Minnesota Orchestra contract dispute is about the future, not the present

Lloyd Kepple
Lloyd Kepple: The only responsible course is a model that does not use up the orchestra's endowment.
Photo courtesy Lloyd Kepple

Lloyd Kepple, Mahtomedi, practices law in Minneapolis. He is a member of the Minnesota Orchestra Board.

As the absence of regularly scheduled Minnesota Orchestra concerts proceeds into its sixth month, classical music lovers in our community mourn the loss. Longtime subscribers (including the volunteer members of the Orchestra Board) miss their concerts. Restaurant owners miss their patrons.

The work stoppage is hardest on the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra. Our acclaimed players mix a love for classical music with the blessing of talent, permitting them to combine passion with profession. And we are all eager to resume a full season of educational concerts, with caravans of school buses surrounding Orchestra Hall to expose students to classical music — in many cases for the first time, given the brevity of currently available music curriculum.

Here is the most critical point, however: This negotiation is bigger than any one of us — on the board or among the musicians — and bigger than all of us together. In 75 years, most likely none of us will be around to experience the joys of the Minnesota Orchestra, save for a lucky few who may be wheeled in for a Thursday morning coffee concert before an afternoon nap.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

No, rather than concerning this board and these musicians, the discussions at hand are about our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and about maintaining the grand institution of the Minnesota Orchestra as a shining star of our cultural heritage for future generations. And in preserving our Minnesota Orchestra, we must face the stubborn fact that the dismal science of economics is a necessary and critical topic of discussion.

The current economic reality is a confluence of economic downturn, dwindling investment returns, slower growth and a decline in classical music attendance. It requires a new economic model for the Minnesota Orchestra and for other great orchestras around the country.

The current negotiation is not a question of the board's commitment to artistic excellence or to compensating our valued and nationally acclaimed musicians. In the previous decade, the board hired an internationally acclaimed music director and granted a five-year musician contract (ending in 2012) that called for generous increases in salaries and benefits. By these actions, the board has demonstrated its commitment to spend substantially and responsibly from available resources. The current international acclaim for the Minnesota Orchestra is evidence of this commitment.

In the new economic reality, the key requirement for assuring the continued artistic excellence and international acclaim for the Minnesota Orchestra is a responsible and sustainable budget that current and potential donors will respect and to which they will respond. The backbone of that responsible and sustainable budget is a contract with our musicians that does not require unsustainable draws on the orchestra's endowment fund. It would be irresponsible to these donors and to future generations for the board to negotiate a contract that depletes its endowment, and it would be irresponsible for the musicians and their union to demand such a contract.

It takes two parties to create a work stoppage, of course, and our musicians have contributed to this labor impasse by steadfastly refusing to put forward any counterproposal nine months into our negotiations. It will also require two parties to end the work stoppage — this is our joint responsibility.

We remain confident that a contract can be achieved which will assure the sustained artistic excellence of the Minnesota Orchestra. With that contract in hand, we as members of the board look forward, together with our musicians, to continuing to tap the substantial individual, corporate and foundation sources within our community to enhance our endowment to maintain and assure a Minnesota Orchestra of international acclaim for years to come.

And that contract will give all of us — our musicians, our classic music lovers, and most importantly our schoolchildren on those beloved buses — a return ticket to Orchestra Hall, not just next month, but also in 75 years' time.