By MATT PEIKEN
People join the boards of nonprofit organizations for any number of reasons—commitment to the mission, connection to the people involved, social or professional status. Three-plus months into the lockouts of the Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, I can’t figure out the motives of current board members.
They’ve locked out their musicians and locked onto dramatic, intractable, unprecedented demands of musicians—both in pay and their say within the organizations. By every measure and angle—beyond, perhaps, the cold crunching of numbers in a ledger—these board members will leave the orchestras in worse shape than they were when they first stepped aboard.
This is baffling. It takes a lot of money and, often, considerable fundraising commitments, to sit on the boards of major arts organizations. I wonder what motivated these people, of all the causes and organizations they could put their names behind, to commit time and money to these orchestras. I wonder what they believed they were investing in when they accepted seats on the board.
I wonder: When they gaze at the current landscape, is this what they signed up for?
I still believe what I offered in an Oct. 4 column, that the national wave of anti-union politics and business practices had, at least until recently, informed and emboldened the leaders on the negotiating teams for both organizations. A newly softened tone in Minneapolis—along with the reappearance of the “orchestra” in its mission statement—comes in the immediate wake of an inquiry by state legislators into how the Minnesota Orchestral Association has used state money during the lockout. Still, I question whether anything meaningful has changed.
Throughout the lockouts, board members had been strongly discouraged by their leaderships from having ex parte communication with musicians, so say musicians of both orchestras, lest any of them fall prey to information and sentiments outside their insular bubble. One thing is certain: Each board has so corroded the working relationship with musicians—the staffs and non-negotiating managements caught in the anguished middle—that it will likely take a generational blood transfusion to make things right again.
If I held a seat on one of these boards, well, the text you’re reading now would be outlined in gold. Because I could afford it. That’s just how I’d roll. Beyond the bling, I would see myself charged with four dovetailing, entwining responsibilities: 1) Safeguarding the orchestra’s quality and integrity, 2) Raising the money necessary for responsibility No.1, 3) Championing the orchestra in public and business circles, and 4) Getting out of the artists’ way.
I don’t sit on either board. I can barely afford the serif on this font. But from my vantage, nobody on either board is employing any of these four priorities. I’m not suggesting the musicians don’t play roles in making ends meet, but a strategy that turns back musicians’ compensation to levels unseen in three decades is a dead-ender for preserving either orchestra’s quality. What good is an orchestra, squeezed of the ability to attract, retain and inspire great talent, if the best thing you can say about it is it carries a balanced budget with a minimal endowment draw?
I imagine this conversation over Cristal sipped from the heels of Mezlan shoes:
Socialite: “Say, I understand you’re on the board of the Minnesota Orchestra.”
Aristocrat: “Indeed. And, I dare say, it is quite a responsibility … (long sip) … Quite. A. Responsibility.”
Socialite: “Pretell, the songbirds tell me you’re weathering quite the rough patch.”
Aristocrat: “Oh, no, no, no, no, no. Your songbirds have been roosting in rubbish and feasting upon lies. I assure you, everything is quite tip-top.”
Socialite: (raised eyebrow) “Hmmm, fancy that. Well, as I hear it, your musicians are as forlorn as circus clowns, and paid just as handsomely, I might add.”
Aristocrat: “Now see here! Our finances have never been so spotless. We run the tightest orchestra in the Americas.”
Socialite: “Yes, but Maestro Vanska has departed, your best musicians are fleeing the orchestra as if it were the deck of the Titanic and the musicians you’ve assembled from the wreckage perform with all the fire of an Easy-Bake Oven.”
Aristocrat: “Tis true, all that. But did I mention—our endowment is quite sound.”
There’s little chance of negotiations turning out well for musicians unless board members find and recommit themselves to their reasons for first joining these boards. Only they can unseat their own leaders, under the charge they’re doing more harm than good to the orchestras and community. The board should replace its leaders with people who possess the creativity, courage and conviction to put the music and, by extension, these musicians first.
Either that, or step off. Either choice holds more integrity than a silent complicity with a suicidal strategy.
Matt Peiken is the founding publisher of MNuet.