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Classical orchestras struggle to find funding

We often don’t know what we have until it’s gone, or on the way to beinglost as is the case with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra.

We often don’t know what we have until it’s gone, or on the way to being lost as is the case with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra.

North American orchestras and other music organizations have been hit with a harsh reality -- even the big boys in the classical music world are susceptible to financial crisis. The recent announcement that the Philadelphia orchestra is filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection hits far too close to home for many orchestras, American and Canadian alike.

If a major orchestra at the center of an artistic and cultural hub such as Philadelphia Orchestra is grappling with a major deficit, what does that mean for other major orchestras, let alone smaller organizations like the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra London or our own Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra?

“The running of orchestras is highly scrutinized,” according to Boris Brott, former music director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra and founder of the National Academy Orchestra of Canada, “We spend several months a year doing research about funding and resources and filing out grant forms.”

In the past year, the Ontario government put forth something worth talking about, a much needed boost in its funding for the arts. Last fall, the province launched a three-year Arts Investment Fund to distribute $27 million dedicated to strengthening non-profit organizations that are receiving operating grants from the Ontario Arts Council, which itself receives $60 million from the province, a number that has steadily risen over the past seven years.

Some audience members of an orchestra concert may see a sold out hall and read some quick statistics on increased arts funding and feel confident the orchestra is doing just fine financially. But if government support for the arts in Ontario is seemingly steady and our talented artists are celebrated, why do we hear about music and arts organizations that are in constant financial peril? Do we really know what it takes to annually run an orchestra and what fills the gap when government funding for an orchestra still comes up short? How do music directors generate buzz about the classical music industry in order to keep our such cultural gems alive?

Simply put, an orchestra’s budget demands could be cut into thirds. Ideally, one third would come from box office sales, one third would come from public funding and the remaining third would come from private donations and corporate support. In this scenario, the paying audience would hopefully recognize they are only paying one third of the cost of their seat.

For many orchestras, corporate sponsorship is not quite as easy to secure as it may seem. While organizations based in large cities like Toronto have access to a wide range of available sponsorship dollars, they must also compete against many other arts groups fighting to get them in a saturated market. For smaller orchestras like the Hamilton Philharmonic, the problem is the cities themselves are smaller and therefore have a smaller corporate base.

Most orchestras have a foundation where they can deposit money that will then be matched dollar for dollar by donors, corporate or otherwise. While this is a great safety net, the financial problem persists since current interest rates are quite low and orchestras are forced to skim the interest while dipping into their principal, thereby diminishing that safety net.

Because they need to financially plan nearly two years in advance, most orchestras are faced with the problem of not knowing what will be available to them in the near future. Many work from numbers based on previous seasons and estimate to the best of ability. More often than not they spend before knowing what will be available, frequently leading to overspending of any profit made in the previous year.

“I always reduce my expectation for what is available in terms of funding and hopefully end up pleasantly surprised at the end of the season,” says Brott. “It’s like running a business on how little we can lose.”

However, there’s no disputing that attracting an audience is of major importance to an orchestra’s bottom line, both as a direct source of income as well as a show of support for public funding, and musicians themselves can play an important role in that, according to Brott.

“It’s vital that the musicians on stage give the same energy that rock musicians give, playing more physically, passionately and with conviction, all the way from the front to the back of the orchestra,” he said.

In other words, a powerful classical music experience is as much a visual art form as it is an audio one.

But perhaps the greatest challenge over the past few decades has been dwindling classical music instruction in school curricula, a void orchestras have been charged filling. Ontarians are lucky to have access to a vibrant cultural arts scene and it would be a shame to let that slide on a lack of funding and support. If public interest is the basic building block for a financially sound orchestra, then early music education itself is the foundation. The remainder is a simple case of better management and economic foresight which will allow orchestras to enjoy a more sophisticated and viable model.

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