A Report Card, of Sorts

by Rhonda P. Hunsinger

The League of American Orchestras (LAO) conducts a statistical survey annually so that we can compare ourselves to orchestras of similar size across the U.S. Since most cities of our size only have one professional orchestra, it is easy to sometimes feel out of touch with our industry, or fear that we will miss a warning sign that things are not as they should be. (What do you MEAN you only brought in $320,000 in ticket income, when the rest of us are doing $1 million?!?) Thanks to the LAO, I have regular contact with my colleagues around the country, but it is still very helpful to see reports such as this to check for those warning signs, or be reassured that we are on track or doing well.

Here are some statistics from their most recent report that I found interesting, and in most cases, reassuring. The LAO divides orchestras into budget categories, and of 22 orchestras surveyed in our category, the 12 orchestras with the highest budgets (including the SCP) were used to determine the statistics below.

-We performed 3 times as many educational concerts as the average orchestra.
-Our Masterworks performance income was less than 1% higher than the average.
-Our musician payroll for our main series (Masterworks) was about 12% higher than average, while our rate of pay was about 1.2% lower than average.
-Government support for our orchestra was more than twice the average of other orchestras, while community foundation support was significantly lower than the average.
-Donations from our patrons were slightly higher than the average for other orchestras.
-Income from our Symphony League was 29% higher than the average for other orchestras.
-Our administrative costs were on par with other orchestras of our size.
– Average attendance at our Masterworks concerts was 36% higher than for other orchestras.
-Subscription renewals for our orchestra were 30% higher than the average.
-Our number of new subscribers was 20% higher than the average.

The sample is a bit small to draw major conclusions, but here are a few things that stand out for me:

-It is encouraging to know we are comparatively strong in the areas of government and individual support.
-Our educational programs are even stronger now than they were at the time of this survey, which validates that our commitment to education is one of the top priorities of this organization.
-The high rate of attendance, subscription renewals and new subscribers demonstrates that as the quality of our playing grows, so does the enthusiasm for our players and its artistic leader, Morihiko Nakahara.
-Our Symphony League volunteers are fantastic!
-While on one hand we need to provide more competitive pay for our musicians (most other orchestras in our region pay higher), we are at least providing an optimum number of opportunities for them to play.
-We are on target with the overall cost of doing business.

On the surface, the SCP appears to be doing quite well, but here is one thing the report is not able to reflect, and that is the overall financial health of orchestras across the country. Tickets sales only cover about 30% of the cost to produce concerts and education programs. You have undoubtedly heard of the struggles so many of the larger orchestras are facing. Nashville Symphony has an $82 million debt, and an 11th hour rescue a few weeks ago saved their hall from immediate foreclosure. While the Detroit Symphony was already facing enormous challenges after the economic downturn, you can only begin to imagine how difficult fundraising is now with the city declaring bankruptcy. Many other large orchestras face similar struggles.

For orchestras our size, the challenges are not nearly so overwhelming, but they do exist. Across the country, businesses are holding onto the purse strings a little tighter, while their pools of funding requests are doubling and tripling as non-profits of all types scramble to replace lost dollars from other sources. Another statistic shared at a recent LAO conference is that 70% of orchestras in the U.S. are running a deficit budget.

Why is this happening? The SCP is part of that 70%, and our experience reflects what is happening around the country. Our Boards, administrations, musicians and volunteers are very committed to keeping our programming strong and the quality of our playing exceptional. Morihiko must decide on programming and guest artists about a year in advance of each season so that we can contract the artists, musicians and our performance hall. Yet many of our funding sources do not determine their award amounts until just a month or two prior to the opening of the season. We therefore must budget our season based on speculation. Can we assume that a particular  government entity or corporation will give us the same level of support as last year?

In our current economy, there have been many unpleasant surprises. Regular supporters have come to us apologetically: “We love what you are doing, but we are giving you less because there is an overall greater need in the community.” This can happen in any given year, but in the past few years, an increased number of organizations that regularly support us are pulling back. Perhaps just a little, but a few thousand here, a few thousand there – the next thing you know we have $30,000 less than anticipated. And that’s why orchestras (along with other arts and human service organizations) are struggling to balance their budgets.

So yes, the SCP is doing splendidly well for an orchestra of its size, and we are all working very hard to maintain our artistic excellence, and even grow thanks to Morihiko’s continued outstanding leadership. But we have many challenges and face each new season now with a greater uncertainty as to whether or not we will meet our goals. That said, our goals are reasonable and somewhat modest. We all understand the economic realities and challenges, and we are fighting to hold on to the wonderful artistic jewel this city is about to enjoy in its 50th season.

A vibrant symphonic orchestra is a staple of a vibrant cultural city – and Kiplinger just rated Columbia as one of the five best cities to live in, citing the arts as one of those reasons. If you are reading this, you are likely a patron and I thank you for your continued support. We’ll continue to share our successes and challenges as we move through our 50th season. As Bette Davis was once misquoted as saying in All About Eve (1950), “”Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride!” (She actually said a bumpy night, but that’s not how most folks remember it.)


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