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What happened in Charleston?

1 Robert Levine

The board of the Charleston (SC) Symphony has decided to call it quits for this season:

A significant drop in fundraising dollars, exacerbated by the recession’s “strong headwind” has forced the Charleston Symphony Orchestra to suspend its operations, effective immediately, board president Ted Legasey said Sunday.

It is the first time in the orchestra’s 75-year history that a performance season has been disrupted because of acute financial difficulties, and next season’s fate is far from certain…

Symphony management will downsize its staff and develop a restructuring plan with the hope that bankruptcy can be avoided and the organization can regain its footing in time for next season, he said.

“The recession has taken a fragile economic enterprise and put it in a vise,” Legasey said.

The drastic move was caused by a decline in major gift giving of 60 percent compared to last year, he said.

So what happened? The board blames the lack of a good business model:

Legasey and [Director of Marketing Tara] Scott said it was critical that the symphony design a business model that the community can support “on a sustainable basis.” The organization has not operated within its budget for nine of the past 10 years, Legasey noted.

“The goal of the restructuring is to stabilize the orchestra and come up with a better model,” he said. The board plans to bring in an independent mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service of the U.S. Department of Labor.

“We’re going to have to make a business case to key people that investing in this is worthwhile,” Legasey said.

Here’s a hint: get a leadership team in place first:

[The orchestra] is in the midst of a search for a new executive director and has narrowed down the field to four, Legasey said. The budget has included funds for a development director, but qualified candidates have been in short supply, he said.

In October, Stahl announced he was stepping down as music director to focus on other opportunities. Stahl was to remain involved in concert programming and other aspects of the symphony’s operation during a three-year transition period.

The search for a new music director was to begin in earnest next season, bringing conductors to Charleston for guest appearances and auditions.

In other words, they don’t have an executive director (Kathleen Wilson, the orchestra’s harpist, is currently the interim ED), they haven’t had a development director for a while, and their music director quit (or was pushed) without the board having any idea how to replace him in a timely fashion. It’s hardly surprising that they had a 60% drop in major donations; who would want to support an organization whose board looks that feckless?

Governance matters. In terms of institutional success, it probably matters more than any other single factor. I doubt that the recession is any worse in Charleston than in all those cities in the US that still manage to have a professional orchestra. But most of them have avoided having the three key paid positions vacant at the same time. It’s hard to see how, in light of the shutdown, the Board will manage to fill even one of them.

But some think it’ll all work out:

George Stevens, president of the Coastal Community Foundation, said he saw a silver lining.

“This will be very painful for the musicians and for music lovers throughout the Lowcountry, but ironically, a temporary shutdown may breathe new life into the arts in Charleston,” Stevens said. “Rebuilding the Symphony piece by piece will break the cycles of huge swings in revenues from minor surpluses to deep deficits. If done correctly, confidence will be restored and all arts organizations will benefit.”

I suspect that “rebuilding…piece by piece” is the orchestral equivalent of destroying the village in order to save it.

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  1. Pingback by Polyphonic.org - Michael Kaiser: wisdom or bromides?
    June 26, 2019 at 12:32 PM

    […] No one who’s been following events in the Charleston Symphony will find it surprising that Mr. Legasey is not impressed by Kaiser’s message; after all, he heads a board that, as I wrote about here, […]