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The Music is the Mission

Tucked into today’s encouraging tidbits of news about the Twin Cities orchestras is one telling detail. The MN Orchestra board wants to restore the organization’s mission statement to its former proper state (they removed the word “orchestra” last year, if you can believe it), but “with two changes to emphasize community service and financial stability.” In that proposal is laid bare the philosophical chasm that originally lead to this fiasco.

The words “financial stability” do not belong in any arts organization’s mission statement. Financial stability is a means, not an end. The music is the mission.

This point is crucial. It’s at the heart of all the resentment, all the failed communication, all the wasted months without negotiation.

If an orchestra suffers financial turmoil, but manages to produce great music the whole time … well, that bumpy ride is no fun for anyone, to be sure, but ultimately that organization is succeeding in its mission. However, if an orchestra enjoys perfect financial stability while producing crappy music, then it is failing. The music is the mission. Financial stability is not.

Financial stability is crucial because it enables the mission, but it is not a success criterion in itself. It no more belongs in an arts mission statement than “buying instruments” or “generating publicity” or “having working toilets.” All are essential. None constitute success.

Why, then, would anybody think otherwise? Well, there are other types of organizations where financials are indeed part of the mission. A for-profit company’s goal is to increase shareholder value; that’s why it exists. If a for-profit makes an amazing product, brings people happiness, and makes the world a better place, but goes broke, well then … yay for the good work it did, but it still failed in its goal of making money. Depending on the company’s relationship with its shareholders, that goal can even become a legal obligation.

That frame of thought is compeltely inappropriate to an orchestra. When an arts organization’s survival trumps the arts … like I said….

My day job takes me back and forth between the private and nonprofit worlds, and I can say from experience that different missions lead to different mindsets which infuse the culture and habits of all the people in an organization. Many (most?) orchestra board members come from the for-profit world. (The current and previous MN Orchestra board chairs hail from private for-profit banks, Wells Fargo and US Bancorp.) I’m guessing that it’s just really hard for them to break the habit of thinking of the bottom line being quantified in dollars. I don’t mean that in a “money is evil, down with corporations, blah blah blah” kind of way; I mean it sympathetically. Habits of thought are hard to overcome. There’s no malice in having difficulty overcoming acculturation, or misapplying experience. To do so is only human.

To the orchestra administration, I respectfully submit that you may be confused about what your purpose is, in subtle but profound ways that have generated much of the anger and conflict that now confounds you. As a part of today’s “fresh start,” I encourage you to clarify your thinking about the difference between the means and the ends.

(Aside: There is a good case for community service being part of the mission as well. That is indeed a goal in itself, one an arts organization may choose to adopt — or not. Another discussion.)