After pulling through the recession five years ago, orchestras across America are searching for the right tune.
Some, like the Kansas City Symphony in Missouri and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in Ohio, are in perfect harmony — musicians and management are working together to bring budgets into the black with new fundraising and programming strategies.
“Many orchestras are achieving great success in this economic climate and surpassing fundraising goals,” said Bruce Ridge, chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, adding that charitable giving in the arts in America reached an all-time high of $17.2 billion in 2014.
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Since the 2015-16 concert season began last fall, Fort Worth Symphony musicians have stepped out from behind their music stands and into the public eye, drumming up support for what they have been calling a fair contract — one that does not include pay cuts.
Wearing green T-shirts and awareness ribbons, they have passed out fliers to patrons, made pre-concert speeches, staged demonstrations downtown and waged an ongoing social media campaign using the hashtag #Growthnotcuts, while orchestra management has maintained that giving musicians raises would put the orchestra out of business in two years.
We’re hoping there is some light at the end of the tunnel
Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra President and CEO Amy Adkins
Fundraising efforts are comprehensive, ongoing and targeted, orchestra President and CEO Amy Adkins said in an interview last month, and new marketing and ticket pricing strategies are helping the bottom line.
“We’re hoping there is some light at the end of the tunnel,” Adkins said.
Talks between management and the musicians union began in June, about a month before the musicians’ contract expired. Fort Worth musicians and symphony management recently agreed to a contract extension through July, but only after negotiations broke down, with union members authorizing a strike and management threatening to impose salary cuts.
“Contracts with orchestras are being done on a daily basis without a labor disruption,” said Jay Blumenthal, the New York-based director of symphonic services division at the American Federation of Musicians, which represents the Fort Worth musicians.
“That’s part of the mystery here on why Fort Worth is unable to raise their budget when everything would point to other orchestras being able to do that,” he said.
Symphonies are working really hard to remain accessible and, at the same time, be able to make sure that from an earned revenue perspective, they are remaining stable
Zannie Voss, director of the National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University.
The issues facing Fort Worth and other midsize orchestras are similar, arts experts say. Subscription sales and ticket sales have not returned to pre-recession levels, and corporate donations and foundation grants are harder to obtain.
“Symphonies are working really hard to remain accessible and, at the same time, be able to make sure that from an earned revenue perspective, they are remaining stable,” said Zannie Voss, director of the National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University.
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Filling the seats
Getting people to attend symphonic concerts has been problematic; many orchestras today are playing to concert halls that are half-full. In the past decade, season tickets and subscription packages have declined 24 percent, according to a 2015 study by Oliver Wyman commissioned by the League of American Orchestras.
And though symphonies raised package prices and increased the amount earned by each package by 25 percent, overall ticket package revenue dropped 15 percent. The drop in season ticket revenue was greater at orchestras with budgets over $7 million, the study found.
Orchestras are being affected now, in part, by decisions made to cut music education in public schools in the 1970s and 1980s, said Lydia Kontos, executive director of the Kaufman Music Center in New York.
“Anybody who didn’t get a fundamental education in music tends to ratchet down its sense of importance,” Kontos said. “You have a cultural issue in which music and some of the other arts have been marginalized.”
In response to declining ticket revenue, orchestras cut budgets. But since the largest portion of an orchestra’s budget is often its musicians’ salaries, management sometimes asks musicians to accept double-digit pay cuts.
One of the central problems an orchestra faces is no matter what size its patronage is, or how many people it puts in the seats, it takes the same amount of work to put on a Mozart symphony.
David Smith, Baylor University
“One of the central problems an orchestra faces is no matter what size its patronage is, or how many people it puts in the seats, it takes the same amount of work to put on a Mozart symphony,” said David Smith, senior lecturer in American history at Baylor University.
Smith, author of Money for Art: The Tangled Web of Art and Politics in American Democracy (Ivan R. Dee, $27.50), said symphonies are also often competing with social services and other nonprofits for charitable donations, and for those located in midsize cities, it is harder to attract individual and corporate contributions.
Private foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts have also changed how they give out grants and are increasingly focused on arts education.
Foundations “will give you tens of thousands of dollars to take the orchestra out and play for kids, but it won’t give you any money to keep the lights on,” Smith said.
Orchestras around the country have taken bold steps to overcome their financial obstacles. Here’s a look at orchestras similar to Fort Worth’s in size, budget and city population, the obstacles they’ve faced and what they are doing to keep the music playing.
Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra
Budget: $12 million
Musicians: 65 full time for a 43-week season
The orchestra has not recovered from the recession and with the downturn in the oil and gas industry, management expects to end the 2016 season with a deficit of $650,000. The orchestra has ended the past four seasons with operating deficits, and management says it needs musicians to accept an 8 percent pay cut to help its balance sheet.
Last month, musicians authorized a strike and rejected management’s proposals.
The two sides agreed to a contract extension that will last until July, one that maintains the current contract terms. Negotiations for a long-term deal are expected to resume this spring.
Kansas City (Mo.) Symphony Orchestra
Budget: $15 million
Musicians: 80 full time for a 42-week season
Four years ago, the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra moved into the new Kauffman Center for Performing Arts, which includes a 1,600-seat hall to house the orchestra.
In its most recent fiscal year, the symphony said, classical and pops concerts were at 95 percent capacity as it sold $4.8 million in subscription and single tickets. It also increased its total number of donors by 24 percent, with individuals giving $2.5 million.
In 2013, the orchestra negotiated a new contract, a year before its current one was scheduled to expire. The contract included raises for musicians and will expire in June 2017.
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra
Budget: $16.9 million
Musicians: 68 full time for a 40-week season
In 2013, the orchestra launched a $5 million emergency campaign to keep the doors open.
In its most recent fiscal year, the orchestra generated a surplus of $41,000 as ticket sales increased 12 percent to $3.09 million.
The union and management negotiated a one-year contract extension that lasts through August 2016, and the two sides credit having musicians on key financial committees as part of their success.
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
Budget: $47 million
Musicians: 86 full time for a 52-week season
The recession hit Cincinnati’s symphony hard as its endowment dropped from $92.7 million to $56.2 million. At the end of its 2008 season, the symphony’s structural deficit reached $6.5 million and then ended the season with a $3.8 million operating deficit.
The union accepted an 11 percent wage cut to help the orchestra reduce its costs.
Since then, the symphony raised $25 million in an endowment campaign in 2014, increased its audience by 28 percent in the past six years and has grown its annual fund donations by 60 percent in the past five seasons. The endowment is also a record high $114 million.
The union recently agreed to a new five-year contract that includes wage increases and new full-time positions.
Tempo change needed
Colorado Symphony Orchestra (Denver)
Budget: $12.5 million
Musicians: 80 full time for a 43-week season
Facing a cash crisis in 2011, the musicians union at the Colorado Symphony agreed to take a 14 percent pay cut to help the symphony with its $1.2 million debt. Within a couple of years, the debt was erased and the symphony was generating new sponsorships with its “Classically Cannabis” concert series.
However, there are labor issues at the orchestra. In May, musicians filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to decertify its union. That petition has been blocked, according to the labor board website. In January, the union filed a complaint with the board, accusing management of “refusal to bargain/bad faith bargaining.”
Hartford (Conn.) Symphony Orchestra
Budget: $4.8 million
Musicians: 86 part time
Since the recession, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra has struggled with attracting corporate donations and has a deficit of $1 million.
The contract between musicians and management expired in 2014 and negotiations grew tense late last year as management threatened to shut the symphony down if musicians did not agree to pay cuts. In January, the musicians union agreed to $450,000 in pay cuts in a new contract that expires in 2019.
Sources: Symphony orchestras; National Labor Relations Board; Denver Post, Hartford Courant, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel