A dark house in St. Paul as Orchestra lock-out continues


Earlier last week the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra canceled all concerts through April 21. It’s hard to stage a concert without musicians but, as the SPCO has locked out its musicians, no one should be surprised. This is no way to manage a jewel in Minnesota’s cultural and arts crown.

Last fall, the SPCO’s contract with it’s musicians expired. The musicians offered to continue playing on the old contract’s terms while negotiating a new deal. The musicians signaled their clear understanding that a new contract would reduce musician pay.

SPCO’s leaders took a different tact. They locked the musicians out of the SPCO’s facilities and cancelled scheduled fall concerts. Management has been cancelling concerts ever since. At this rate, there won’t be a 2012-2013 SPCO season to complete.

A labor lockout is a heavy-handed, one-sided negotiation that carries a mounting risk for management. The SPCO’s quality and organizational viability is at risk. Go long enough without resolving a pay dispute while suspending business activity and customers take their dollars somewhere else.

Cultural organizations like the SPCO rely heavily on philanthropic patronage. Any one working in the arts will readily tell you that ticket sales cover, maybe, 10-15 percent of the organization’s budget. Without philanthropic foundation and wealthy donor support, arts and cultural organizations would be fewer and much further between.

Patrons don’t like supporting arts organizations that regularly run budget deficits. Patrons also aren’t keen on supporting declining artistic quality. This dichotomy raises an operational challenge for the SPCO and its Minneapolis peer, the Minnesota Orchestra, also engaged in a season-canceling labor lock-out. Which comes first? Fleeing patrons or declining quality?

Arriving home Thursday, the mail included the 2013-2014 Ordway Center for the Performing Arts 2013-2014 season catalog. It promotes touring shows ranging from dance, musicals, comedy and world music. The Ordway is both a venue and a performing arts organization. It’s not a performing ensemble. The SPCO is a performing ensemble. It’s also an Ordway anchor tenant. The SPCO lock-out affects the Ordway much as the National Hockey League’s player lock-out affected the Xcel Center and St Paul’s bar business. In other words, the SPCO lock-out doesn’t affect a couple of handfuls of skilled musicians. It affects all of Minnesota. The longer the lock-out continues, the worse the likely outcome.

I’m sure that there’s at least some enthusiasm for a second rate chamber orchestra in Saint Paul but I can’t muster any. I expect that I’m not alone. It’s not the remainder of the 2012-2013 SPCO that’s at risk, it’s the Chamber Orchestra’s future. It’s time to settle this lock-out. Smart managers value their workers and invite worker participation in problem solving. SPCO management should give that a try. What they’ve been doing isn’t working.