We have often marveled (and occasionally despaired) at the fact that we work in a field where all too often organizational failure is accepted, and all too often such failure is even expected. This has never been more strikingly illustrated than in the recent announcement from the management of the Green Bay Symphony that it would close following the 2014–2015 season despite several recent profitable years.
The executive director publicly labeled the profitable years “a fluke.” What other business would do that? Well—no other business. It is just too bizarre. Successful businesses would highlight the profits, knowing that success breeds success. No business would dismiss profits as a fluke, thereby suggesting that their successes had nothing to do with the quality of the product, the excellence of the employees, or the importance of the service to the community.
The Green Bay Symphony website’s home page currently trumpets “GBSO’s Farewell Season!” That’s right—there really is an exclamation point. The text audaciously goes on to say, “Join us as we celebrate the tradition of great music!” The management seems pretty excited about giving up on a 100-year legacy where the citizens of the community and the great musicians of the orchestra clearly deserve better. The website also asks, “Why should a community support an orchestra that’s in its final season?” Actually, that is a pretty good question.
I want to go a little easy on my criticism, though, as it seems apparent that this orchestra can be saved, and hopefully people with wisdom can be found in the community to recover from this fell proclamation, and the orchestra can be led with vision into its next century. I do not desire that my comments poison that well.
But in a field where failure it too often accepted, even expected, it seems amazing that so many orchestras can overcome such suppositions and perform so well, especially in these economic times. Such successes are being experienced in places with positive expectations, and in life what you expect is often what you will get. If you find failure to be a reasonable result, and you spread such a message, then negative results are often what your vision will deliver.
For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.
As we review the orchestral season, it is clear that difficulties remain, and clearer still that there are a few storms ahead. But what is even more apparent is that, if success is a fluke, there certainly have been a lot of “flukey” things going on for orchestras and the arts.
- The Chicago Symphony received the two largest gifts in its history, totaling $32 million.
- The Indianapolis Symphony saw a 19% surge in ticket sales with an increase of 30% in subscription sales.
- The Cleveland Orchestra announced a balanced budget, growing audiences, increased endowment, and a record number of student attendees.
- The Houston Grand Opera received a $750,000 grant to assist in producing new works, while also achieving record attendance and fundraising.
- The Arizona Opera erased its debt.
- The Lyric Opera of Chicago, which has operated in the black for 26 of the past 27 seasons, saw significant increases in revenue and fundraising, and an increase of 8% in ticket sales.
- New York City increased funding for arts in the public schools by $23 million and is expected to hire 120 additional arts teachers.
- As Symphoria works heroically to establish a permanent orchestral presence in Syracuse in the wake of the unnecessary Syracuse Symphony bankruptcy, the new orchestra is now receiving grants, including funding for its educational mission.
- The San Antonio Symphony celebrated its 75th anniversary as it prepares to move into its new home, the Tobin Center.
- The Florida Orchestra saw an increase in attendance of 30%.
- The Houston Symphony’s gala raised over $2.5 million in one evening for education programs.
- The New York City Ballet’s Spring Gala celebrated 50 years at Lincoln Center and raised $3.15 million.
- The Milwaukee Symphony reached a goal of $5 million from new donors.
- The Cincinnati Symphony’s endowment has grown by 43%, and the number of gifts has increased by 94%, leading to a double-digit increase in attendance.
- The Grand Rapids Symphony launched a $40 million endowment drive with a $20 million gift.
- The Detroit Symphony’s holiday concerts set a new box office record.
- The Buffalo Philharmonic saw an increase in concert revenue of 5.5%, an 11.9% surge in contributions, endowment growth of 7.7%, and an increase in ticket sales with records set for subscriptions.
I have been traveling the world over the past decade spreading the message that for every story of failure there are ten stories of suc- cess for the arts, all the while hoping that we could sow the seeds of positive advocacy that could lead to a new era of artistic relevance for the modern world. I was recently inspired by a quote from Gustav Mahler, who said, “I am hitting my head against the walls, but the walls are giving way.”
Yes, there were some bad stories this year, too, and there will be others. That’s how life is. There is good and there is bad. It is true for orchestras just as it is true for every other type of business. It has been reported that 90% of restaurants in America fail in their first year of business, yet no one would argue that Americans no longer like to eat.
Results aren’t always a fluke. Sometimes success is the result of hard work, cooperative and visionary thinking, mutual respect, and positive expectations. I do not doubt, even for one second, the importance of our orchestras or our ability to succeed as we continue on as a beacon for a world that longs for light and inspiration. There is nothing negative about what we do. We teach the next generation. We serve our communities. We constantly aspire for something greater than ourselves.
We play music.