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Dog bites man

0 Robert Levine

My favorite headline of all time was “Something went wrong in jet crash, experts say.” The headline and article below, while not reaching quite that level of sublime obviousness, is still strikingly… obvious:

Economy took toll on symphony’s artistically bright year

The economy has been playing the role of Scrooge, causing the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s board chairman to reference another Dickens novel.

“Artistically this is the best of times, financially it is the worst of times,” said Richard Simmons ahead of his speech at the orchestra’s annual meeting last night….

In the fiscal year 2008-09, which ended Aug. 31, the PSO will have a budget deficit of roughly half a million, despite cutting 11 administrative positions for an estimated annual savings of $350,000. The delay in the state budget also played a role; it meant a special corporate tax deduction for corporations giving to nonprofits was not allowed, costing the orchestra $300,000. A late $100,000 challenge grant issued by the board, PSO president Lawrence Tamburri and music director Manfred Honeck helped to close the gap by asking individuals to pledge $200,000 in additional gifts to the annual fund…

But all was not Bleak House with the PSO last season. The orchestra’s budget increased to about $32 million, reflecting the international tour it took to China last season. There were 1,747 new or restored gifts to the annual fund, totaling around $279,000. And overall ticket sales did not decline, which Tamburri considers a triumph in the turbulent economy.

A $500,000 deficit on a $32 million budget for the past season is really pretty good, given the gales that have riled up the economic ocean on which float our orchestral dinghies. And it’s interesting that ticket sales held up; that seems to have happened in a lot of orchestras, which is a good sign.

I’ve heard speculation that the real economic test for orchestras will be this season, and that the manure is going to hit the wind turbine hard for a lot of orchestras. That would be consistent with my personal theory that orchestras are a trailing indicator. We usually get sick later than the economy as a whole, and we recover later as well.

What leads me to hope that this time might be different is that the current downturn hit orchestras unusually hard in their endowments, (and, of course, orchestras had become more dependent on endowment earnings since the big downturns in the early ’80s and early ’90s). It may be that, as endowments recover with the secular economy as a whole, so will orchestra finances. Certainly this will be helped if ticket sales and donations continue to not tank.

Pittsburgh has the problem of being unusually dependent on state financing, however. Given what’s happened to state budgets nationally, that’s not going to help them.

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