As the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra begins its 131st season, many of the musicians (especially us old-timers) look back in amazement at the shambles things were just a few years ago. After a matched gift of over $80 million, management began operating like a bank, putting all its eggs in the endowment basket and hinging its future plans on endowment draw. When the basket handle broke, we were left staring at a large raw sidewalk omelet.
Since the arrival of Executive Director Fred Bronstein three years ago and his pragmatic and, most importantly, balanced approach to running an arts organization, the mood is undeniably positive. Some five years of downward trends have been reversed. Here are some numbers: Earned revenue for the last fiscal year totaled $8.1 million, up nearly 15 percent from last year. Ticket sales reached nearly $6.5 million, up 16 percent. Per concert attendance averaged 1,792, up 9 percent over the prior year. The symphony’s “structural operating deficit” (there’s that hallowed name) was cut 11 percent to $2.6 million, the smallest since 2005, thanks to growth in ticket revenue.
The symphony launched a turnaround effort in 2008 to try new types of shows, build an audience and attract first-time goers with more popular music (The Beatles, ABBA), playing live scores along with movies ( Psycho , Lord of the Rings , lots of Chaplin, Wizard of Oz ), touring to new places, and making a CD on Nonesuch Records, the orchestra’s first major-label recording in 10 years. Bronstein wants to close the budget gap by 2019. Contributed revenue in fiscal 2010 remained flat at $8.5 million with annual campaign declines offset by sponsorships and the symphony’s first gala in a decade.
My overall impression is of an administration firmly rooted in present results but willing to look down the road to any possibility. Concert venues or series that had been allowed to die because of bottom-line loss were being reconsidered, but in modern form with modern marketing resources and commitment. Old plans for hall expansion were dragged out, with new contingency plans put in place (contingent on the money appearing, not on huge mortgages). Even something as simple as an idea for patron bicycle racks (for a new audience rolling up from the downtown loft district) did not just receive a laugh and pat on the back. New audience has become the high focus of this administration, with marketing positions old and new being filled with energetic appointments.
The endowment still exists, standing at $116.6 million, down from $142 million in 2007, up from the March 2009 low of $93 million. The draw for the current fiscal year, $6.2 million, is down from $6.4 million, a drop the symphony appears able to handle just fine. Many more initiatives are in the works to help fiscal 2011’s financials. The symphony just recently launched a rebranding campaign, live broadcasts on St. Louis Public Radio, and has plans to perform with Circus Flora and other cool stuff. And, yes, we’re still playing Mahler and Tchaikovsky and Adams and all those guys, to pretty full halls.
It’s been interesting to me, watching our adjustment to the SLSO’s shortened season (recently lengthened by a week to 43 weeks). Thanks in large part to the efforts of Brad Buckley (past ICSOM chair), ¬we receive what would have been “unemployment pay” as “summer season pay” of $275 per week, leaving us free to go anywhere we want for some 9 or 10 consecutive weeks. What has happened over the years since this was put in place is that many people have been able to lock into substantial summer playing gigs in beautiful places, with no juggling necessary with the SLSO schedule. The full orchestra does go without hearing itself for some four months (including our split-orchestra opera season in May/June). For me, that first tutti chord in September seems just that much more satisfying, returning refreshed and eager to chomp into it. I know many of us don’t feel like we’re a major symphony orchestra anymore after losing our 52-week status, but we still sound like one, and for at least 36 weeks a year we feel like one.