New City-County Task Force Aims To Steer SA Symphony to Stability

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A large crowd enters the Tobin Center of the Performing Arts for the first of two Tricentennial concerts.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Spectators enter the Tobin Center of the Performing Arts for the first of two Tricentennial concerts in January.

City Council and the Bexar County Commissioners Court announced Monday the formation of a new City-County Symphony Transformation Task Force, to help the San Antonio Symphony stabilize its operations and create a long-term strategy for sustainability.

"There is urgency among all stakeholders," reads a memo released jointly by Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.

The nine-member task force, led by prominent business leaders along with City and County representatives, will "provide recommendations on how the Symphony should be transformed for long-term financial success and broader arts community support," according to the memo.

The task force will work to help maintain a stable and affordable 72-member symphony orchestra for San Antonio, said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.

“Hopefully this task force will lay some good, strong groundwork to try to come up with a budget that is doable,” Wolff said.

Before Saturday’s Tobin Center concert, Symphony interim Executive Director Karina Bharne told the audience that a recent media report was erroneous in saying the Symphony was far behind its fundraising goals for the 2017-18 season.

To the contrary, Bharne said Monday, "we are confident that our fundraising goals will be met for this season," she said.

The Symphony board has nearly doubled the matching grant of $350,000 issued by the Bexar County Commissioners Court on Jan. 19, Bharne said, garnering approximately $650,000 in support, mostly from individual donors.

Individual donors also played a strong role in the March 22 Big Give philanthropic drive, raising more than $25,000 from more than 250 individual donors, Bharne said, which earned the orchestra an additional $3,000 bonus in the Arts and Culture category for medium and large organizations.

While having surpassed its immedidate goals, the orchestra remains fully engaged in fundraising.

"The match ... is going to help us end the season strong," Bharne said. "While that’s still important, and is going to help with stability, we still need additional support from donors to get us through the end of the season," she said. Bharne reported that strong ticket sales from the March 23-24 Vivaldi concerts have helped.

Wolff offered a long-term perspective beyond the current season, mentioning that this is the third such task force convened to solve the Symphony's ongoing woes. The first was formed in 1994 and the second in 2003, chiefly to address funding issues.

The 79-year-old organization canceled its season in 1987, and went through a 2003 bankruptcy following years of pay cuts, red ink, and changing leadership. The San Antonio Symphony’s current season was canceled in January, only to be resuscitated days later by new board chair Kathleen Weir Vale.

“Everybody needs to remember that the Symphony has been in place for over 70-odd years, and we’ve had three little blow-ups over those years, and were able to patch it together,” Wolff said.

Vale took over from Alice Viroslav, who will be on the new task force, along with fellow County appointees Mike De La Garza, a marketing consultant, and longtime labor activist Linda Chavez-Thompson. Mayoral appointees include Suhail Arastu of Musical Bridges Around the World, Elizabeth Fauerso of The Pearl, and attorney Nissa Dunn. Joint City-County appointee Denny Ware, former chief executive of therapeutic device provider Kinetic Concepts, will lead the task force; Councilman Robert Treviño (D1) will represent the City; and Precinct 2 County Commissioner Paul Elizondo will represent Bexar County.

De La Garza served on both previous Symphony task forces, chairing the 2003 version under then-Mayor Ed Garza. That panel recommended giving the Symphony a dedicated home, which it now has in the Tobin Center.

De La Garza said this task force can take up where the previous one left off, achieving other goals, such as occasional free public concerts. “I’m hopeful. Certainly there’s an enthusiasm that has shown itself these past few months” in the community, he said.

“Our efforts for the task force will be to bring together all elements of the community,” he said, including funders, potential funders, and even past funders who’ve stopped giving. “Let’s bring all those to the table, and have an honest conversation on what’s led to our breakdown, and how do we get to a breakthrough.”

Judge Wolff’s mindset, De La Garza said, “is to put all the cards on the table and address this once and for all, and see how we might be able to fix this issue,” which De La Garza called “a decades-long problem.”

The task force will focus on next season and beyond, Wolff said. The matching grant met the short-term challenge of “keeping the lights on and the music playing,” he said, but “long term, the musicians, donors, and community all deserve to know that the Symphony has a sustainable funding model” for the years ahead.

Another task force member, Chavez-Thompson, has worked for more than 50 years in the labor movement, including as executive vice president of the AFL-CIO. She said that she is “hoping to bring a new voice” to the discussions.

“When Judge Wolff put me on this task force, I said what perfect opportunity to bring the labor perspective into the conversations, so that when decision are made, people who don’t usually get a chance to speak on task forces or commissions or committees” are able to be heard, she said. The Symphony must negotiate a new labor contract for musicians, whose contract expires Aug. 31.

One goal of the “Transformation” task force is to help build audiences, Wolff said, mentioning as an example the March 3 movie concert for the award-winning La La Land musical at the Majestic Theatre.

Many in the audience had never been to the Symphony before, Wolff said, particularly younger people. Orchestra members came out from backstage to talk to them, and “we need more of that to build a great audience for the Symphony,” he said.

Symphony clarinetist Stephanie Key highlighted the important community and educational work that orchestra musicians do regularly, including the the SOLI Chamber Ensemble’s Ballads of the Borderlands concert in which she performed on Sunday afternoon at the Institute of Texan Cultures.

Flush with excitement after the performance, which involved original compositions and lyrics by local students, and the Children’s Chorus of San Antonio, Key said, “We just want people to know this is happening, not just for us,” she said of the Symphony, “but for these kids,” and the future.

“It’s not just what’s happening on that symphonic stage,” but what’s happening in the community, with work the musicians do to help educate San Antonio kids, Key said.

The Symphony will announce its 2018-2019 season programming at its next concerts, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on April 13-14, and Fiesta Pops concerts April 20-21. The next movie concert is Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean May 11-12 at the Majestic Theatre.

SOLI performs Ballads of the Borderlands again at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower this Tuesday, March 27, at 7:30 p.m.

7 thoughts on “New City-County Task Force Aims To Steer SA Symphony to Stability

  1. It seems to me that the Symphony’s problems go back to lack of funding, not frivolous spending.

    The deep pockets of this community donated plenty of money to the Witte when it decided to reinvent itself. The same happened when the Children’s Museum moved to Broadway and became the Doseum. And, the McNay and SAMA have healthy endowments.

    So why can’t the Symphony get any of these deep pockets to donate to music?

  2. It would be interesting to look at a list of the ten biggest corporations in San Antonio, then look at a list of the ten wealthiest individuals in San Antonio, and see who amongst them is donating to the Symphony and at what levels.

  3. I’m surprised that no one with on-the-ground experience in the orchestral field is on the task force. How can they expect to put the symphony on solid ground without including someone who understands the profession to advise them?

  4. I hope the people making decisions for the financial future of the SA Symphony are putting plans together to start an endowment to benefit the symphony. We need a plan to help make one that helps stabilize the symphony’s yearly budget on top of regular fundraising. We shouldn’t just be fundraising to help this month’s bills.

  5. The younger generation in San Antonio need to experience the culture and richness of the symphony. Just maybe possibly putting on Facebook with advertising with up and coming events with a website for online ticket sales would also help generate more interest and easy availability. Tack on a small fee to the ticket sales strictly for an endowment to the symphony.

  6. I love the idea of a ticket surcharge dedicated to an endowment. I am not a deep pocket donor but I could still be part of a long term solution to the financial problems.

  7. Symphony needs to be known for more than just its financial problems. How about outdoor concerts to celebrate holidays – like the Boston Pops on July 4. Lots of publicity could be generated and lots of new potential patrons reached.

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