phoenix symphony – lessons for oregon?

An article in the Arizona Republic appeared today about the Phoenix Symphony and their slow recovery from the edge of the abyss a few years ago (ultimately, the players had to take a substantial pay cut to keep the orchestra solvent, nearly going on strike before settling). Here’s a summary from the beginning of the article:

The mid-1990s and early 2000s marked several dark times for the Phoenix Symphony.

Still, the organization, which has long been dogged by budget woes, is now experiencing a turnaround.

The symphony’s endowment has more than doubled in the past eight years, it has introduced new programming designed to appeal to both new and returning concertgoers and it has a stable leadership.

That’s quite a feat for an organization that just six years ago almost saw its musicians go on strike after their pay was cut. Leaders at one of the Valley’s largest performing-arts organizations say they feel encouraged by the progress, but they say they know big tasks remain.

Like the Valley’s other fine-arts groups, the Phoenix Symphony struggles to define its identity in a market that is constantly in flux. That means it will continue to be creative to make financial ends meet while trying to give audiences quality content.

The major problems cited include the organization previously relying upon growth of the city’s economy to provide increased funding and attendance for the orchestra. This is indeed something to be wary of here in Portland. While Portland is experience a tremendous growth spurt, it’s important to remember that new people don’t always translate into support for existing institutions. The OSO must fight tooth and nail for the new money from new potential patrons and corporations – not expect them to come in to the fold automatically. I think that rising populations are more likely to bring more diverse expectations – and new forms of entertainment, unless they are purposely drawn to what is already in place – and having an aggressive plan for drawing in this new population is a must.

Building the endowment is something else that has been worked on in Phoenix – up from $3.6 million to $7.7 million over the last six fiscal years. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk with endowment campaigns – you need to continue to raise money for the operations fund while also convincing the same donors to fork over for a fund which won’t disburse in any way you can name or show to them (unlike sponsoring a concert week with the donor’s name as underwriter). But it’s a huge necessity in this business to build the endowment. The OSO’s endowment lost substantially in the stock market slowdown after 9/11, and while it’s come back up, there haven’t (to my knowledge) been large additions of new capital to it in recent years (other than investment income).

Programming is another aspect of what they’re addressing in Phoenix, as here in Oregon. While Phoenix is adding new kinds of concerts (Friday morning “coffee concerts”, etc.), I think that could be a risky road for the OSO. Audiences are wary if you try to impose too many changes at once. Our audiences in Portland are growing ever more sophisticated (and they were never dumb to begin with, either) and the programming philosophy of Carlos Kalmar has changed a bit since his arrival here and there, but essentially he is putting together the novel and the familiar in ways that hopefully shed more light on all the repertoire. Inside the Score is selling very well, and is one of our most popular series, and in our classical series, the unfamiliar works are getting more and stronger ovations than could have been imagined 10 years ago.

I think that we’re on the right track – so long as the needs of an artistically top-notch ensemble are supported.

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