The fall of an orchestra: How mismanagement destroyed a world-class orchestra, and what we can learn from it


Staff Writer

Since last October, musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra have been locked out by the orchestra’s administration. This part of the organization, separate from the musical side, suspended musicians’ salaries and health benefits while canceling all concerts. During the lockout, upwards of 15 musicians, or approximately one-fifth of the orchestra, left out of frustration. On Oct. 1, music director Osmo Vänskä resigned, and with him left a sense of hope for the restoration of the orchestra.

Negotiations between the musicians union and orchestra administration began when the orchestra’s five-year contract expired in September 2012. The administration’s initial proposal cut musicians’ salaries by nearly $30,000 per year, about 30 percent per performer, and reduced benefits. After months of negotiations, no decisions have been made apart from the continuous cancellations of concerts by the board.

Oddly, the Minnesota Orchestra’s administration has raised roughly $100 million in the past few years, half of which is being used for the renovation of Orchestra Hall. President Michael Henson recently stated that the orchestra has balanced its budget in the past three years and is financially stable. It is therefore difficult to comprehend the need for the musicians’ salaries to be cut so drastically. The board has not been forthcoming with its reasoning, but whether the salary reduction was due to greed, pride or miscalculation, the steps the administration took in an attempt to reduce expenditures have been detrimental to the orchestra.

The Minnesota Orchestra was founded in 1903 and is based in Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. It is one of the most well-known American orchestras and frequently tours internationally. Vänskä, the music director for the past ten years, led the orchestra in a Grammy-nominated recording this past year. As with most professional orchestras, a combination of its repertoire, musicians, music director and performance hall lends the orchestra a distinct identity which cannot be replicated or replaced.

Unfortunately, it was this assumption that caused the lockout. The administration appears to have anticipated that its actions would cause musicians of the orchestra to leave, thereby weeding out musicians who would not accept the pay cut. Hiring more musicians who were desperate for jobs would theoretically save money. Management instead took extreme measures such as shutting down a blog run by Minnesota Orchestra musicians, as well as purchasing domain names that could have been used in support of the musicians. It is also important to note that the board chair is the executive vice president of Wells Fargo. Another board member is the CEO of US Bancorp, and several others are affiliated with large corporations. Many members of the administration have little knowledge of the musical world, and their attitudes toward the musicians of the orchestra show this lack of experience.

The case of the Minnesota Orchestra shows that orchestra administrators must be well-versed in the world of business as well as in music. Because the board believed that musicians were expendable and aimed to eliminate musicians who did not accept salary cuts, it destroyed what it was meant to serve: the reputation and success of the Minnesota Orchestra. It is true that the precarious economic situation of arts organizations in America creates a need for effective business models; however, an orchestra cannot run simply as a business, because arts often transcend the logical rules that generally work for corporations. All orchestras, whether financially stable or not, should pay attention and learn from the Minnesota Orchestra’s mistakes.

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