A Tale Of Two Cities Redux

“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.

2 thoughts on “A Tale Of Two Cities Redux”

  1. I’m sorry, but I have to weigh in on this over simplified comparison of the fiscally responsible SPCO and the Detroit Symphony. I have been a member of the St Paul Chamber Orchestra since 1984 and have seen many ups and downs in the economy and in our salary. When I first joined the orchestra it was comparable in weekly salary to Minnesota Orchestra. I did a comparison of our salaries from 2000-2010, and came up with the following figures. The St Paul Chamber Orchestra’s base salary has increased $5,758 in 10 years, a 9.7% increase, approximately 12% behind inflation. Minnesota Orchestra’s salary during that same time has increased $18,954 or 23%, even with the rate of inflation. The percentage of our budget that goes to musicians’ salaries and benefits has decreased from 34% in 00-01 to 29.30% in 09-10.
    So yes, we are fiscally responsible, but what about the musicians? We have made many sacrifices for this organization, and have been happy to do it. But, when is enough enough? We have also cancelled a very important European tour with Roberto Abbado to save us $300,000, but consequently lost the opportunity to draw attention and excitement towards our organization which could lead to more donations.
    As for Detroit, it isn’t as if the musicians haven’t offered to help, offering a 22% cut in their salaries. Don’t forget that there is more to this fight than just salary. They want the musicians to replace the librarians and do other non-orchestral services touting a “new model”. Why, may I ask, is this term always associated with lowering pay and adding duties? Why would the management insist on new players starting at lower salaries than the current players and think that is a reasonable request? This is what many companies are doing to their union employees to save money, but we are talking about a non-profit here, and highly skilled new players coming in to do the same work as the seasoned players. It sounds like a divisive situation to me worth fighting to prevent for everyone’s sake.
    When Bruce Coppock was our Executive Director we created what the industry has called the “St Paul Model”. I have heard from various sources that Bruce is currently working with the Detroit management on some of their ideas and am waiting to hear what the resulting model will be called now.

    • Thanks for your comment, Leslie. While my post is certainly a simplification I argue it is not an over-simplification. The gist of my post is that one orchestra is fiscally sound and the other is not, and the one that is not should have seen, by projecting into the future, that it was heading down a street that was not conducive to ever becoming fiscally sound.

      As to the Minnesota Orchestra/St. Paul Chamber Orchestra comparison – The M.O. has many, many advantages that has allowed that institution to take expand over the past 30 years in ways the SPCO could never do. First, the M.O. owns their own hall, while the SPCO must make do with The Ordway. Owning your own hall is a major advantage which my own orchestra is fortunate to have, and I’ve seen how that impacts the bottom line as well as the artistic viability of an organization. Second, the M.O. is a much older and established organization with a long history of community fundraising. The WAMSO organization and the various auxiliaries that the M.O. has in it’s past and present consists of a large number of the movers/shakers with deep pockets. Having that network at your disposal cannot be overemphasized. Third, the M.O. exists in a larger, wealthier, more cosmopolitan city. Nothing against St. Paul but the basic demographics of the region are skewed west of the river. Fourth, the M.O. is not constrained by the size of the orchestra itself. It’s difficult for the SPCO to mount Mahler for obvious reasons. The M.O. does not have that challenge. Of course, having that size is a double edged sword – any Haydn symphony uses less than half the orchestra, so advantage in that way goes to the SPCO.

      As for Detroit – yes, the musicians are being asked to take a 22% cut in salaries. Unfortunately, I don’t know where else the money is going to come from. There is a pat answer I’ve heard a lot – “why doesn’t the administration just raise more money?” If it was that easy we’d all be doing it, but it’s not, especially in a region like the Detroit metropolitan. There’s just not a lot of money there, and with a salary heavy organization where else are you going to find savings? Running $6 million deficits every year on a $29 million budget is not, nor has never been nor ever will be, a fiscally responsible business model. If this issue had been addressed years ago then other issues such as lower salaries for new players would never have been brought up.

      That having been said, the trend in this business for musicians to have more than one skill. This has been recognized by our major learning institutions such as Eastman, Juilliard, Curtis, etc. It is pretty obvious to those who do NOT have the well-paid union protected job. Having multiple skills that are related to one’s profession would, in my book, be an asset. To be able to take advantage of those skills within an organization would, if used correctly, be a great addition to the organization’s structure. Hey, we saw something like that just last night. Joe Webb, drafted as a wide receiver, just started and won his first game at quarterback for the Vikings.

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