Topic: Columbus Symphony Article in Wall Street Journal
Goodbye, Columbus Symphony?
By JANELLE GELFAND
June 19, 2008; Page D7
On June 1, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra took what may be its final bows. Tears flowed from the musicians as well as from members of the capacity crowd in the Ohio Theatre, and guest performer Marvin Hamlisch offered to do a benefit concert should the orchestra somehow be resurrected. The 57-year-old orchestra is out of money. The symphony canceled its summer pops season and told the musicians that they would not be paid for the rest of the current contract, which ends Aug. 31.
The crisis isn't for lack of an audience. Attendance in the 2,800-seat theater, a 1920s-era movie palace, was up 11% this year, and four of its 55 concerts were sellouts. The predicament was precipitated by several years of operating deficits and a history of problems in the boardroom. Donors finally refused to provide bailouts or "bridge funding" to tide the orchestra over, insisting that the board come up with a vastly trimmed annual budget.
In mid-January, faced with a $1.3 million deficit after posting $2.3 million in red ink last season, board chairman Robert "Buzz" Trafford, managing partner of the law firm Porter Wright Morris & Arthur, announced a drastic restructuring plan. The symphony would reduce its operating budget to $9.5 million from $12 million, slash the number of full-time musicians to 31 from 53, and cut performance weeks to 34 from 46.
The musicians walked out of the meeting announcing massive cuts. In April, the board withdrew that plan and proposed a new one -- saving all positions but cutting salaries 40% -- which the musicians rejected. The players came back with a plan for an $11.1 million budget, including a 6.5% pay cut, which was rebuffed. The union states that there has been no bargaining, and that musicians were "locked out" (which management disputes). This month, the union appealed the board's termination of the labor contract to the American Arbitration Association.
Despite its reputation as a fine performing ensemble, the orchestra has had a turbulent recent history. In 2004, an outcry followed the departure of its popular music director, Alessandro Siciliani. That year, the orchestra also found itself without an executive director and a board chairman. Both its former chairman and its interim president were in trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission. (In September, the SEC imposed sanctions on another board member for improper professional conduct.)
Two years ago, with the appointment of the excellent Junichi Hirokami as music director, things seemed to be looking up for the orchestra. But financial clouds quickly began to form again. Mr. Hirokami, in his second year of a three-year contract, has called the chain of events "catastrophic" and blamed the board for its failure to raise enough money to sustain the orchestra.
The news has played out in the print media and on TV, in blogs and on YouTube. Subscription renewal forms for 2008-09 were never sent out. Because of uncertainty about next season, the Greater Columbus Arts Council pulled its funding, which last year was more than $260,000.
"It's devastating," said Douglas Fisher, bassoonist and president of the Central Ohio Federation of Musicians. "It appears that they never had any intent of negotiating in good faith, but just to kill the orchestra."
How could a city so precipitously consider abandoning something it has cultivated for more than a half century? Columbus is a metropolitan area of nearly two million, similar in size to both Cincinnati and Cleveland. But Columbus's musical aspirations were never as high as those other Ohio cities', nor has the orchestra enjoyed the same kind of community largesse.
In recent years, the Columbus Symphony has survived hand-to-mouth. Total ticket sales this year amount to just 23% of revenues. For cash flow, it normally borrows from the next season's subscription sales. The orchestra has a few angels -- one loyal donor made a gift in April to allow the season to finish, including a "gala" concert with cellist Yo-Yo Ma. But the orchestra has no endowment -- nor has it held an endowment drive. As the funding landscape has changed, orchestras have become increasingly dependent upon drawing -- and over-drawing -- from their endowments to cover operations.
Executives at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, a two-hour drive down I-71 from Columbus, voiced alarm that the state capital potentially could lose its orchestra. In May, the musicians of the Cincinnati Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra signed a letter of solidarity with the Columbus musicians.
The Columbus Symphony is not alone in many of the challenges it faces. Most orchestras struggle to fill their halls week after week with single-ticket sales, because the arts-loving public, faced with myriad choices, little leisure time and increasing economic concerns, now shuns subscriptions. Periodically board members ask themselves if there is too much product for the demand. Further, the arts have become increasingly marginalized. Arts institutions worry about donor fatigue. Loyal patrons who write generous checks are now fewer.
When a city's orchestra folds, it cuts through the cultural infrastructure like a spring tornado. Children's concerts, youth orchestra, school visits, summertime concerts under the stars and private music lessons with symphony players disappear. In Columbus, the symphony also plays for the opera and ballet companies. They will be forced to find free-lance musicians or use recorded music for performances, and quality may suffer.
Since 1986, 16 American orchestras, five in cities ranging in population from 1.5 million to 3 million, have flirted with or filed for bankruptcy protection, according to the League of American Orchestras. Yet all have returned or been replaced, some greatly scaled down. The San Diego Symphony, was rescued in 2002 by a $120 million gift from Joan and Irwin M. Jacobs. Cities such as Denver have learned to exploit their orchestras as assets that help revive downtowns and attract business to their region.
In Columbus, the musicians have proposed mediation and the board hopes to identify a mediator soon. If all fails, Mr. Trafford believes that the community will find an alternative -- whether it means bringing in visiting orchestras from Cincinnati and Cleveland, or starting over.
Concerts in Columbus have been as thrilling on occasion as any performed by big-budget ensembles in Cleveland or Cincinnati. But an orchestra must decide what it aspires to be -- and then find the funding to do it. It comes down to stewardship, to the commitment of leaders to find new and creative ways to support the music, and to build an endowment to ensure its survival.
Columbus is a town where 105,000 fans in Ohio Stadium cheer wildly when the sousaphone player dots the "i" in the Ohio State University Marching Band's iconic "Script Ohio" formation. But when it comes to the symphony, Columbus will have to decide whether it wants to be more than just minor league.
Ms. Gelfand is an arts writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer.