The Pep Talk: Believe in the Possibilities. How Minnesota Orchestra's colossal comeback can serve as inspiration to performing arts organizations everywhere.
Last weekend I read this great farewell post to Minnesota Orchestra CEO Kevin Smith by Emily Hogstad of Song of the Lark because 1) I adore her blog and writing, and 2) I've been watching Minnesota Orchestra's South Africa tour on Instagram and with each post I'm am inspired by and SO HAPPY for this orchestra.
Why is a Fort Worth gal with no obvious connection to said orchestra so invested in and inspired by this tour?
For those unaware, I did a LOT of work with the musicians of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra (FWSO) when they went on strike in September 2016, including helping form and run the marketing for the non-profit Save Our Symphony Fort Worth. (You can see a little of that work in my portfolio here.)
During that time I studied many orchestra conflicts, including that of the Minnesota Orchestra. A couple of years prior they’d been through a very long, VERY contentious conflict. If they and the other orchestras I studied could come out the other side with their organization still intact (if badly bruised), so could we.
Pro tip: when in seemingly impossible circumstances, look to find similar success stories to show what is possible. If it can happen once, it can happen again.
But if you can’t find any, don’t worry. Become the trend setter!
So just how amazing is this story?
Management of the Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA) locked out its musicians and cancelled all concerts from October 1, 2012 to February 1, 2014.
Also known as the longest contract dispute and work stoppage in major U.S. orchestra history.
Not exactly a record anyone should strive to set, but anywho.
Why did Minnesota Orchestra lose an entire concert season and then some?
The usual suspects, of course. Deep financial issues that raised MANY questions (larger than normal draws from the endowment and growing deficits in the millions to name a couple) paired with the desire to "solve" said financial problems on the backs of staffing and musicians by letting staff go and asking the musicians to take a more-than-significant pay cut. (Articles I read varied from 30-50%.)
Note: There’s SO MUCH MORE to this story but I’m not going to dive too hard into the specifics because 1) it would turn this blog post into a full, book-length case study, and 2) it’s in the past. (Which is necessary to study in order to prevent oneself from making the same mistakes, but isn’t necessary for the point to today’s post.)
For our purposes today, know that anything that was bad enough to make orchestra management: lock out its musicians for over a year, lose an entire season and then some, sustain what could have been irreparable damage to its reputation, and nearly destroy the entity entirely had to be hard-core nasty.
(If you really need the tea on this, here is a fantastic pdf summary from Save Our Symphony Minnesota and the lockout archive from Emily of Song of the Lark.
If your organization is in trouble, it's worth the deep dive to learn more about what happened so you can prevent these problems in your own organization. I have more links if you need them.)
Since the orchestra’s near-death experience, they have risen above by:
Balancing the budget by the end of the 2014-15 season. (Making up what had been a persistent millions of dollars deficit.) Fiscal years 2015-16 and 2016-17 were balanced too.
Receiving stellar amounts of donations. (Look at that glorious donor list at the end of this report.) The orchestra musicians even closed the nonprofit they started during the lockout and donated the $250K they had remaining to MOA. (Source: the NYT article linked below.)
Negotiating a new contract for the musicians 21 months ahead of deadline. (A unicorn-level magical feat in itself.)
Returning to Carnegie Hall to perform the concert that was cancelled due to the lockout.
Recordings and other world tours including most recently playing BBC Proms and throughout South Africa. (Psst! They're also the first professional orchestra from the U.S. to tour South Africa. How cool is that?)
And this is just scratching the surface!
(Fun fact: in case making up the deficit and balancing the budget wasn’t badass enough, were one to peruse the 990s, you’d discover a little something extra. Last year, presumably due to his contract having to be bought out, Michael Henson, CEO during the lockout, was paid $526K. Kevin Smith made $362K. So MOA not only made up a major deficit...they did it while basically paying TWO CEO salaries.
It's shameful that this prior CEO was rewarded so handsomely for almost destroying the orchestra and scorching the earth behind him...but it also shows how truly incredible this turnaround is.
Again proving that nothing is too impossible to accomplish.)
If you do need help, here’s where I see much of the magic in this transformation:
Strong, artist-centered focus. I’ve said this time and again and believe it in my bones: an organization MUST take care of the artists. The artists are the product. They’re not dispensable. With no artists, you have no organization. Full stop. Of all the details from this great article in the New York Times, what stood out to me the most in helping MOA turn things around was the shift to focus on the artists. Musicians are on governing committees and included in management and artistic decisions. They’re featured prominently in the marketing. And the organization is seeing the benefits of this in a myriad of ways.
Focusing on growing revenue rather than making cuts. In the same NYT article, Smith says “We’re dealing with [the deficits] on the revenue side rather than on the expense side.” It’s like my grandmother always said about winter vs. summer. "I can always add more layers, but there are only so many layers I can take off before it becomes indecent." You can seek out more options for income, but there’s only so much you can take away from the artists before you greatly affect quality.
Embracing the entire community and donations of all sizes. In Emily’s post linked above, she touches on how Smith made all sizes of donors feel needed and important. (Which runs counter-intuitive to the approach from most CEOs and Development heads who only focus on large donors.) I’ve written here about the benefits and needs to courting all donors of all sizes. This lede from Star Tribune also shares Smith’s approach to include everyone. "Kevin Smith has put out the word: If you want to help the Minnesota Orchestra, no idea is dumb and no donation too small."
Straight up optimism. You KNOW Smith has to have unbridled optimism to 1) willingly walk into this scorched earth situation with intent on fixing it and 2) extend his stay from interim to permanent CEO for a time. In the NYT article, he openly says he’s an optimist. “It’s hard to predict whether or not the growth is sustainable, or whether we’re going to plateau. I don’t think so. There’s a lot of audience out there. I’m just an optimist, I guess.” (Not for nothing, but compared to some CEO statements I’ve read, this is the BIGGEST BREATH OF THE CLEANEST FRESHEST AIR OUT THERE.)
Vision. As Emily ended her post, she said: “We’ve all learned so much from Kevin. But the first thing I hope we all take away is his ability to see the undreamed-of so clearly.” Vision. Is. Everything.
What you want is possible.
Growth and funding are possible. Embracing small donors and making big money from it is possible. Taking the best care of your artists and having a solid company is possible.
In a world that often feels like it's on fire, art plays a vital role. Don't let the naysayers dissuade you.
If you want it, you CAN make it happen. This story is proof. If you need more stories to solidify the doubts in your brain, look for them. Seek them out. The stories of good are out there.
As performers, our default is to hide the magic. When you're failing, it's even more tempting to hide due to embarrassment, shame, guilt, fear, etc. This makes it easy to feel alone in the hardships.
You’re not alone, and you can go through hell and come out on the other side better for it.
If this organization can go through a long, contentious, extraordinarily public crisis and come out the other side for the better, so can you.
Thank you for your article, Emily. It made me feel like I to knew the CEO that achieved great things. It made me miss him for Minnesota. It also made me hopeful for my own community and our Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. Even though FWSO has been without a CEO for over a year and counting, I know through positive, strong leadership anything is possible. (EDITOR'S UPDATE: A week after I originally posted this blog the FWSO announced they had a new CEO! Hooray!)
What are your favorite comeback stories? Share with us in the comments!
Need to stage a comeback of your own? Contact me today and let’s see how to make that happen!