The League and Minnesota

Drew McManus created a bit of controversy last week when he wrote:

There’s a fascinating article by Lee Rosenbaum in the 3/27/2014 edition of her CultureGrrl column where she discusses the decision by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) to denounce one of their members for selling off key items from their collection in order to pay for debts and build the endowment.

“According to Rosenbaum, the decision was prompted because the museum in question, the Delaware Art Museum (DAM), violated an AAM principle that “the museum is there to save the collection; the collection is not there to save the museum.”

“AAM standards dictate that proceeds from deaccessioning be used for either further acquisitions for the collection or for direct care of the collection. Clearly, the announced parameters of this pending sale meet neither of these strictures.”

Rosenbaum goes on to state that DAM’s actions potentially damage public trust and tear away at long term sustainability.

It is fascinating to juxtapose this action with what has been happening within the orchestra field over the past several years…When the insanity that was the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute was at its peak, the field’s primary service organization, The League of American Orchestras, remained mute on the executive committee’s governance practices and actions by the CEO.

Moreover, I’m not aware that the League even maintains principles similar to those adopted by AAM and if so, they certainly don’t rise to the level of actionable results like those highlighted in Rosenbaum’s article.

There was a range of opinions expressed on Facebook when this was reposted by a member of the Minnesota Orchestra, ranging from:

It’s worth noting that the author of this post also remained pretty damned mute, issuing nearly weekly on-the-one-hand-x-on-the-other-hand-y pieces for almost the full duration of the lockout. Once it became abundantly clear which side was going to lose, he jumped on the winning bandwagon and started lecturing the losing side. Everyone looks out for his own wallet.


There are musician Board members of the League. Your comment should be directed at them. My question is why have musician League Board members if they are so powerless that they can influence nothing that effects our field.

I think both comments are a little unfair. It’s true that Drew was, on occasion, critical of something the Minnesota Orchestra musicians did. But his comments were generally directed at tactical decisions made by the musicians, while his criticisms of the board and management were far more about the substance of what they were doing. The second comment, on the other hand, assumes that the musicians on the League board disagreed with the League’s decision not to comment publicly on the situation but were too hapless or helpless to affect the decision – which is not a fair assumption.

But fundamentally what Drew is expressing in this post is a belief, shared by many in the musician community, that the League really should have done something about The War On The Northern Front. This is not, on its face, an unreasonable belief, given the egregiousness of what the board and management were doing in Minnesota. So it’s worth looking at why the League chose not to take a public position.

Drew’s analogy gives one hint. It makes sense for a museum service organization to be opposed to selling off bits of its collection to pay its operating expenses. The concept that museums protect their collections is pretty fundamental. For one thing, collections are supposed to be permanent, and those things that are donated to a collection are done so on that basis. Unless the collection is surrounded by a fence of principle, it will be raided – it’s simply too easy to pay the bills that way instead of going out and raising money to do so. Breaking faith with donors in that way is a long-term threat, not only to that institution but to other museums as well.

Very importantly, it’s also a bright-line principle – museums either de-accession for unacceptable reasons or they don’t. There’s really no middle ground or gray areas.

Lastly, a collection in and of itself requires very little funding to maintain, and can be passed on to another institution in the event the original institution cannot sustain itself. The collection, and the institution that holds it, are separate entities, with very different financial needs and dynamics.

It’s hard to see how such a principle could be translated to the orchestra world in the way Drew suggests. Of course there are similarities between the issues I’ve listed regarding de-accessioning and the kinds of discussions that go on within orchestras under financial stress. But I cannot see how a bright-line principle could be stated or applied.

Should the League say that orchestras shouldn’t lock out their musicians? That might be nice, but does anyone think that the Minnesota management would have been deterred from doing so by such a statement? I sure don’t. And wouldn’t the League have to say that musicians shouldn’t go on strike as well? It’s hard to see why musicians would factor that into their thinking about negotiations.

The fact is that orchestral labor negotiations matter a great deal to an orchestra’s financial future; unlike maintaining a collection, it’s a major ongoing expense. What kind of principle could the League put into place that would guide its intervention – even if only rhetorical – into such critical events? “Why can’t we all get along” is not a principle, nor is it very helpful guidance.

What about governance principles? There’s no question (at least in my mind) that the core of the problem in Minnesota was poor governance practices. But, except for basics such as conflict of interest language in bylaws, it’s very, very hard to distinguish good governance from bad in a bright-line way. It’s like saying that it’s unacceptable to play out of tune. Of course it is – but everyone plays out of tune to some extent, even the greats. Governance does not come in two boxes, one labeled “good” and the other “bad.” Like most things in life, the quality of governance can only be judged on a continuum. And no institution gets a “perfect” rating.

There’s an interesting analogy on the union side that presents some of the same dynamics, and that’s sub and extra pay. There’s not a trade unionist on the planet who would defend as a principle the idea that subs and extras hired by an orchestra should make less, on a per-service basis, than do that orchestra’s full-time musicians. I doubt there’s anyone at 1501 Broadway, or on the ICSOM Governing Board, who would try to defend it. For a trade unionist, it’s pretty self-evidently wrong. But it’s been negotiated into a significant number of orchestra contracts, with virtually no public criticism by the AFM or by ICSOM. (The one honorable exception was an article by Michael Moore in Senza Sordino many years ago.)

Why would a union stay silent about an important issue of core principle when some of its bargaining units, and some of its Locals, regularly violate that principle? Perhaps there’s some politics involved in not wanting to criticize potential allies. Perhaps those who could criticize realize that the musicians and Locals who negotiated lower pay for subs and extras often did so under external pressure. Or perhaps there’s simply the belief that negotiations are really complicated processes and, as such, are better left to those with an intimate knowledge of the local situation and who have ultimate responsibility for making those situations work.

In the AFM, that line of thinking goes by the name of “local autonomy.” It’s a good principle for the most part, even if it permits some bad outcomes on occasion.

And this is true even though the AFM is far more of a top-down organization, at least on paper, than is the League. The AFM has the legal ability to enforce its bylaws and, in extreme cases, to replace Local officers. The AFM could pass a bylaw (which would likely be hotly fought by the symphonic player conferences) forbidding Locals from negotiating lower rates of pay for subs and extras.

By contrast, the League has literally no authority over the field, and far more diverse constituencies to deal with than does the AFM. The principle of local autonomy is forced upon the League by the simple fact that it is a service organization and not a governing body. The principle of not publicly judging the behavior of a particular orchestra, or its management or board or musicians, follows inevitably from those facts.

Orchestras don’t join the League in order to be criticized. Musicians would most certainly react with even more hostility than they already feel if the League spoke out against musicians in a labor dispute. And perhaps those who set policy at the League (including those musicians, like me, who serve on the board) genuinely believe that negotiations are really complicated processes and, as such, are better left to those with an intimate knowledge of the local situation and who have ultimate responsibility for making those situations work – even when, as happened in Minnesota, it turns into a disaster.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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  • Isn’t the ‘League of American Orchestras’ a business development and lobbying organization, if you will, like the ‘Chamber of Commerce’ or the ‘American Widget Makers Council’ or the ‘National Association of Overpriced Convenience Stores.’ They don’t publicly, or privately criticise their member orchestras, they “promote” their interests. Why is the AAM able to be better than that?
    Is this true?…The business management side of orchestra operations is quite separate from the artistic director or music director. (Is that overstating the the idea?) While museum directors come from the ranks of senior curators. (I believe that is more or less true.)

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