THE financial woes of American symphony orchestras are giving rise to some creative thinking when it comes to repaying debts.
Last month, the St. Louis and Kansas City symphonies reached an agreement with Gov. Mel Carnahan (D) to work off loans given by the state of Missouri. The two orchestras agreed to give nearly 40 free concerts throughout the state in order to repay the taxpayers.
``I'm not aware that this has happened anyplace else,'' says Sandra Hyslop, editor of Symphony magazine. ``It sounds as though it could be a very beneficial way of paying back a loan for both parties. Touring an orchestra is very expensive. This is one way the state could provide a service for its citizens.''
But late last week, Governor Carnahan rescinded the loan-repayment agreement amid a chorus of criticism. State legislators disapproved of the way the agreement was quietly reached just days after the legislature adjourned last month.
THE loans were originally approved by the legislature in 1985. The St. Louis Symphony now owes $2.2 million, including interest; the Kansas City Symphony owes $1.1 million. When the loans came due two years ago, the state legislature rejected a proposal for repayment through free concerts. Instead, a five-year loan extension was granted and a law was passed stipulating that the loans could not be extended further or forgiven.
Therefore, says state Rep. Ken Legan (R), the governor's agreement was in ``blatant violation of the law.''
Last Friday, Carnahan released a statement announcing that the agreement was being rescinded. ``There may be better ways to deal with this loan,'' he said. ``The symphonies will work with the legislature to come to some sort of resolution.''
``There might be a slight public benefit'' to the free concerts, Mr. Legan says. But ``I don't think there's $3.3 million worth of public benefit to it.'' That money could be better spent on other state services, he says.
Legan voted against the loans in 1985. ``I felt at the time that we would never get a penny of it back, and my predictions are fast coming true,'' he says.
The debate about state funding for orchestras and other cultural resources is an old one, of course. ``There are a lot of people who consider funding of any arts organization as frittering away the taxpayer's dollars on frills,'' Ms. Hyslop says. ``The orchestras, like all institutions, have to prove their value to the citizens.''