“Snowmageddon.” “Snownami.” Metrodome collapsing. For a Buffalo boy this is all rather unimpressive. But lost in all this was some interesting news out of St. Paul. Was it good news? Ya, you betcha!
People who aren’t truly cognizant of how the Twin Cities Metro area is put together seem to get awfully confused when it comes to geography, politics, the arts, etc. I have to constantly explain how one big metro area is really two distinct cities with a whole series of clearly demarcated “Thou Shalt Not Go To The Other City To Enjoy Art” rules. At least, those rules are clear to natives. To those of us who are transplants it seems a little arbitrary, but if you say that out loud you will be subjected to the dreaded Minnesota Nice, and no one wants that to happen.
Since I was originally brought to the Twinks by the Minnesota Orchestra it is in that direction that my personal allegiance lies. That didn’t stop me from running a chamber music group in St. Paul, or joining another one based there this season. I do most of my grocery shopping over there as well since I live but two blocks from the border. When it comes to the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra I try to keep an eye out sotto voce. I was glad to see this article from the hometown newspaper about the SPCO.
What really caught my eye was how different this was from the Detroit Symphony situation, and that article scratches the surface on the historical reasons behind the difference. What jumps out is that despite all the pressures the SPCO has made a concerted and historical effort to maintain a balanced budget with everything that contributes to that end being important, whether that is touring, salaries, staff, etc. This has allowed the SPCO to operate with “no accumulated deficit and no external debt,” a very strong fiscal position. The draw this year on their endowment was around 5%, a typical figure for nonprofit organizations in good fiscal health. The SPCO accomplished all this at a time when their contributions and attendance declined from the previous season. All in all, a strong performance.
And then this article about the Detroit Symphony popped up today. It is bad enough that the DSO is posting an $8.8 million dollar deficit, some 30% of the budget for this year, but those aren’t the frightening numbers. Look at the history through the last few years and I can’t help but use my favorite expression – it looks like denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.
- $6.5 Million dollar deficit in 2009
- $3.8 Million dollar deficit in 2008
- Revenue fell 14% from 2009 to $11.6 Million
- Ticket sales dropped 17& this year to $6.95 Million
These are staggering numbers. I once heard someone say “no one slips a $5 Million dollar deficit under your door” and that couldn’t be any more true. Since any orchestra of this size projects at least a full fiscal year into the future it is safe to assume that a future of red ink was known about way back in 2007. That would have been the time to deal with it but instead the DSO caved in to the classic “Egyptian” fiscal model (and you can all repeat the mistakes with me):
- We’ll just draw more from our endowment (the same one that’s tanking)
- We’ll just raise more money from somewhere (forgetting we’re in Detroit)
- We have a however-many-year contract and we expect the society to meet its obligations (forgetting the first two)
Added bonus to you if you can fill in which constituency said what. Once this whole house of cards comes crashing down then everyone blames everyone else, forgetting that they were in on the deal in the first place. The outcome is that Detroit is without their orchestra, and if things keep going the way they are that may become permanent. Musicians will be out of work, a tremendous history will have been frittered away, and there will be little to pick up but the ashes of a proud institution.
This could have been prevented. Of course, that would have required people thinking beyond their particular constituency, and we have seen lately how well that happens on the political level. No reason to suspect it would be any different in the Arts. Except, I guess, in St. Paul.