The Louisville Orchestra: A Rebuttal (from the blog of Vivian Ruth Sawyer)
One really doesn’t know whether to laugh or to cry in response to Chuck Maisch’s column about the Louisville Orchestra in the Courier- Journal on September 18, 2011.
Maisch states correctly that the Louisville Orchestra has been on unstable financial footing seven times since 1984. Where he is incorrect is that “Save the Orchestra” campaigns were launched in every instance: in fact, as long as my family has been deeply involved (since 2000, when I joined the board of directors and later the executive committee for two three-year terms, and 2006, when my husband joined the board and later became the chairman of the L.O. for two years), there has been no “Save the Orchestra” public campaign, despite many individuals, including all the musicians, imploring management to release publicly a statement quantifying the amount of the fiscal shortfall so that the community might have an opportunity to step forward and meet the gap.
Isn’t it hard to believe that only two years ago, in fiscal year 2009, the Louisville Orchestra had an operating surplus of $91,000? In a year when the economy was no healthier than ours is today? In fiscal year 2010, the budget shortfall was less than 10% of the total budget of nearly $7 million. At that time, both the Fund for the Arts CEO and the current L.O. executive director were not overly concerned about the deficit. Of course, to deal with it appropriately would have required that the incoming L.O. president and the executive director lead the board and all the musicians in a no-holds-barred, vigorous public effort to close the gap. Instead, all evidence indicates that they began immediately making plans to file for bankruptcy, and now we are looking at the consequence. It only takes about six months of negligence and ill will on the part of one or two leaders to destroy something that took 75 years for a city to build.
If one surveyed all the major symphony orchestras in the U.S., one would find many years when their budgets did not balance, and creative solutions needed to be found. The process is rarely pretty, and often involves a harum-scarum, rag-tag variety of skin-of-the-teeth, seat-of-the-pants stopgap measures: welcome to the world of arts management. The result in most cases where such measures were undertaken: the orchestras, like the Louisville Orchestra up to this year, stayed in business. What’s more remarkable in the case of our gem of an ensemble is that even in spite of numerous close financial calls, the L.O. continued to improve its artistic product.
So what’s wrong with the concept that a smaller orchestra is the answer for us? Plenty. The entire premise is based on a lack of understanding of symphonic music, its market niches, and what most people want to hear when they use their scarce leisure dollars to come to the orchestra. An orchestra of fifty seats or less can essentially perform only music written before 1800 – yes, Mozart, yes, Haydn, yes, Bach, but music with a mannered, more chamber-type sound that is generally loved by a rather effete demographic. It’s also very, very difficult to play well, as any orchestra musician will tell you. The extreme tonality and cadence of the music reveals every flaw, and even a novice can identify when it’s played sloppily. The Louisville Orchestra we had until the end of May 2011 was absolutely capable of performing this music beautifully, but a solid diet of it simply isn’t satisfying to most symphony music lovers. We enjoy the occasional selection, dropped into a program somewhat like a palate cleanser, a scoop of grapefruit sorbet between the foie gras of Schumann and the New York strip of Beethoven – both of which would require at least another 20 musicians to perform their important works. In fact, it’s the Schumann, Brahms and the Beethoven that people really come to hear. They enjoy the smaller works, but that’s not why they buy tickets, and if that and more sparse modern works comprised the entire program, most people would rather go see a movie, or stay home and put their custom-designed Pandora stations on the iHome. I would.
“Oh,” current management says, “but we can hire the additional musicians individually required to perform Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann and Mendelssohn, and thus play what people really want to hear.” Let’s say we do that for every concert – because those are the concerts that will sell tickets. The analysis has been done by consultants with deep knowledge and experience of orchestras and their challenges, and the reports are sitting on the shelves of the L.O. offices: to hire enough individual musicians to rehearse and perform the romantic and impressionist works that are the hallmark of great symphony orchestras very quickly shoots the operational budget right back to the level where it was – the level that Maisch claims we are unable to raise.
Maisch is probably correct that hiring 50 musicians for 30 weeks would require $5-plus million per year: roughly one-and-a-half million dollars less than the budget of the L.O. last year. Would that be an easier amount to raise, and would it result in a more manageable orchestra for Louisville? Not unless the L.O. management and every member of the board showed a real appetite for working very, very hard, asking everyone imaginable to contribute. Has the current leadership demonstrated that chutzpah? If so, why did they not call my acquaintances or me and ask us to contribute more than usual during this current budget shortfall? They will say that they met with key givers: yes, they always are eager to meet with the small group of philanthropists who have been beyond generous to the L.O. for the past four decades. But any nonprofit development professional knows that a budget is not met by just a few people with deep pockets – and the few angels the L.O. has had are rightfully tired of being the fall-back givers when so few others are solicited.
Ask yourself: was anyone reading this called or written and asked to make an additional charitable gift to the Louisville Orchestra in the last nine months? Did anyone meet with you about it? In a very few cases, there were calls and meetings: incredibly, the L.O. still has a handful of admirable, stalwart people on its board whose only desire is to work their hardest and talk to everyone they know to meet the budget and contractual obligations. They have continued to do so, some for two decades or more, but they are salmon swimming against a mighty current of naysayers. Most of the board of directors takes the message of the president and executive director as gospel: the message that it can’t be done, it’s impossible, it’s too big for Louisville, and we need to pull the plug and start over. If the top two leaders are sending that message, who would be fool enough to give?
What about publicity? Among the numerous stories in the newspaper about the Louisville Orchestra’s budget woes, where were the stories that announced specifically how much money was needed, when it was early enough in the season last year for the news to generate giving, which would have enabled the L.O. to end fiscal year 2011 in the black? Was there a public appeal for funds to enable the L.O. to keep running? Were we told exactly how much money was needed and encouraged to pull out all the stops and try to raise it? Was there, in fact, a “Save the Orchestra” campaign at all last year? No. The old saw with L.O. management is that the community is tired of hearing the sad tale. To the contrary, the community is tired of hearing from L.O. management that the goal is too lofty and can’t be reached, while never even revealing what the magic number is that would meet the goal.
And maybe it is too lofty. The truth is that we don’t really know: because unless the L.O. management is willing to operate in the full light of full disclosure and invite all our citizens to open their wallets and piggy banks and meet the gap any given year of operation, we have no idea if a 71-seat, $6.5 million-per-year orchestra is too large for Louisville. If it is too hefty for our pocketbooks, if we actually were to get the word out and do a broad-based campaign that would let the community choose whether we keep an orchestra of a size to permit the performance of the greatest symphonic works and if the community’s answer were, “No, it’s a dinosaur, we don’t care enough about it,” then we should accept the verdict and move on. Then let Maisch and whatever executive director he would like to hire try to raise $5.3 million to put together a group of chamber players – a group most likely comprised of non-union musicians since he does not seem interested in adhering to union guidelines. Let’s see how he does. I would wish him all the best, but I don’t know many people who would assist, because such a small group won’t be able to play the music we most want to hear, the price tag even for a small group would be steep, and who would give to an effort led by people who have shown that they’re likely to lose interest midstream and pull the plug?
Maisch was correct in one other regard: he stated that in every other year of crisis, the magnificent orchestral music our performing artists provide this community was preserved. In that context, it’s especially heartbreaking that current management had a different goal, so that about twenty of last year’s musicians have relocated to other cities, and now, at least through November, the Louisville Orchestra is silent. Its return is contingent on the current management, especially the president and executive director, stepping down for good, and the musicians helping to craft a unique management model where they share ownership and have a voice and vote in their destiny for the good of the community. That is the only hope for the future of the Louisville Orchestra. In the meantime, what a sad legacy the current leadership has left the city of Louisville.