Stayin’ Alive: The SA Symphony’s Challenge To Fill Seats and Cashbox

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Nicholas Frank / Rivard Report

Season ticket holder Margaret Joseph raises a fist in support of San Antonio Symphony musicians at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

Two weeks past its near-death experience, the San Antonio Symphony rallied fervent support and 11th-hour funding to preserve most of its current season. But will the so-called "people's Symphony" grow the audience and underwriting necessary to survive?

It depends on whether the Symphony can police its budget, engage and excite the community, maintain its legacy donors, and attract more. Perhaps most challenging, it has to find the sweet spot in programming that fills seats with older traditionalists who buy season subscriptions and a new generation yearning for more flash.

"Every day, the picture is brighter and brighter," said Kathleen Weir Vale, who chairs the Symphony Society of San Antonio, the orchestra's managing board.

"We are engaged in raising operating funds, responding to the outpouring of support from all camps, reassembling our organization and our board of directors," she said, to include representatives from Bexar County and each of the city's 10 Council districts.

Looking forward even as she deals with "many moving parts," Vale said, "fortunately, the San Antonio Symphony orchestra is in tune and intact and ready for the next curtain call."

The future looked more grim before the New Year.

The Symphony avoided the “Nightmare Before Christmas” scenario Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing feared, that the Tim Burton-themed Dec. 23 concerts might have been the orchestra's last, given a breakdown in contract negotiations between musicians and management. A temporary agreement to stage a January weekend of Tricentennial Festival concerts averted total disaster, even after the rest of the season to follow had been canceled on Jan. 3.

The orchestra was resuscitated the following weekend, with Vale taking over as Symphony Society chair, replacing Dr. Alice Viroslav. The musicians’ contract, which expired Dec. 31, was then swiftly negotiated to conclusion on Jan. 12, just as the second Tricentennial Festival program, featuring DreamWeek tributes to Martin Luther King Jr., was to begin.

While the season has been restored, the financial challenges that put the Symphony's future in doubt remain.

A Little Bit of Math

As San Antonians hear often, theirs is the seventh-largest city in the U.S. However, recent census data reveal that it ranks as only the 25th largest metro area, which puts the city more in line with Cleveland, Ohio; Portland, Oregon; and Riverside, California, in terms of overall metro-area population. Could this disparity account, in part, for its symphony orchestra’s persistent funding troubles?

Lang-Lessing said as much during his introduction to last weekend’s Tricentennial Celebration concerts. Immigrant Max Reiter founded the Symphony in 1939, and “within no time,” Lang-Lessing said, the orchestra ranked 19th in the country, in terms of budget.

“We are number 55 right now,” he said. Lang-Lessing then joked to an audience eager for any note of optimism, “just a little bit of math.”

Courtesy / San Antonio Symphony

Sebastian Lang-Lessing conducts the San Antonio Symphony at the Tobin Center.

Further math reveals that the Symphony’s annual budget is around $8 million ($8,055,451 as of the end of fiscal year 2016-17), which is similar to symphony orchestras in Sarasota, Florida ($8.6 million); Dayton, Ohio ($8.4 million); Columbus, Ohio ($7.6 million); and Omaha, Nebraska ($7 million), respectively the 73rd-, 72nd-, 33rd-, and 59th-ranked metropolitan areas in the U.S.

Considered among the top 10 orchestras in the country, the Cleveland Orchestra is located in the 24th-ranked metropolitan area and spends $53 million annually. The population of Bexar County ranks among the fastest-growing in the nation, but its orchestra lags far behind.

What happened between 1939 and today, Lang-Lessing asked, “when San Antonio is probably at its most prosperous, in its most economically vibrant phase, a thriving city celebrating its 300th birthday?”

The answer: a number of things.

Loss of donor support

In the recent past, several major corporate donors pulled significant amounts of funding from the Symphony. And at least one high-profile corporation with a sizable local presence – Toyota – is nowhere to be seen on lists of major Symphony givers.

AT&T reduced its support substantially when it moved its corporate headquarters from San Antonio to Dallas in 2008. Hometown Fortune 500 company Valero Energy shifted its charitable interests with a change in corporate leadership, and cut its giving to the Symphony by more than half, from $250,000 to $100,000 contributions annually. A similar situation occurred with another locally based Fortune 500 company, USAA.

But these corporate names remain on the funders' pages of the Symphony’s programs. At least one missing name is conspicuous: Toyota. Economic development incentives of $133 million won the competition to locate a Toyota Motor Manufacturing plant in San Antonio in 2003, bringing billions in capital investment and thousands of jobs to the area.

“It’s very difficult to get money out of corporations where management doesn’t sit,” said Jim Lowe, a former Symphony Society board member who rejoined the board recently.

Toyota North America is headquartered in Plano. Mario Lozoya, director of government relations at Toyota Manufacturing, said that because it is not headquartered here, its charitable contributions for the San Antonio area are limited.

"With that budget, we try to manage it in a way that we find shared impact to the community and the company," Lozoya said. Its main "gift to the community," he said, is 8,000 jobs. Toyota focuses its charitable giving on education and training for "building the pipeline for advanced manufacturing workers for tomorrow," he said.

Given a difficult funding climate, which many symphony executives and funders acknowledge as an issue for orchestras nationwide, major donors expressed a clear desire for the San Antonio Symphony to rein in its spending and adopt viable budgeting practices.

Because of perceived overspending and repeated requests for “bailouts” to meet payroll, the Symphony Society also lost the trust of three primary local donors, including H-E-B, the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation, and the Tobin Endowment.

A Temporary Rescue

Those donors established a new board, Symphonic Music for San Antonio (SMSA), which during a transition process that began in July had been poised to take over Symphony operations. New SMSA budgeting priorities were planned to avoid repeated cost overruns, according to SMSA board members.

SMSA proposals reportedly included a “cut” to musicians’ pay, according to Craig Sorgi, negotiating chair for the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony. The reduction potentially would have included adopting a tiered pay scale, similar to the two-tier system of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. The Memphis Symphony Orchestra budget stood at $4.16 million in 2016, nearly half that of the San Antonio Symphony.

Such moves compromise quality beyond what previous board members of the Symphony Society were willing to accept, as Lowe has said publicly.

A person in the room at a confrontational meeting last May between major SMSA donors and Symphony Society board members, detailed here, said of the latter, “they are lovers of symphonic music, but could never raise the money to sustain it.”

Now, a concerted effort to bring together resources from public and private funders, including Bexar County, city government, major donors, and smaller donations from orchestra fans and interested citizens, must close the gap between continuing struggles and a sustainable organization. On Thursday, City Council voted to approve the remaining $368,400 in available funding slated for continuation of the 2017-18 season, and Bexar County Commissioners were scheduled to approve $350,000 in available matching funds Friday.

J. Bruce Bugg Jr.

Courtesy / J. Bruce Bugg Jr.

Tobin Endowment Chairman J. Bruce Bugg Jr.

“We’re delighted that there’s been so much of an outpouring of support for the San Antonio Symphony,” said J. Bruce Bugg Jr., chairman of the Tobin Endowment and SMSA board chair.

The SMSA funders made a 2017-18 season possible, Bugg said, through contributions totaling $2 million to cover musicians’ pay and orchestra expenses.

“We feel like we left the San Antonio Symphony in a very good position to set them up for success,” Bugg said, crediting SMSA President and Chief Executive Officer Thomas A. Stephenson for reducing the Symphony’s debt by $1.4 million, and Vale for her leadership in resuscitating the season.

Agreeing to take on funding of the 2017-18 season was “very courageous on the part of SMSA,” Lang-Lessing said in a December interview, even as the remainder of the season was in question. “I totally honor that, and so do the musicians, I believe,” he said.

Though all donor members of SMSA have publicly expressed continuing support for symphonic music in San Antonio and City leadership has encouraged their continuing participation, details for continuing financial contributions have yet to be worked out with Symphony Society leadership.

"These foundations want nothing more than to foster thriving, world-class performing arts in San Antonio," Vale said, adding that she would be initiating conversations with SMSA donors on Thursday.

Bugg expressed optimism, stating, “I believe that it is eminently doable to work together with the San Antonio community, major donors included, to come up with a sustainable business model that is consistent with having a world-class symphony in San Antonio.”

One Salient Example

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) emerged from a damaging labor dispute — including a musicians’ strike — in 2011 with a new focus on its audience. The orchestra’s tagline, “A Community-Supported Orchestra,” recognized the need for healing among all constituents, said Erik Rönmark, DSO vice president and general manager.

“A lot of people are hurt during these types of disputes, not the least the audience,” Rönmark said. “You have to work on rebuilding that trust, as well as the trust among all of your constituents.”

The new DSO board chair, Philip Fisher, committed to communication and transparency among musicians, staff, and board members in order to change the culture that had led to the strike, Rönmark said. Current leadership continues these efforts, he said.

“We all sat down after the strike and worked on a 10-year financial plan together,” he said, and management and musicians agreed on two recent contracts prior to their expirations, he said, evidence that the culture changes have taken hold.

Jesse Rosen, president and chief executive officer of the League of American Orchestras, confirmed that long-term financial planning is crucial for sustainability. Moving away from year-to-year budgets and towards five- to 10-year fiscal planning will “cause you to come to grips with some tough questions about how you’re operating,” Rosen said, in terms of support and cost structure.

The San Antonio Symphony is not currently among the 700 member orchestras of the League, which offers data-driven advice on fiscal discipline, community engagement, and diversity issues, Rosen said.

Vale said during an interview Thursday that the Symphony Society would be joining the League, adding, "I believe in benchmarking, in collaborative training, and in development of the organization on all levels." She is preparing a new marketing plan that draws on plans from different orchestras, she said.

The DSO’s new “patron-centric approach” is key to the orchestra’s sustainability, Rönmark said. “When you put the patron in the center of all, you realize what you do for the community, and what the community does for you.”

Courtesy / Detroit Symphony Orchestra

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra performs live broadcasts available to stream free of charge.

For the Detroit symphony, new accessibility initiatives include free webcasting of concerts and regularly bringing the orchestra into the city’s neighborhoods to reach audiences in schools, elder-care centers, and hospitals.

Digital access is part of the San Antonio Symphony’s new contract agreement, and Lang-Lessing has made clear his desire to have an outdoor concert.

“It’s in any orchestra’s interest to have the broadest base of support as possible," Rosen said. "Even the smallest donations matter, because they represent a community expressing its stake in the organization.”

Orchestras also thrive when they reflect their communities. For example, the DSO has instituted a fellowship program for black musicians. Other key initiatives including a simplified pricing structure for tickets, now offered for as little as $15, and a $25-per-year membership for students, who with one payment gain access to all concerts.

These are examples of “something that all cultural organizations are working diligently towards,” Rönmark said, “making sure that you’re representing your community both on and off the stage.”

Enthusiasm and Necessity

Anyone can understand symphonic music, Lang-Lessing has insisted. An enthusiast of musical history, the scholarly conductor can speak at length about European and American composers, and the reasoning and vision behind their work.

Though the rhetoric surrounding orchestral music “sounds intellectual,” he said, “at the end of the day, it’s just great music – great, fantastic music that is also fun to listen to.”

“Great pieces of art can be understood by anybody,” Lang-Lessing said, including the work of Beethoven, he said. “It doesn’t matter where you come from to understand or appreciate a great work of art.”

But during discussions about guidelines for City arts funding under the new "equity lens" budget process, one member of the Westside Arts Coalition maintained that more balance should exist between funding for arts groups that represent San Antonio culture directly, as opposed to "legacy groups" like the Symphony. Those traditionally have received 84 percent of arts funding, according to figures compiled by the Coalition.

 “Beethoven is Beethoven here in San Antonio or in Boston,” the coalition member said.

The new budgeting process might result in reduced funding for the Symphony, according to the new Cul-TÚ-Art plan in development by the City's Department of Arts and Culture.

In the latest version of the plan, yet to be adopted by City Council, groups with annual budgets of between $4.5 million and $10 million could apply for a maximum of 5 percent of their annual budget. That could potentially reduce the Symphony’s municipal funding from $614,000 for 2017-18 to approximately $400,000 for 2018-19 if the Symphony’s operating budget stays at current levels.

In addition to attracting the support of major donors and public funds, selling tickets –particularly to its core fan base – can help the Symphony survive, Lowe said.

The Symphony is “highly dependent” on ticket sales, Lowe said, “and season subscriptions are the heart of ticket sales.” Vale and the new Symphony Society board must work quickly, as the new season subscription campaign needs to be underway by the end of February, with strong sales during the month of March. “That’s going to be critical to the survival of the Symphony,” Lowe said.

January’s Tricentennial Festival concerts played to packed houses, and recent movie concerts at the Majestic Theatre (like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), gross up to three times what classics concerts take in, Lowe said. Individual donations, however, tend to come from more traditional fans of the Symphony’s Classics Series, he said.

Due to the recent outpouring of support, “right now the Symphony is enjoying its brightest time since I’ve been around,” Lowe said.

3 thoughts on “Stayin’ Alive: The SA Symphony’s Challenge To Fill Seats and Cashbox

  1. “Orchestras also thrive when they reflect their communities. For example, the DSO has instituted a fellowship program for black musicians.” – the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Fellowship was created in 1990, NOT as a part of the resolution of the organization’s recent labor dispute.

  2. Toyota—looking at you. And also the Santikos Fund. John Santikos was pretty tightfisted when he was alive but I have to believe he would have wanted his very robust foundation to step up and put some sustaining funds toward the Symphony. The Santikos Fund (last I heard valued in the hundreds of millions) could pony up $30M for an endowment and let the Sym start breathing and thinking more than one season ahead.

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