Symphony Task Force Makes Strong Recommendations to Safeguard Orchestral Future

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Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

The San Antonio Symphony performs at San Antonio's Eastside Tricentennial Celebration at St. Philip's College in May 2018.

On Tuesday, the new City of San Antonio and Bexar County Symphony Transformation Task Force delivered its recommendations to Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.

After five meetings since May 1, the nine-member task force crafted a detailed plan and demanding timeline with specific recommendations on how the San Antonio Symphony should run its organization in an effort to foster a sustainable, realistic future.

“Neighborhoods are saying they want to see … art close to them,” said task force member Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), pointing out that the city of San Antonio covers 500 square miles. “The report talks about being very inclusive of every corner of this community.”

Among the more notable recommendations are internet broadcasts of Symphony performances, shorter performances which include “social opportunities,” and regular community concerts.

Other recommendations include a strict timeline for reaching important milestones, such as creating an advisory council of major donors, which the Symphony has already done. It also entails creating an institutional marketing campaign with an increase in the marketing budget from its current 21 percent of the overall budget to 30 percent by Dec. 31. Other milestones include an immediate reshaping of the board with new board members in place by Oct. 1, and development of a five-year artistic plan by Jan. 1, 2019.

Kathleen Weir Vale, board chair of the Symphony Society of San Antonio, which manages the orchestra’s operations, must also find a new operations director to replace interim Executive Director Karina Bharne, who was hired as executive director of Symphony Tacoma, according to a Monday announcement.

Meanwhile, a new collective bargaining agreement has been ratified by the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony and will be brought to the board for ratification Wednesday.

Among the more daunting recommendations is increasing salaries for the musicians, who initially complained of low pay. The report states “musicians of the San Antonio Symphony must earn a wage commensurate with their talent and training,” but before this occurs, the Symphony “must build a stronger donor and audience base.”

“I can assure the entire community that the San Antonio Symphony will proceed with the task force’s recommendations vigorously,” Vale told City and County leaders. “In my opinion, there’s no better methodology than … Mr. [Michael] Kaiser’s,” she said.

Kaiser, a consultant with the DeVos Institute of Arts Management, was hired to develop a vision and long-term strategy to maintain a 72-member symphony on a 30-week season schedule.

Kaiser is best known for turning around an ailing Alvin Ailey Dance Company in New York, moving it from a $6 million annual budget to its current budget of $40 million, he said. Kaiser also worked with the Miami Heat NBA team during the tenure of LeBron James to craft a marketing campaign in collaboration with the Miami Ballet.

Locally, Kaiser drafted a plan for revitalizing the Alameda Theater, which Wolff said earned his confidence and that of other City and County officials.

The City and County jointly paid Kaiser $65,000 for his consulting work, which was comprised of interviews with 90 community members, including Symphony musicians, staff, and board members, and extensive research comparing the economics and population of San Antonio with similarly sized communities nationwide.

The task force made its recommendations in a letter to Nirenberg and Wolff based on Kaiser’s research.

According to the task force’s letter, the recommended strategies are intended to increase accessibility to new audiences, and appeal to San Antonio’s diversity and “youthful spirit.”

During a Tuesday meeting with City and County officials and media, Kaiser promoted the “Symphony In Your Neighborhood” concept, as well as potential developments like a virtual reality experience to “sit in the Symphony while they are playing,” he said.

“These kinds of projects … get people thinking differently about a cultural institution,” he said, “particularly one which they say, ‘that art form’s a little old, a little staid.’ All of a sudden they have an experience you might not have had before.” 

(From left) Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, the new chairwoman of the Symphony Society of San Antonio Kathleen Weir Vale, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg chat before the second of two Tricentennial concerts.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

(From left) Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, Symphony Society of San Antonio Board Chair Kathleen Weir Vale, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg chat before the second of two Tricentennial concerts in January 2018.

The new initiatives’ goal is to achieve sustained financial backing, which Kaiser said comes down to strong marketing – a spirit Vale embraces. Vale said she had become somewhat of a “Kaiser guru” after reading his books and absorbing his lessons earlier this year.

However, after a successful six months of fundraising and gathering community support, Vale will not be able to rest on her laurels.

The recommendations letter acknowledges that Wolff and Nirenberg have “made it clear that future public funding for the Symphony is predicated on a long-term strategy for a sustainable Symphony,” and that “any future funding provided by the City and County must require the implementation” of the recommendations strategy.

One immediate challenge for the board is a reduction in annual City arts funding for the Symphony to 75 percent of its previous year’s funding, which will bring the organization in line with the new Cul-TÚ-Art plan for cultural equity.

The funding reduction is realistic despite the Symphony’s immediate challenges, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said.

“We’ve looked at their budget, we’re aware of other funding sources that are coming in,” she said. And if changes are made according to task force recommendations, she said, “donor confidence should increase, and attendance should increase.”

Though 37 city symphony orchestras have larger budgets than San Antonio’s, Kaiser said the potential for growth and sustainability exists.

“The money is there, the money is in the community,” he said. “This community is very generous with contributions if you do a good job of maintaining the level of the work, the excitement of the work, and the engagement with the individual.”

Nirenberg stressed that while the recommendations were an important first step, the onus of the success of the Symphony would fall on the people of San Antonio.

“We have said from the very start we want a healthy, full orchestra in San Antonio,” Nirenberg said. “This is the roadmap to get there in a sustainable way. There is no other alternative but to get it done. And if we can’t get it done, then Symphony is not something San Antonio wants – and I don’t think that’s true.”

6 thoughts on “Symphony Task Force Makes Strong Recommendations to Safeguard Orchestral Future

  1. Symphony should follow Michael Kaiser’s advice: “Great art, well marketed.” He was brilliant at the Kennedy Center. Pay no attention to the namesake program (DeVos).

  2. A major key to a successful and sustainable orchestra, is more visibility in the community. In the past, the orchestra marketing campaign has been virtually non existent, and needs a complete overhaul. It is vital that they stretch their reach to the outside communities in order to remain relevant.

  3. https://www.insidephilanthropy.com/music/2015/3/2/what-lessons-can-be-learned-from-the-la-philharmonics-financ.html.

    According to this article by Paul M J Suchecki, the issues at large with orchestras is decline in public engagement, aging demographics of concert attendees – one of the solution is cultivating a younger classical music audience. The other problem is declining budgets & bankruptcies- one solution is to secure tech and bioscience donors for ops and endowment

  4. Quit digging in the same old places and mount a well-publicized campaign to build the endowment fund
    . The Tobin Center is easily reached by public transit from all corners of the city, so those that are begging for their own neighborhood have no standing. A few less-expensive offerings might help, too. I got hooked when I got offered free tickets.

  5. Increase in marketing spending is needed albeit more wisely stewarded, also, not very impressed by their new marketing director. One brief encounter with him and I’m surprised he didn’t nearly trip on his ego walking away…

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