
Photo courtesy of Emily E. Hogstad

By Emily E. Hogstad

Emily E Hogstad is a writer and violinist based in Eau Claire. She runs the blog Song of the Lark.

A reboot of a beloved product. Plans made and approved in secret. Blind-sided customers. Letters, phone calls, protests. An executive tier caught off-guard by the public's anger. The realization: It's a mistake to overhaul a well-established product without first consulting the people who buy it.

I'm not talking about New Coke. I'm talking about the Minnesota Orchestra.

In November 2011, the leadership at the Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA) approved a  strategic plan for the orchestra for 2012-2015. No public input went into the plan; in fact, the public hasn't even seen the plan. Instead, we've been given a summary, glossy and full of pictures, like a children's book. Said summary is full of vague phrases that could mean any number of things ("new concert formats & content," "align supply & demand of concerts," and "vital holiday festivals," among others), as well as several charts with misleading Y axes. The summary is clearly designed to advance a preordained narrative: namely, that the Minnesota Orchestra is in crisis, and the only way to solve it is to blindly trust the same people who created the crisis in the first place.

The Strategic Plan includes major pay cuts and changes in working conditions for musicians. Consultants, conductors, commentators: All have warned that the proposals on the table will gut the orchestra. In October, three former Minnesota Orchestra music directors went so far as to write in the Star Tribune that "An orchestra does not recover easily from such drastic cuts, if ever."

What have the orchestra's CEO Michael Henson, board chair Jon Campbell and negotiations chair Richard Davis said about these warnings?

Nothing. In fact, not one of them has given an in-depth interview to the press about the lockout or their role in it.

Don't get me wrong; there hasn't been a total blackout. Every couple of weeks, they'll write an opinion piece or speak a few oblique sentences to the papers. But their statements are monologues, not dialogues. They have repeatedly failed to respond to interview requests. Their silence contrasts sharply with the openness of musicians, who have sought public feedback via their website and answered audiences' questions after lockout concerts.

In fact, the longest unedited public interview that a representative from the MOA has given occurred on Nov. 30, when former MOA board member Doug Kelley debated cellist Tony Ross on TPT's "Almanac." Henson was nowhere to be seen. Kelley spoke for about four minutes.

It will not do to have the leaders of our cultural institutions ensconced in such bubbles.

The MOA's credibility has been decimated by the events of the last six months, and I fear that a change in leadership will be necessary to completely regain the public's trust. But here are three steps the MOA could take to start:

Release the entire 2012-2015 Strategic Plan. The full title of the "Strategic Plan" PDF on the orchestra's website is "Minnesota Orchestra's Strategic Business Plan Summary." Presumably there is a longer document somewhere that explains in greater detail where exactly MOA leadership wants to take the organization and why. Where is this document, and what does it say?

Acknowledge that Henson, Campbell and Davis need to participate in multiple in-depth interviews with industry professionals, pronto. All three men need to increase their visibility, but Henson in particular needs to face the music. If he is unable to defend his ideas in public, he would do well to resign.

Institute a series of meetings with the public. Require that MOA board members be present at each. Listen to the public's concerns — not just donors' — and make sure those concerns get back to other board members. Record these sessions for those who cannot attend in person. Make them available online. Promise accountability and accessibility. Remember that an engaged public is the reason that the Minnesota Orchestra exists.

The MOA has announced "a fresh start" in negotiations with musicians in 2013. It would do well to use this opportunity to create a fresh start with patrons, too. As the businesspeople on the MOA board of directors well know, policies implemented from the top down without public input are almost always doomed to failure.

Just ask the executives at Coca-Cola.