The San Antonio Symphony Is Local Government's Baby Now

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Editor's Note: The following is Their Town, a column of opinion and analysis.

The 79-year-old San Antonio Symphony is now effectively a ward of local government.

Consider what happened at the symphony’s performance on January 6. As the Express-News reported, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and County Judge Nelson Wolff stood on stage at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts and soothed classical-music fans worried the 2017-2018 season would crash to a halt because of a big budget shortfall.

Not a pair of major philanthropists or civic leaders taking the stage, but politicians.

Their assurances — as well as an emergency grant of $350,000 from the county and the speeded-up disbursement of already approved city funding — did the trick. Their efforts gave private donors enough confidence to write checks. As a result, the symphony is well on its way to completing the season.

If you need more concrete evidence of the symphony’s ward status, you have it in the memo Nirenberg and Wolff sent to city council and commissioners court on Monday. In it, they announced their appointment of a task force to fix the symphony’s nagging financial problems. The panel, its eight members hand-picked by Nirenberg and Wolff, will hire a consultant to recommend ways to set the organization straight. The city, county and a yet-to-be-identified private entity is expected to pay for the consultant.

“Upon completion of the consultants’ work, we will seek our colleagues’ support in officially establishing this committee as a permanent oversight board (!) to implement the Task Force and consultant recommendations.” (The italics and exclamation point are mine.)

There are several potential problems with local government taking a hand in the symphony’s management. But the biggest one is philosophical. Government just doesn’t belong behind the wheel of San Antonio’s arts and cultural life.

True, the city gives millions in bond revenue and hotel occupancy tax dollars every year to public art and arts organizations. But there’s a huge difference between publicly-funded art and publicly-managed arts organizations.

In interviews, both Nirenberg and Wolff said nothing will be decided until the task force hears from the consultant and makes its formal recommendations.

“What we want to have considered, which is not present, is the public’s voice in the future of the symphony in San Antonio,” Nirenberg said. “We can’t have a conversation about the sustainability of the symphony and forget that a bulk of that determination will be through the patrons who actually purchase tickets and go to the performance. The community support of the arts needs to be part of the calculus of how the symphony can be sustained in San Antonio.”

That’s a lot. Let’s start with the community’s support for the symphony – and the government’s.

Under the Hood

A look at the symphony’s tax return for 2016 — since the San Antonio Symphony is a nonprofit, its Form 990s are publicly available — shows the organization took in total revenue of $8.2 million. Ticket purchases and other money-makers made up $2.8 million, or 34 percent, of the total. A little more than $5.3 million in contributions and grants accounted for most of the rest, or 65 percent.

By comparison, revenue for the average U.S. symphony in 2014 broke down this way: 43 percent came from contributions and grants, 40 percent from ticket buyers and 17 percent from investments. That’s according to a 2016 report on the condition of U.S. symphonies, commissioned by the League of American Orchestras and paid for by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Compared to the average, patrons’ overall dollars-and-cents support for the San Antonio Symphony is soft.

The same report found that local governments provided three percent of the average symphony’s “contributed income.” That’s not even close to what the city and county contribute to the San Antonio Symphony. Here, it’s 22 percent, or $1.16 million, of overall grants and contributions.

This is as good a place as any to note the symphony’s interim executive director, Katrina Bharne, didn’t respond to interview requests this week.

I asked Nirenberg whether he had a problem with local tax dollars making up such a relatively high percentage of the symphony’s budget.

“I don’t because public involvement varies widely in the United States and across the world,” he said. “There are communities with top-quality symphony orchestras in other parts of the world that are entirely public entities. I think we have to find the balance that’s right for the San Antonio community. Clearly, there is support for public art in San Antonio.”

How much public funding the symphony receives in the future, Nirenberg added, “will be part of the discussion of this task force.”

Into the Breach

This year, the city is giving $614,000 to the symphony, just like it did in the previous three annual budgets. The city grants more tax dollars to the symphony than any other arts organization in San Antonio.

The county contributes more than $500,000.

Nirenberg and Wolff were clear about the city’s and county’s stake in their memo, writing: “In this regard, our entities are some of the symphony’s largest patrons; however, we also are careful stewards of public funds.”

They also wrote: “Like many of you, we believe a full orchestra and world-class orchestral program is essential to our community, its quality of life and other arts organizations."

That’s not to mention that the $203-million Tobin Center needs a fully functioning symphony, or that public officials want to avoid the embarrassment of the symphony collapsing during San Antonio’s Tricentennial celebration.

So heres the rub.

We’ve reached a point where the private sphere — corporate executives, individual philanthropists, endowments and foundations, and arts leaders — can’t or won't pull it together to save the symphony. Symphonic Music for San Antonio, a nonprofit established by major donors, including H-E-B, to run the symphony, bailed out in December because of concerns over the musicians’ pension fund.

Depending on how you feel about local government, Nirenberg and Wolff were either thrown into the breach or giddily jumped at the chance to extend the city’s and county’s reach. Personally, I lean toward the former.

Noting Symphonic Music’s blowup, Wolff said the idea behind the task force and the plan it’ll develop is to “give credibility to the symphony, so it won’t be this up-and-down thing.”

In other words, he’s saying the organization’s credibility, which donors have to believe in before they’ll put their money on the line, now rides largely on local government.

But the county judge doesnt seem to be fully embracing the idea of turning the task force into “permanent oversight board.”

“The mayor did think there ought to be an oversight [board],” Wolff said. The panel’s task, he added, should be to determine, “Are the public funds being expended as anticipated?”

“Nobody has any control over a nonprofit organization,” Wolff said, referring to the Symphony Society of San Antonio, which operates the symphony. “They can do whatever they want to do. The only thing the city and county can do is say, 'Here are the criteria we believe are necessary if we’re going to invest public funds.'”

The catch is that when there's no other major benefactor who's willing or able to step in as the conductor, the job falls to government — and that's a failing of civil society.

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