It's got to have taken a special brand of optimism to sit on the Charleston Symphony Orchestra board of directors these last few months and not come out of regular meetings feeling like a crew member on the Titanic. Board huddle-ups lately have come to seem a little like the end of a 12-step meeting: You gotta believe, you gotta believe, you gotta believe we can do this, people! Board execs have pulled out all the stops: arm-twisting, motivational entreaties, Stuart Smalley-like pep talks. One half expected an appeal to the community to clap our hands and think generous thoughts.
Fact is, the 70-year-old organization has had a tough year. It's struggled with a grab bag of financial miseries, the possibility of a musicians' strike, a steady drop in season subscribers, getting booted from their administrative office for the third time in five years, and, apparently, heated internal disagreement over the effectiveness of some of the salaried leadership. The group's financial results for fiscal year 2006, released last week, showed revenues down from 2005, to $2.33 million, while expenses were on the rise: $2.47 million, up from $2.37 million the previous year. And they're carrying an operating deficit of $138,000 as they prepare to start a new season on September 30.
So why is everyone at the CSO grinning like kids on Christmas day? Probably because the past month for the symphony has been as good for the group as the previous 11 were awful. And from the looks of things, the 70-year-old organization appears finally to be turning a corner.
First, after grudgingly accepting a 17-percent salary hit in 2003, the CSO's 46 musicians at last saw their pay restored to pre-cut levels last month. Shortly afterward, a one-time $100,000 gift plus a fourth-quarter challenge from outgoing board president Ted Halkyard put a big dent in that roughly $200,000 expense (for this year, anyway). Halkyard's gift was quickly followed by a three-year, $115,000 grant from the Donnelley Foundation, earmarked for helping the group get its administrative act together. That was followed by a windfall of $100,000 in cash, plus the equivalent in elbow grease, from Ginn Clubs and Resorts. Early in-kind help from Ginn has taken the shape of a five-minute video presentation the company's team is creating for the CSO, a flashy calling card the symphony will use to wow potential corporate donors ID'd by its brand-new corporate fundraising initiative.
That's right: brand new. Prior to last month, there'd been no effort to solicit corporate cash to speak of. Hard to believe, but true. And the effort looks to be paying off already. Both SunTrust Bank and BB&T are making interested noises, and a group called King and Queen Partnership* recently stepped up with the donation of much-needed office space for the group at a building on the corner of you guessed it King and Queen streets downtown. The first four years of occupancy come rent-free, and when they finally start paying rent there in 2010, they'll do so at 2006 rates. (In other words: Thanks, Noisette, but no thanks.)
Mayor Riley's even rolling up his sleeves for the effort: At the end of August he'll sit down with a passel of lucky business leaders at a luncheon, where he'll put the touch on each one for some dollar-shaped symphony love, presumably with the help of that new Ginn flick. Music director David Stahl even felt so inspired by the momentum last week that he agreed to personally guarantee the CSO's existing line of credit for up to $25,000. Talk about employee loyalty
It seems the inspirational mantra the symphony's been chanting to itself seems to be working. You gotta believe.
But the picture's hardly all rainbows and butterflies. The first half of the 2006-07 season, as it exists in the program brochures that went out earlier in the spring, remains intact. But whether audiences see the second half of that program depends entirely upon whether the CSO meets an ambitious fundraising goal by December 31. On the chopping block: artistic imports for the January-May concerts. Without those extra freelance musicians filling out the Gaillard stage, Wagner becomes Haydn, and Mahler becomes yet more Mozart. Season subscribers might take that news sitting down, but it probably won't be at the Gaillard.
Clap your hands if you believe.*This is a corrected version of the original statement in the column, which incorrectly identified SunTrust Bank as the donor of the new office space.