The Death of a Symphony
The San Antonio Symphony orchestra has been on on strike for nine months. It started with an emergency modification of the existing contract, know as a collective bargaining agreement, in the summer of 2020. I know from personal experience that by far the biggest expense for an orchestra are the musician salaries. Everything else is pretty cheap in comparison. And that has to be balanced by earned income (from ticket sales and subscriptions), donations from music lovers, grants from foundations and governments (pretty paltry in Texas), and cash generated from the endowment. It’s a delicate balancing act every year for an organization of this type.
The New York Times reported that on Thursday, the symphony board announced the dissolution of the San Antonio Symphony. The board announced:
With deep regret, the Board of Directors of the Symphony Society of San Antonio announces the dissolution of the San Antonio Symphony. By unanimous vote, the Board has initiated the requisite steps to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The assets of the Symphony now lie in the hands of a Trustee who will liquidate them, pay what creditors remain, and close the doors.
San Antonio is one of the largest cities in the United state—the second largest city in Texas (sorry about that, Dallas). According to the Times, San Antonio with now be the largest city in the country without a symphony.
Syphonies are not businesses and the laws of bankrupcy are a little different for non-profit arts organizations than they are for for profit businesses. If they end up with profit in a fiscal year (an excess of revenues over expenses), they cannot distribute that profit to private individuals. There are no shareholders; the profit must be plowed back into supporting the mission of the institution. For instance, the San Antonio Symphony made a profit of $802 thousand in 2018—the last time they did better than break even.
Because symphonies exist on a knife’s edge every year in terms of profitability, COVID was a killer. How can one maintain an hugely expensive performing arts organization when it can’t perform for a year or so? This crisis took a while to reach its terrible conclusion. And to me, this indicates that there is more to come. Other arts organizations with large oprating expenses that were shut down for a time because of COVID will fail.
People commenting within the New York Times article attempt to name a villain. Writing about the initial cuts to the musicians, the “musicians resisted those moves, accusing administrators of mismanagement and greed.” But it seems to me that the San Antonio Symphony faced the same issues that all symphonies and operas in America face: they are irrelevant to most people, museums playing ancient music; they depend on an aging coterie of culture vultures for their continued existence; they exist in a society that has decided to stop educating its young in music; there is no political will to support such institutions. I write this with sadness, and without any idea how to solve these problems.
We, as a nation, have decided it is better to spend money on bullet proof backpacks for our children than on violins for them. We are a country of Moloch worshipers. In such a nation, symphonies can’t long survive.
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