musings of a professional bassoonist

Saturday, April 16, 2011

YES, things really have changed for the Columbus Symphony

Columbus Symphony Orchestra musicians

Regular readers of this blog know that from time to time, I stray from bassoon topics and instead write about issues affecting orchestras and orchestral musicians.  This is one of those times.

It's common knowledge that many orchestras have recently experienced devastating financial losses.  A recent ABC news report lists current challenges of U.S. orchestras: the economy, overtly large concert halls which can't possibly be filled, union-management struggles, and the American public's changing taste in music (very likely brought about by the slashing of arts programs in schools). The Syracuse Symphony is filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, as did the Honolulu Symphony recently, and the Louisville Orchestra filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December.  The Detroit Symphony just ended a lengthy strike which caused the cancellation of many concerts over past months, and even the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The Columbus Symphony began experiencing financial difficulties nearly a decade ago, as support for the orchestra waned following the controversial departure of its music director.  In 2005, the musicians agreed to a 13% pay cut.  But support for the orchestra continued to dwindle, and by the spring of 2008, the orchestra had depleted its capital assets.  The musicians resisted the board's request of an additional compensation cut, and the result that the orchestra was shut down for 6 months, after which the musicians accepted a 23% compensation cut.

Then, in late 2008, immediately following the signing of the new contract, the U.S. economy tanked! 

The recession resulted in further decline in donations and ticket sales for the orchestra, and by February of 2010, the Columbus Symphony's financial status had became dire.  The orchestra's new leaders, CEO Roland Valliere and Board Chair Martin Inglis, determined that the orchestra would have to either cease operations or radically restructure.  The musicians voted to accept compensation cuts of 20% in order to save the orchestra, and the symphony's administrative duties were turned over to CAPA, the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts. CAPA's dynamic President and CEO Bill Conner became the symphony's CEO, and Roland Valliere became the symphony's President and Chief Creative Officer.

Now, only a year later, it's safe to say that the Columbus Symphony has experienced a remarkable turnabout.  The symphony has benefited greatly from its affiliation with the highly-regarded CAPA.  Turning over administrative duties to CAPA saved the orchestra thousands of dollars, and since CAPA is an extremely well-run organization with competent, dedicated employees, the symphony is now well-managed.  Anyone who telephones the symphony office is presented with immediate evidence of improvement, since phone calls are now answered by a live person rather than the annoying recorded message which everyone used to complain about!

Corporate and individual donors recognize the change and are showing their support financially.  Our current administrative and board leaders are respected in the community.  Our board membership has been revitalized, and now includes many high-profile and committed members of varying ages.  We are receiving unprecedented grants from both the city and the county.  Our budget is balanced, with 7 years of accumulated debt erased.  And, a few months ago the Columbus Symphony named Jean-Marie Zeitouni as its new Music Director, much to the delight of the orchestra and the entire city of Columbus.

In late February, the musicians, management and board displayed remarkable evidence of our new spirit of collaboration by negotiating a new four-year Collective Bargaining Agreement six months early!  This demonstration of labor peace and institutional stability makes it possible for our management to move forward with its plans to build a cash reserve and endowment which will fortify the orchestra's future. 

Next season the orchestra is introducing two new concert series (Rush Hour series and Sound Bite series) and a new venue (the Southern Theater), designed to appeal to a much wider variety of audiences.  Our concerts are streaming on InstantEncore so that our fans can listen to our music anytime, anyplace, including via the Columbus Symphony's iPhone app. 

Mobile Apps
This past week, the symphony's development office sponsored a Phone-a-Thon in which board, staff and musician volunteers gathered in the symphony office to make calls to past donors who had not yet renewed their gift this season.  Instead of hiring telemarketers, our staff wisely used those of us who care about the symphony.  What a great opportunity to establish connections between the audience/donors and the symphony!  (It was also beneficial for the musicians, board members and staff to have the opportunity to get to know each other a little better!)

When I was speaking with one of the musicians who did not participate in the Phone-a-Thon, she told me she was refusing to volunteer because when she had volunteered once a few years ago, "things were all disorganized, and some of the donors were irate because the symphony had not kept track of their past donations!"  I understood what she was talking about, because I also had volunteered in the past, when things were not running as smoothly as they are now.  This time, the donor lists were in a perfect state of organization, and not one donor with whom I spoke on the phone had any gripes.

In fact, each donor I spoke with expressed relief that things really are different now.



Tina B. said...

Awesome. So glad to hear it!

Are donors shocked when they learn one of the musicians themselves is calling?

B.S. said...

Tina, I would say that donors are very pleasantly surprised when they find out a musician is calling. Several of them have told me that they watch me closely during each concert, so obviously they actually know who I am. It also seems that they're more inclined to make a donation!

I admit that it's hard for me to ask for money, though. I have never even asked my own parents for money! Not once!!


Tina B. said...

oh great... like you don't have enough to worry about, they're watching every time you scratch your nose? LOL...

Tina B. said...

But I hear you... that was my least favorite part of working for non-profits. And losing my job. But then getting it back. Wait, this is sounding familiar...

B.S. said...

Tina-One thing that I didn't mention in the post, but maybe I should have, is that musicians would be less likely to criticize management for inadequate fund raising if they could experience first-hand (via Phone-a-Thon) how difficult it is to raise money, especially considering the economy, which has affected even the wealthy!!!


Anonymous said...

In greenville SC I recently participated in a Phone a Sponsor event that was not predicated on asking for money. Orchestra members called donors and simply thanked them for their continued support. We did have a spreadsheet printout outlining how much money the donors had given over the past 5 years, but our task was simply to offer thanks for their support and encourage them to continue attending and support our Symphony. I got lots of positive comments and many donors expressed pride in being part of the support group ofn the Symphony. Many commented that they recognized me from my years of playing, and were delighted to talk with me. In all, it was quite a positive experience for me, and, I hope, for the fund-raising efforts that followed the Phone a Sponsor event. I did run into one sponsor who was quite adament that he wasn't ready to commit to supporting the GSO, and he was incredulous when I explained that I was merely calling him to extend our thanks for his support in the past. I do have a better understanding of the problems faced by fund-raisers, and I'm not sure I would have participated if I had been expected to ask for money. Our orchestra management seems to be very aware that the musicians have enough to do with preparing programs and the myriad of other jobs we hold down to pay our own bills.

Frank Watson
Greenville (SC) Symphony Orchestra