November 29, 2017; Pioneer Press
During the Great Recession, many large and apparently stable arts organizations across the country found themselves stumbling as a perfect storm of budget losses hit. No one knew how long the downturn would last or what was on the other side. Would audiences and donors come back? Many may remember the “is opera dead?” question that seemed omnipresent for a time. During this period, many began to examine their overall cost structures for potential savings, and some began to demand high cuts to the salaries of musicians and performers; this led to strikes, walkouts, and lockouts.
Among these actions was the 16-month lockout by the Minnesota Orchestra of its own musicians. The Orchestra’s alarm was understandable; deficits of $6 million in 2012 and $1.1 million in 2013 were nothing if not alarming but the unfortunate coincidence of having a pricy renovation going on at the same time and some endowment funds at hand caused the musicians to feel they were the expendables in the situation. Sparked by management’s attempt to cut salaries by 35 percent and cut the number of musicians on salary, the lockout caused the symphony to lose its popular music director, its CEO, and some board members. Meanwhile, the musicians started giving concerts at other venues around town, attracting large audiences and the sympathy of the public, keeping themselves in the eye of those who loved the orchestra for its music. Not long after, the orchestra lost a good portion of the sympathy of its audience and donors who began to make noises about appealing to the attorney general to have the $140 million endowment of the orchestra transferred to another entity.
The Orchestra lost another $650,000 in 2014. As the musicians were brought back and re-contracted, a retired Kevin Smith was brought in as the interim CEO, and here is where it gets interesting in terms of the value of rituals of reconciliation.
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Even while still in the midst of a tough recovery from seasons of lost income, Smith decided, perhaps to the consternation of many, to give raises to the musicians a full 21 months before their new contract expired. After a few months, and on the day the organization declared a balanced budget for the last fiscal year, the orchestra’s musicians returned the investment/vote of confidence, announcing a $250,000 donation to the Orchestral Association for a new fund to support community and educational programming. That gift was all that was left in the coffers of the nonprofit Minnesota Orchestra Musicians, which has now been dissolved.
Now, two years later, after three years of budgets that were not only balanced but produced a small surplus, Smith has decided that he has done his job and can pass the rejuvenated symphony along to another.
To us, the turning point seems to have been that exchange of good-faith money in 2015. There is nothing quite so cleansing as a good reconciliation moment. In a news release, the board chair who is leading the search indicated that she knew its value, saying, “A top priority is to identify a new leader who is committed to participating in and further developing the collaborative culture that is fundamental to the orchestra’s success.”—Ruth McCambridge