The Kennedy Center announced yesterday that it is expanding its arts management programs, which help struggling cultural organizations, to include more than two dozen mid-size orchestras.
Like many arts groups, orchestras are facing hard times. Costs are up. Raising money is tough. Audiences are aging. "Sustaining the American Orchestra," the new initiative, is an effort to design strategies that will change the way many orchestras do business.
"Orchestras are having trouble across the country," said Michael M. Kaiser, the center's president. "Lots of orchestras have deficits, but the larger ones have a better cash flow and are not threatened. All orchestras have very large fixed costs, but the smaller ones have the challenges of fundraising and meeting those costs."
Initially the center will work with 23 orchestras, ranging from the Indianapolis Symphony, which has a $23 million budget, and the St. Louis Symphony, a $21 million budget, to the Reno Philharmonic and Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, both with $1 million budgets. In small markets, the symphony is often the leading cultural draw. (House Speaker Dennis Hastert [R-Ill.] took the time to congratulate the 50-year-old Elgin Symphony Orchestra on being selected for the program: "Its brightest days are yet to come.")
The Kennedy Center is using a model it developed three years ago to help minority-run dance, theater and music companies. The approach included direct discussions with Kaiser, as well as online talks, symposiums to work on management issues and advice on strategic planning. That program has grown to 36 participants. Under Kaiser's tenure, the center has also started arts management efforts with administrators in China, Iraq and Mexico, instituted year-long fellowships for mid-level executives and will start a Web site focusing on an array of issues next spring.
This type of exchange can be very dynamic, said Kevin Shuck, director of marketing and development for the Berkeley Symphony. "The more we can learn through peer learning and discover what the best practices are in the field, the more it will increase our own capacity to meet the challenges."
The collaboration with the orchestras will include two retreats, bimonthly online sessions, direct consultation with Kaiser or the center's senior staff and guidance on developing a strategic plan. Topics could include how to do a challenging, unfamiliar repertory and still survive in a Beethoven's Ninth world. Or how to distinguish an orchestra in a region where there might be six others.
Some of today's problems for orchestras have their roots in societal changes and expansions orchestras undertook during the profitable 1990s.
"Membership has not grown. Women were once the backbone of the symphony audience, but that has shifted over the last three decades," Kaiser said. "With more women working, it wasn't predictable if they would have every Thursday to go to the symphony." He cites the lack of music education in public schools as another factor. Adults who have finished raising children and climbing the career ladder -- people with more disposable income -- are the people who tend to become orchestra subscribers.
According to the Symphony Orchestra League, 36 percent of orchestras reported a deficit in 2003-04.
Many of the problems faced by music groups are common to other arts organizations. But orchestras have some special problems. They have contracts with the musicians, rental agreements for their halls, need to find money for the music director and administrators, and pay fees to guest soloists and conductors. "That is what makes it difficult, the fixed costs," Kaiser said. But one of his platforms is telling arts organizations to spend more on marketing. "That's a huge cost, but they have got to create institutional excitement, not just one week at a time," he said.
The Berkeley orchestra's Shuck said an additional pressure for his organization is trying to find money for premieres and commissions for a company that emphasizes new music. "Trying to market contemporary music, on top of audience development and the desire to expand our season, is a challenge," he said.
The orchestras are not taking on additional costs to participate in the center's initiative. The program is being underwritten with a $250,000 grant from SBC Foundation, the philanthropic fund set up by the telecommunications giant.