The Prince William Symphony Orchestra, a low-budget organization that has long struggled with funding and a revolving door of executive directors, is now fighting off competition.
The orchestra's executive director, Elizabeth Nathanson, resigned last month and incorporated the Dominion Philharmonic Society, a fledgling orchestra that she promises will give the longtime musical group a run for its annual government funding.
Money, which has been a major issue for the symphony orchestra, became an obvious problem in April, when its board of directors voted to cancel a concert because of the lack of funds.
"It is very difficult to run a nonprofit profitably," said Bill Vaughan, vice president of the board. "We would have been irresponsible if we had held the concert."
Nathanson said the cancellation was an insult to ticket holders, sponsors and the professional musicians hired to play each concert. She criticized the group's fundraising, which she said is heavily reliant on contributions from Prince William County and Manassas. She said that private donations trickle in and that fundraisers are small.
She recalled a wine tasting this season that raised about $2,500. "They have a high school bake sale mind-set. They raise $1,000 at a time," Nathanson said.
The discord among longtime supporters and musicians has Prince William's arts community questioning whether orchestral music will survive in the county, and whether its struggle could affect other arts groups.
"They are concerned because with the arts, there's strength in numbers. When one arts group does well, they all do well. When one of them starts struggling, it's a big concern," said Sally Lay, executive director of the Center of the Arts of Greater Manassas/Prince William County.
The symphony orchestra was boosted last year by the announcement of plans by Prince William County and George Mason University to build a $56 million performing arts center modeled after the La Scala opera house in Milan. The orchestra, which recently moved to another temporary office, would be housed there.
In February, the orchestra held a gala and silent auction at Foxchase Manor that featured cellist Zuill Bailey. The concert drew more than 600 people, which Nathanson called a record.
The orchestra has had a longtime reputation as one of the shakiest of the county's arts groups, arts supporters said.
In April, the group did not have enough money to put on a scheduled concert.
"It cost about $20,000 to put on a concert. We had about half that," Vaughan said.
Vaughan said he could not explain how the concert was planned without being fully funded. "I don't know the answer to that," he said.
Nathanson said the problem goes back to fundraising. The group receives less than 25 percent of its support from private givers.
The symphony's income tax records for fiscal 2004 show that more than $81,000 of $204,000 in revenue came from sources other than government and ticket sales. But records also show that revenue and expenses since 1997 have been few compared with other local orchestras in the region.
In 2002, the Youth Orchestras of Prince William raised nearly $134,000. In recent years, orchestras in Alexandria and Lynchburg, Va., have raised more than $400,000 and $255,000 respectively, according to income tax records.
Nathanson said it was the job of the orchestra's board of directors to raise money. Her job was to operate the symphony.
Vaughan said there is no one person in charge of fundraising. "This is a volunteer organization," he said. "It's kind of everyone's job."
The board has identified a new executive director, who has signed a contract, and one of the specific duties will be fundraising, he said. Vaughan said he could not disclose the new hire before the board officially votes.
The orchestra will begin an aggressive public relations campaign to combat the Dominion Philharmonic, he said. He said sponsors are still onboard for next season.
Cassie Catalin, vice president of marketing for Vienna-based developer KSI Services Inc., said the company gives $20,000 annually and is sticking with the orchestra.
"We absolutely will continue to support and are fully confident in the Prince William Symphony Orchestra," Catalin said. "For our contribution, we get much back."
Nathanson said her group will be just as aggressive. She said the symphony orchestra has always received support because it is the only game in town.
"They really believe people will come no matter what they do," she said. Dominion Philharmonic's "goal is to become financially stable so that we can move into the arts center. We have a strategic plan.
"People can't lock us out. We intend to be a viable part of this community."