If the struggling budget of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra were a half-empty glass, the musicians would say the glass has room for more and the board of the directors would say the glass is simply too big.
The Orchestra is expected to run out of money sometime in March, likely necessitating pay cuts through the rest of the season. In the meantime, the board and musicians will have to make tough decisions about next season. Board leadership says cuts will have to come from the core group of 46 players. But those musicians say the organization can do more — more shows, more special events, more fund-raising, more promotions — without having to lose one instrument.
The difference at this point is a projected $500,000 hole in the orchestra’s $2.9 million budget. To cover that spread, the board is weighing several scenarios to get the total budget to a more manageable figure, says chairman Ted Legacy.
“The community has consistently supported the orchestra at around $2.4 million,” he says. “Never at $2.9 million.”
The board has already made cuts on discretionary spending and cut guest artists and freelancers, while musicians have put off replacements for two vacancies and held a benefit last November that raised $13,000. But Legacy says the most direct way to find the rest of the $500,000 is by reducing the orchestra’s numbers. Different projections used by the board and musicians in talks include reducing the core to 35, 28, or 16 players.
“It’s a question of how conservative the board feels like it must be,” Legacy says.
The Band with a Plan
Orchestra members say the board hasn’t capitalized on the one thing they have in large supply: talented musicians with time to kill.
In their current five-year contract (with another three years to go), musicians are paid a salary based on the maximum amount they can be expected to work. Right now, the orchestra is using the players at about half of what they could be, says Tim O’Malley, a cello player and local union representative. The musicians argue that more shows, either through a larger orchestral season or in private contracted gigs, would help increase revenue and eliminate the urge to purge.
“We’ve been looking at the large fish,” O’Malley says. “You can get just as full on a bunch of small fish.”
Private shows account for about 29 percent of the budget, but O’Malley says that opportunities have been missed that would grow that pot of money. There is also the potential to build a larger following through these events by exposing newcomers to the genre, he says.
There may be opportunities for additional private performances, but Legacy says they’re not enough to make up the spread. And he says the board is doubtful that adding performances to the season’s calendar will provide much of any revenue at all.
“It’s not clear that we’d get any more people to come to performances,” he says. “We’d just spread them out.”
Musicians say the board hasn’t been creative enough in finding opportunities like the private events, or special fund-raising programs.
“We see this as an opportunity to look at some of these things,” says Debra Sherrill, a horn player.
They also say that promotions for the events haven’t been extensive enough and point to a recent family-oriented production that was sparsely attended.
“I counted about five people I didn’t recognize,” says O’Malley.
But, the musicians stress that they still have faith in the board and staff to make management decisions. Sherrill says the staff has missed programing and promotional opportunities, but the needed changes can be made with the proper guidance.
“We’re grateful to the board,” she says. “We just differ greatly on what the solution is. Cutting is not fixing the problem. If you cut, the quality is going to go down.”
The musicians are on the right path by keeping initial talks civil, says national arts consultant Drew McManus, a musician, former administrator, and author of the daily orchestra industry blog Adaptistration.
“They’re doing what’s reasonable,” he says. “You don’t go to war and shout insults as your opening salvo.”
That said, all bets are off if the decision is made to cut staff.
“Those will eventually turn into fighting words,” he says. And, while it takes years to build the camaraderie and support system in a powerhouse orchestra, “It only takes a few months to destroy all of that.”
What Charleston would do well to avoid, according to McManus, is a repeat of the acrimony seen in places like Columbus, Ohio.
The Columbus symphony was facing its own budget crisis last summer, with the board prepared to cut musicians, who balked at the suggestion. The board suspended operations on June 1, and all parties were then brought to the negotiating table. By September a new contract was ratified that preserved the number of players, but cut salaries by more than 25 percent. The charred earth that was left eventually led to the exit of the music director in November and the executive director last week.
The situation in Charleston will likely lead to cuts in salaries rather than in staff, McManus says. With Charleston as a feeder for smaller orchestra programs in the state, cutting performers would change the classical landscape in the Lowcountry.
“This is the main performing arts group for the region,” McManus says. If players end up losing the regular paycheck in Charleston, they may leave the area entirely. “There’s only so much part-time work.”
And then there’s the price for freelancers, something that orchestras typically bemoan as too costly. It’s usually a primary reason for expanding the ranks of the core musicians in the first place.
“That’s pretty much where Charleston is right now,” McManus says. By cutting positions, “they’re just going to find themselves in the same position.”
The orchestra should look at every option, McManus says, including making sure all board members have done their part in fund-raising, that opportunities like bridge loans to get through the tough times have been exhausted, and that the musicians feel like they have an advocate within the administration.
Both the musicians and Legacy recognize the orchestra as a community asset. While Legacy knows it’s his responsibility to get the orchestra in fiscal order, the players look forward to the day when they can worry a little less about the bottom line.
“We want to focus on what we do,” O’Malley says. “Hopefully we can get back to playing. That’s our passion.”
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