Three months ago, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra raised a white flag of surrender. Out of cash and out of ideas, the nonprofit called off their season a month before its scheduled end. While negotiations between the musicians and the board of directors have come to a standstill, volunteer community members have stepped in, leading public forums to discuss the future of symphonic music in Charleston.
Hosted by the College of Charleston, the Charleston Regional Alliance for the Arts, and the Coastal Community Foundation, the community forums drew hundreds of concerned citizens last month. Organizers asked participants to focus on symphonic music in general, opening the discussion to a whole new scope of ideas about our city's cultural future. And though the forums aren't specifically looking at the CSO, the organization is waiting for the results to decide what its next step will be.
"The challenge here is that the musicians are involved in lots of different organizations around town," says George Stevens, president of the Coastal Community Foundation and a steering committee member. "This goes beyond just the symphony ... The symphony essentially pays the health benefits and a base salary to the musicians. Then the musicians use that base as freelancers and build a livable wage."
Results from the community discussions will be compiled and analyzed by facilitators Dianne Culhane and Laura Deaton. They will present their findings to the steering committee, which is co-chaired by CofC President George Benson and Blackbaud President Marc Chardon. After a series of meetings in August to analyze the data and draft recommendations, the final report should be available to the community in September — just in time to hopefully bring the CSO back for its 75th anniversary season.
"We'll be making recommendations on how to support symphonic music," Stevens says. "It may not be the CSO. It may be a regional orchestra. It may be using the Concert Association to bring in other orchestras around the country. I don't know what it will be, but it's pretty clear from the listening sessions that there's a demand for symphonic music. How do we satisfy that demand?"
The forums referenced a study conducted by the League of American Orchestras called "Fearless Journeys: Innovation in Five American Orchestras." The study looks at orchestras in Memphis, Los Angeles, Orange County, Atlanta, and St. Paul and how they have adapted to modern demands, from rethinking traditional performance styles to expanding their educational outreach efforts. The study found that the orchestras all had a consistent structure of innovation, with six common factors: a committed leadership, an expansive vision, an open artistic decision-making model, effective integration, prolific partnerships, and a foundation of artistic excellence.
Among those factors, leadership stands out as an issue that the CSO has struggled with. In 2009, the organization lost Executive Director Janet Newcomb and Resident Conductor Scott Terrell, while Music Director David Stahl announced he would retire to laureate conductor in three years. Interim Executive Director Kathleen Wilson was let go in April 2010, leaving the executive staff with only three full-time members. Most recently, Concertmaster Yuriy Bekker announced that he had accepted a job with the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, though he will stay on with the CSO should they return next season.
Although the board of directors cites the economy as the main reason for the organization's troubles, Ryan Leveille, the musicians' spokesperson, points to the lack of management.
"The symphony has gone for several seasons without a full-time director of development," Leveille says. "We've also been through four different executive directors going back to 2005. We've either had absences or a revolving door in two extremely crucial staff positions that are absolutely necessary to fundraising."
And while Board President Ted Legasey says that no employee could have made their regular donors give more, Leveille says the problem is that they've been thinking too small.
"They've gone back to the same handful of large donors time and time again, and I think a lot of those people have experienced donor fatigue," Leveille says. "They've bailed out the symphony one too many times over the past decade, and because we have not expanded the base of donors, we haven't been able to find those other people to turn to."
Despite their differing diagnoses, the two sides can no doubt agree on one thing: "The orchestra has had an unsound financial model for over 10 years," Legasey says. "It's just not been operating correctly. It has to get fixed. It just can't continue to go year after year in the way that it has. It just can't do it any longer."
As forum facilitator, Deaton hopes to help the two parties come to a satisfactory agreement.
"When you have an organizational model where there are opposing forces, people cherry pick the information that they want to talk about as opposed to really looking broadly at all of the info on the table and figuring out how to make a recommendation," Deaton says. "It's my hope that the committee can do that in a way that will ensure some moving forward."
Legasey, however, says the ball is in the musicians' court. The board's most recent proposal to the musicians would have reduced their base annual salary to $3,600, a nearly 84 percent reduction from their current contract.
"It's entirely up to the musicians," Legasey says. "This really isn't in the board's hands, it's in the musicians' hands, because we have a contract with the musicians, which means they have to agree to any variation from the contract. When this listening process is over, there's going to be a set of recommendations from the steering committee that the board will turn into a proposal to the musicians. And if they reject it like they've rejected everything else, there won't be a season. If they are responsive and at least sit down and talk about it, then perhaps there will be a season. If they accept it, there will be a season."
In contrast, the musicians are waiting for a proposal that will provide them with a living wage. According to Leveille, Bekker isn't the only musician looking to other cities to find employment.
"Right now, musicians are not offered any work for next season," Bekker says. "Musicians have to consider their own personal situation. We must take care of ourselves and our families."
And the musicians aren't the only ones feeling the pinch. "We, of course, have to survive until this is all done," Legasey says, "and that gets harder every day, because there's nothing coming in to the symphony."
With years of experience working for struggling nonprofits at the Coastal Community Foundation, George Stevens has faith in some sort of future for the musicians.
"There's almost no question there will be symphonic music given the number of people involved and how much they care about this and want to see it in the community," Stevens says. "It's just how is it delivered. We don't know yet."