With an influx of new board members, a $200,000 surplus, and arts business specialist Michael Kaiser leading the way, the San Antonio Symphony sees its upcoming 2018-19 season as just the first step in a new five-year strategic plan.
Kaiser, the Symphony’s new interim executive director, presented ambitious plans for the new season, as well as longer-term goals, to the City Council on Wednesday. Symphony board chair Kathleen Weir Vale was present, as were musician representatives and members of the City-County Symphony Transformation Task Force.
New this year are a concert visit to the Haven for Hope homeless services center, part of an outreach program comprising 10 free community concerts throughout Bexar County. Other locations for the free concerts include Palo Alto College, Hangar 9 at Brooks, the UT Health San Antonio campus at the South Texas Medical Center, the A.C. Jones High School auditorium in Beeville, St. Philips College, and the Barshop Jewish Community Center. The free concerts are scheduled throughout the season from September through March 2019.
The series will include two “Thank You” concerts, one each for the city of San Antonio and for Bexar County, at locations yet to be confirmed.
“What you’ll see is we’re embracing all of San Antonio in the year ahead,” Kaiser said.
“The idea being that we want to have a strong presence in the community,” said Katie Brill, the Symphony’s manager of artistic planning, of the focus on outreach and education. “If we go to locations outside of our building, we will potentially serve a wider audience, and spread awareness of how we can serve the community effectively.”
Ultimately, Kaiser said, “I believe what you’re going to see is … a very different story about the Symphony a year from now, when you see a Symphony that has reached out across the city.”
The San Antonio Symphony canceled the remainder of its season in January, but Vale took over as board chair to restart the season days later, helped by an outpouring of public support and emergency funding. But the challenge to fill its seats and attract a lasting audience remains.
Other new strategies include an expanded Young People’s Concerts program, from 30 to 40 free concerts for children at locations including the Edgewood Theatre of Performing Arts, Southwest High School Auditorium, and the Judson Performing Arts Center.
Kaiser also highlighted concert visits to each of the San Antonio Public Library’s 31 branches, an 80th anniversary concert and gala, and a concert featuring the music of San Antonio Tejano legend Emilio Navaira that would include his sons as performers. Navaira’s sons Diego and Emilio IV currently tour widely with the Last Bandoleros.
Looking ahead, Kaiser also mentioned wanting to stage a side-by-side concert with a guest orchestra from Mexico, a potential concert with opera star and San Antonio regular Placido Domingo, and playing host to a biannual Texas orchestra festival with community orchestras from around the state, to take advantage of San Antonio’s “role as a convener, which you do so well,” he said.
Kaiser’s overall focus is attracting new audiences and individual donors, which he identified as a potential key to success. San Antonio doesn’t have “the breadth of arts donations that we might see in other cities” of comparable size, he said. Corporate donations are vital to the health of the organization, he said, but individual donations of $100, $500, and $1,000 can help the Symphony achieve sustainability, and “a real budget based on facts, not on wishes,” he said.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff cited the importance of smaller individual donations in the Symphony’s fundraising during its early 2018 matching grant period when promised County funds were officially granted during Commissioners Court on June 5.
The “elephant in the room” during Kaiser’s Council presentation is raising an endowment, said Rich Oppenheim, president of the American Federation of Musicians Local 23. Typically, an endowment for a healthy nonprofit arts organization is in the range of four times the annual budget, he said.
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With the Symphony’s current and projected budget of $7.6 million, that would mean approximately $30 million for an endowment that would help avoid annual budget shortfalls that have plagued the orchestra in recent years.
Kaiser has acknowledged the need for an endowment, Vale said after the presentation, but said current concerns outweigh that important long-term concern.
“You have to crawl before you can walk, then walk before you can run,” said Vale.
Mary Ellen Goree, violinist and orchestra committee chair for the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony, concurred with Vale’s assessment, and Kaiser’s strategy. “The way to get five years down the road encompasses making things better right now,” she said.
Aside from an endowment, another key to long-term success is stability in upper management, said Suhail Arastu, development director of Musical Bridges Around the World and mayoral appointee to the Symphony Task Force.
“Kaiser also showed us in task force meetings that the nation’s top-performing orchestras have had executive directors for nearly a decade,” Arastu said.
During the presentation, Kaiser said he hopes to hand off his interim position to a permanent executive director in December.