America's orchestras: crescendo of costs, decrescendo of funds
The symphony orchestra in America is an institution that engenders tremendous civic pride. It is often the hub of the social scene of its community, and it is typically the core of the entire musical profile of that community.Skip to next paragraph
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But orchestras cost money - and raising it challenges every facet of that institution's abilities. Paying 60 to 100 musicians a weekly salary for part of or most of the year, paying a managerial bureaucracy, paying the costs of the hall in which the orchestra performs (be it in rental or building maintenance) - all this costs money. A modest budget for a city's orchestra these days is around $4 million. A major orchestra's budget is upward of $18 million.
It goes without saying that the federal government has no intention of subsidizing the symphony orchestras of the land, nor could it. But the $10 million the federal government allocated the National Endowment for the Arts was seriously cut during the early years of the Reagan administration and is only now being gradually restored by Congress. Orchestras have had to become increasingly inventive in finding sources of private giving: The burgeoning area for much of that massive fund-raising is in the corporate world.
How is the symphony orchestra faring these days? We are in a time when the arts have more popular exposure than ever before - on TV, in the news, in the community. With youth programs, ''Pops'' concerts, park concerts, summer series either in town or in some unusual summer home, symphony orchestras have become highly visible in their respective communities.
But does this also mean that they are highly successful financially? Catherine French, chief executive officer of the American Symphony Orchestra League (ASOL) is generally optimistic about the state of the orchestra in America today: ''The creativity and energy being applied to the financial problems (and solutions) is quite special.''
There seems to be a slumping profile to the scene today. The Kansas City Philharmonic had to fold and regroup last year because of financial woes. The Florida Philharmonic folded last year. Many orchestras that for years were in the black are now in the red. Other orchestras that have raised millions each year are beginning to wonder where the next half-million is going to come from. Some cities have united arts funds that serve as clearinghouses for the cities' entire arts scene, with each group getting a share of the total. Participating institutions are not then allowed to go out and do their own general fund-raising outside of their subscriber/member families.
Nonetheless, orchestras nationwide are becoming increasingly aware of a need to view themselves as a specialized business, and they all have had to professionalize their image and their operation if they have any hopes of coping with the escalating costs of sustaining this sort of institution in the community.
In a metropolis such as Salt Lake City, the Utah Symphony has had an auspicious tenure. Under former music director Maurice Abaravanel, it had great visibility as a recording orchestra. Until recently, it performed in the Mormon Tabernacle; its offices were rent free. Now it is part of Symphony Hall for which it must pay rent, rehearsal time, and office space. Whereas before, the orchestra could get by with subscribers and corporate sponsoring of specific events, the orchestra is now trying to convince corporations that giving without specific returns - a concert or a series specifically sponsored to give the corporation a specific public image - is to the good of corporation and community alike.