Editorial: Seeking stability for Columbus Symphony

It is clear that orchestras must change the way they do business to adapt to changing behaviors of consumers. Even orchestras with large endowments in the US are suffering. I believe the Columbus Symphony has a chance to evolve and adapt with Martin Ingles and Rolland Valliere at the helm.

via Editorial: Seeking stability | The Columbus Dispatch.

After skating near insolvency and collapse in mid-February, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra was pulled from the brink by the quick action of its board and quick agreement by the musicians. Now the organization appears to have a plan that might put the orchestra on a sustainable footing.

In early February, the symphony management realized that the combination of low subscription sales for the season and a dramatic decline in individual and corporate donations meant that time was running out. So the symphony's board and management decided to turn over the organization's administrative functions to the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts, which serves a similar role for the Franklin Park Conservatory, Contemporary American Theatre Company, Phoenix Theatre for Children and Opera Columbus. Its relationship with the symphony became effective three weeks ago.

This move will save the orchestra about $750,000 for the fiscal year beginning Sept. 1 and, as CAPA President and Chief Executive Bill Conner says, it allows CAPA to deal with the business side and "lets all the art just be about the art."

Right before a shutdown in mid-2008 because of financial difficulties, the Columbus symphony's annual budget was climbing to an unsustainable high of $12 million. Reflecting the new economic realities, its budget has dropped to about $8.5 million for this year and $7 million for next fiscal year. The number of performing weeks will fall to 25 next year, down from the 48 weeks in its last full season in 2007.

Before the 2008 shutdown, musicians were paid an average of $55,000 annually; their pay was cut last year to $45,000. For next year, they have agreed to accept about $38,000 per year, which includes benefits. This is what they were paid in 1993. They also have given up significant amounts of paid vacation. Their sacrifice for the survival of the symphony is commendable.

The group is not out of the woods, but if all goes as hoped for the rest of this year - meaning it's not a rainy summer for Picnic with the Pops - the symphony believes it can break even.

The symphony board leadership is formidable. Martin Inglis, executive vice president and chief financial officer for Battelle, took over as the board chairman in October 2008 and has worked hard to keep the organization alive and to find ways to make it thrive. Before that, he had risen through the ranks of Ford, at one time serving as its head of North American operations.

2008 was a year of distrust and angry words between the symphony management, board and musicians. Now the management team, headed since July 2009 by CSO President Roland Valliere, and the board have been open with the musicians, giving them unprecedented access to board meetings and materials. Valliere and Inglis express their concern about the well-being of the musicians as people who are vital to this community and who have families to support and bills to pay.

Unfortunately, hard times are reality for arts groups all over the country - even for metropolitan orchestras that, unlike CSO, enjoy large endowments. Now Cleveland's world-renowned symphony is struggling, as is Philadelphia's.

With stability and strong leadership, the Columbus symphony might break out of its cycle of crises so that donors can again view it as a good investment. Subscription sales will rise as the economy picks up - and also when the symphony finally hires a music director. The new maestro should be a respected leader, charismatic, expressive, musically talented and, of course, affordable.

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