Two San Antonio Symphony musicians talk before the opening ceremony at the Tobin Center. Photo by Scott Ball.
Two members of the San Antonio Symphony talk prior to their performance during the opening ceremony at the Tobin Center in 2014. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

With a two-week Tchaikovsky marathon in full swing, the Minnesota Orchestra has come a long way since its 16-month lockout four years ago, the longest labor dispute at a major symphony orchestra in U.S. history.

As a pianist, a teacher of 40 years, and a patron of the Minnesota Orchestra of more than 35 years, the orchestra is my oxygen tank. In the hands of its incredible musicians and directors, the music of Sibelius, Mahler, and Beethoven has become the holy water that washes away the dirt and grime of everyday life.

I was very happy to hear of the recent developments concerning the San Antonio Symphony. The leaders who understood that you cannot “cut your way to greatness” should be commended.

But now the difficult work begins. Having closely observed the 16-month lockout and witnessed the miraculous transformation of the Minnesota Orchestra, I’d like to share some thoughts with the people of San Antonio.

Many factors played a role in the lengthy dispute that began Oct. 1, 2012, and ended in January 2014. The Minnesota Orchestra Association’s proposed contract included salary cuts between 30 percent and 50 percent and more than 250 changes to the musicians’ existing contract; there was little hope of negotiations taking place in good faith.

Immediately after the lockout began, people hit the ground running. Musicians organized committees to put on concerts throughout the lockout and set up a website that allowed patrons to stay informed, donate directly to the musicians, and examine the orchestra’s financial health.

Two solid patron advocacy groups formed. Its members helped at concerts, handed out information, and investigated finances; they wrote to newspapers and city and state leaders; they developed a strong social media presence.

Though hundreds of passionate patrons played a role in saving the Minnesota Orchestra, it was the hard work of several lawyers, accountants, nonprofit arts management leaders, and a brilliant writer named Emily Hogstad – whose blog is now well-known throughout the orchestral world – who were able to provide vital information to musicians, business, and civic leaders and eventually push the Orchestra Association to finally offer a reasonable contract and end the lockout.

Why does San Antonio, or any city for that matter, need an orchestra?

A fine orchestra, which San Antonio already has, can greatly contribute to a city’s cultural environment. Like a sports team, it can be a source of pride, collectively shared by the entire community. There are thousands of children in San Antonio who participate in school bands, choirs, and orchestras or study an instrument privately. Having the opportunity to hear world-class musicians perform can be a great motivator and can make them better musicians.

Listening to great music and interacting with musicians enriches children’s imaginations and encourages creativity. It builds listening skills, elongates attention spans, promotes teamwork, and can support lessons in social studies, history, math, physics, woodworking, and engineering.

Moreover, music is good for the soul. More than 80,000 school children walk through the doors of Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis every year. My 90-year-old father still remembers how much he loved attending the orchestra as a grade-school student. These experiences stick with you. I started out as an occasional concertgoer 35 years ago. Today, I am a passionate patron who regularly donates and attends performances. The San Antonio Symphony needs a long-term plan for engaging young people as they will be its donors in 20 years.

Enlist the city’s business, civic, and arts leaders as lobbyists for the Symphony. It is in their best interests to actively promote the symphony.

The economic impact of the Minnesota lockout was far-reaching. One parking garage alone lost more than $70,000, and the convention center lost beyond $500,000. Many businesses suffered. Arts organizations that worked with the Minnesota Orchestra suffered. The City and State lost millions of dollars in tax revenue. Many musicians suffered financial devastation as they watched their life savings and children’s college funds disappear. The arts are a billion-dollar industry in Minnesota, and we are a lot smaller than Texas. I urge you to do everything you can to promote one of the jewels of your city.

A big piece of the puzzle is figuring out a way to get musicians and board members talking directly and informally. The power players during Minnesota’s lockout had more or less forbidden other board members from engaging with the musicians. In the end, a few courageous board members stood up and said, “Enough is enough,” and set up an informal lunch meeting with some of the musicians – a huge breakthrough. The board started listening to the musicians, thus paving the way for a more productive future.

Support and fully back the best leaders who have great track records in nonprofit arts management, who understand the needs of the business community, have the respect and trust of the musicians, and are willing to try new things. Allow them to think outside the box and look to models that are working elsewhere in the orchestral world.

Leadership matters. More than $13 million in donations came in within a week of the announcement that Kevin Smith would come out of retirement to take over as the Minnesota Orchestra’s chief executive officer in 2014. He and an engaged board have achieved a complete turnaround in the span of four years. Today, musicians feel like management listens to them and uses their expertise to help keep things going in the right direction. They feel respected. That trust between musicians, board, management, donors, and patrons is essential and has never been stronger. It can be done.

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What can San Antonio take from this? Your situation is complex, as will be untangling those nets, but here are some final thoughts:

Patrons and lovers of the San Antonio Symphony: You have to pick up the ball and claim ownership of this orchestra. You have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and fight.

Civic and business leaders of this beautiful and prosperous city: You are the seventh largest in the U.S., with an unemployment rate of about 3 percent and five Fortune 500 companies within your boundaries. Stop asking the question “Is there a viable way to provide symphonic music to San Antonio?”

Of course there is.

Start with the premise that there is plenty of money in this city to maintain a great orchestra and pay the musicians fairly. Look to other orchestras that are thriving, for they are out there. See what they are doing.

Orchestra management and board: Listen to each other and respect your most valuable product – the musicians. Consider that others might have great ideas to help.

Lastly, dear Spurs: Consider donating to the cause. This is a classy city, and you don’t want to play ball in one that doesn’t have a great orchestra. Talk to the guys in Indiana if you want some more tips. They pitched in when their orchestras needed help.

Elizabeth Erickson

Elizabeth Erickson

Elizabeth Erickson is a pianist who has been teaching for 40 years. She has been a Minnesota Orchestra patron for more than 35 years.