San Antonio Symphony Seeks The Big Fix For Financial Woes

Apr 10, 2017

It’s been a year since the San Antonio Symphony took some dramatic steps to make the organization financially stable. So how is the symphony doing now? 

In March 2016, the symphony announced it would balance its budget by reducing the number of performances.  Musicians agreed to a three week furlough -- time off without pay.  San Antonio Symphony CEO David Gross didn't like having to make that move. 

"Having been a musician I understand the sacrifice. Sebastian and myself took similar reductions in our pay," Gross says.

He and Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing also took proportional pay cuts. Gross had, in years past, been a union percussionist with other symphonies where he negotiated musician contracts as a union member. He says the musicians are, by contract, paid by the week. The furlough reduced their 32-week year to 29 weeks.

Bassoonist Brian Petkovich of the local musicians union says, "Our peer orchestras are working 39-40 weeks a year, and there's no reason why this great orchestra shouldn't have that many weeks. There are a number of orchestras that are paid 52 weeks. The Dallas Symphony and the Houston symphony are."  

Petkovich says San Antonio musicians are providing quality performances for a fraction of the salary earned by musicians in other cities.

"Most cities San Antonio's size have full-time professional orchestras. Actually, I can't think of one that doesn't," he says.

The starting wage for San Antonio musicians is about $35,800.  The three-week furlough reduced it to $32,500.  The Symphony's passionate music director, Sebastian Lang-Lessing, vented about the lack of musician support in San Antonio.  

"Quite frankly, does anybody think that making $30,000 a year is an exuberant  income? I don't think so. I don't think anyone can argue that these people are greedy, they should earn less. It's insane. Why are we not honoring our musicians in the right way? Look, compare Dallas, Houston, Ft. Worth, San Antonio, where we rank. It's not half. It's not a third of Dallas, and what they make."   

Lang-Lessing is right. The beginning salary for a Dallas symphony musician is upwards of $90,000 a year. It’s nearly the same in Houston.  Ft. Worth Symphony musicians earn about twice what musicians earn in San Antonio.

Gross says the symphony sounds great, the Tobin Center is a  wonderful hall to play in, and concerts are well attended. But when it comes to funding there’s one big, missing ingredient.

"The endowment. No question.  Most orchestras have three funding streams in order to balance that budget."  

Those three streams are ticket sales, gifts from foundations and donors, and then earnings from the endowment. Endowments are big bank accounts often funded through a sizeable philanthropist donation.  Those monies are invested and the interest provides a reliable cushion that helps pay symphony expenses.

"Even if we can get 20 percent of total revenues that would be outstanding. It takes pressure off of us," he says.

In other words, if 20 percent of the Symphony's operating costs were covered by endowment interest the San Antonio Symphony would be in better shape.  Gross says the rule of thumb for  endowments is that an organization should have banked about three times its annual budget. The San Antonio Symphony's yearly budget is $7.6 million. It’s endowment?

"Oh, it's roughly just under $2 million."

The three-times budget rule suggests it should be in the $23 million range.

Lang-Lessing says, "The problem with the San Antonio Symphony is that because we don't have an endowment, we don't have a trust, we don't have anything...we are always on the verge of bankruptcy because we don't have any cushion."

Gross says the Symphony isn't just an entity that consumes tax and charitable monies. The Symphony actually makes money for the city.   

"We generate spending in the community every year to the tune of about $9 million. So when you think about the arts from a business perspective, it's a very, very good investment."  

"We know that every dollar you invest in the cultural life in San Antonio comes back by $8 into the local community."

When the Symphony's fiscal year ends August 31,  the musicians' contract ends, too.  Musician Petkovich thinks that while negotiations might be difficult, the parties will come to an agreement and begin next season on time.

"Musicians don't not want to be on stage, we want to be on stage. But part of being on stage is we need to get paid for what we do."

"People always complain about, 'Oh, the orchestra's always in trouble.'  We're not in trouble. We are not in trouble. We are a flourishing organization. The only trouble we have is that people don't want to fund us because they think of art as an amenity instead of a necessity. Which it is. It's a necessity. It's a right. It's human right."

Lang-Lessing hopes that the new Symphony marketing and development directors will reinforce that message and help the orchestra build its endowment, and a more solid future.