The decision by the Symphonic Music of San Antonio (SMSA) to withdraw from its agreement to take over operations of the San Antonio Symphony from the Symphony Society of San Antonio (SSSA) has created a great deal of confusion and consternation.
Many of the facts surrounding the nature of any unfunded pension liability and its future impact on the Symphony budget are in dispute. In the midst of this chaos and uncertainty, the Symphony Society board will meet Tuesday to decide the future of the Symphony. As the board meets, I would like to suggest a few principles to maintain in charting a way ahead.
Stabilize the patient
While SMSA may have stepped away, the donors behind SMSA should continue to step up to provide funding to ensure the symphony operations continue. The failure of the SMSA takeover effort has left a void in leadership and has thoroughly confused and unsettled the donor base. It will take time to rebuild the Symphony’s governance structure, and time to convince donors that the Symphony is viable. The Kronkosky Foundation, H-E-B, and Tobin Endowment should ensure that the Symphony Society has the time it needs to resume running the orchestra and that the Symphony continues to perform.
There should be no lockout, and no consideration of bankruptcy at this point in time. Most importantly, the music should continue. The Symphony should continue to provide high-quality performances to its audience members, who are also its current and future donors.
Focus on growth
The SMSA takeover was a good-faith effort on the part of major donors to take over the Symphony after it was evident that the prior management was unable to solve the ongoing financial problems. From the outset, the SMSA focused on cutting costs instead of driving growth. Marketing and fundraising efforts declined as the new group reduced the Symphony staff, combined services with the Tobin, and took a position in the negotiations with Symphony musicians that resulted in a stalemate. The possibility of a multimillion-dollar pension fund shortfall proved too much for this approach.
If there is a silver lining to this story, it's that it establishes that cutting your way to a sustainable model is not possible. If there is going to be a viable way ahead for the Symphony, then it must come as a result of focused efforts on revenue growth in the form of ticket sales, donations, and endowment. The good news is that there is precedent for a growing out of the problems currently faced by the Symphony, and that the costs of the Symphony and level of current fundraising are considerably lower than symphonies in other similar-sized cities.
Milwaukee, Nashville, Cleveland, and other similar-sized cities to San Antonio routinely raise two to 10 times as much as San Antonio for their symphonies. According to IRS Form 990 submissions, San Antonio donors donated $72 million to the arts in 2014 for the Tobin ($41 million), McNay Art Museum ($6 million), and Witte Museum ($25 million), while the Symphony management has struggled to raise the $4 million annually to support its current $7 million budget. All of this suggests that there are untapped revenue sources in the city that can be leveraged if the Symphony can be stabilized and efforts focused on growth, rather than survival.
Bring in experts
Concerns about underfunded pension liabilities, new collective bargaining agreements, underperforming fundraising, ineffective marketing, and a leadership void combine to create an extremely complex set of circumstances that are unlikely to be solved in an expedient fashion by anyone other than seasoned experts in this arena. There is no shame in seeking outside help. Time is not on the Symphony’s side, and bringing in experts in fundraising, marketing, and symphony management would reduce the learning curve, increase the likelihood of a timely turnaround, and be a first step in restoring confidence in Symphony leadership to a frustrated and nervous donor base. There are many such experts as our country has many well-run and thriving first-class orchestras.
Maintain your assets
The principal assets of the San Antonio Symphony are the caliber of its musicians and the quality of the product that they put on the stage of the Tobin week in and week out. San Antonio enjoys a world-class orchestra at a bargain-basement price. The musicians have done their part in delivering excellent performances, and they are not responsible for the shortcomings that have led to this current crisis. They should not be asked to take further pay cuts on top of several prior rounds of concessions. The future of the Symphony should not come at the expense of the musicians.
At the end of the day, it is not reasonable to believe that the Symphony can cut its way to prosperity. No other major symphony has achieved long-term success through that approach. The answer is revenue growth, and growing ticket sales and donations comes from good, old-fashioned hard work. The patrons, the management, and the musicians must continue to work together in good faith to sustain our Symphony, now and for years to come.