Symphony tunes in – Financial turnaround

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Richard Early became its president and executive director four years ago, the Charlotte Symphony was hitting some sour financial notes.

The symphony had built up a deficit of more than $1 million, Early says, because ticket revenues were lagging behind the costs of a 40-week season and contracts for musicians, conductors and soloists.

So Early went to work. Musicians agreed to a three-year wage freeze and then a new four-year contract. The symphony pared its season for three years, strengthened its programming and focused its marketing.

Now, the symphony has retired its deficit and is enjoying record attendance and revenues, a boost in corporate support and even a modest surplus.

Subscriptions, for example, have grown to more than 7,000 from 4,700 in 1996-97, while corporate sponsorships increased to more than $600,000 in the year ended June 30 from less than $400,000 two years earlier.

The fundraising and overall revival, Early says, were driven by the symphony board, particularly former chair Marc Oken, executive vice president and principal financial officer for Bank of America.

Early also credits Peter McCoppin, now in his eighth year and serving as music director emeritus, for building audience loyalty.

“We’ve really experience a dramatic turnaround,” says Early, adding that the rebound positions the symphony for the first time in more than a decade to “be able to plan long-term and look artistically at the future.”

Next year, Early expects to hire a world-class music director to succeed McCoppin, and to begin quiet phase of a capital campaign to significantly increase the symphony’s endowment.

Compared to many performing arts groups’ endowments, which typically are twice the size of their annual operating budgets, the Charlotte Symphony’s $2.5 million endowment is less than half its $6 million budget.

The symphony’s other big challenge is to expand and diversify its audience, Early says.

“We want our audience to look like Charlotte, not just one part of Charlotte,” he says. “Our goal is that people from all walks of life or background in Charlotte view the Charlotte Symphony as being relevant to them.”

As part of that ongoing effort, the symphony for the past four years has reached into the community by teaming up with the public schools to integrate music into the curriculum.

At Reid Park Elementary School, for example, musicians from the symphony teach 12 lessons to third graders as part of their language arts curriculum.

“If people have a sense of the music that’s inside themselves and how to listen to music, they will have a greater enjoyment of it,” says Susan Miville, the symphony’s director of education, outreach and community partnership.

That idea of making music “more familiar” also has fueled the symphony’s schedule of free concerts, including summer pops shows throughout a five-county region that attracted more than 100,000 people in June and early July.

The same approach is driving the symphony’s strategy to broaden its audience by trying to better understand and connect with the community, she says.

With the help of a $300,000, two-year grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami, the symphony is taking stock of itself and its market – and sharing strategies and results with orchestras in Fort Wayne, Ind., Miami and St. Louis as part of a pilot project that will be expanded to other symphonies.

A key task in the project will be gauging the needs of three ethnic groups – blacks, Hispanics, Asians – as well as the overall population of affluent young professionals new to the region.

The symphony also aims to boost professional development of its staff and musicians, develop new programs to better serve the community and assess the impact of new initiatives on attendance and revenues.

“We believe,” says Early, “we can become America’s leading orchestra in reaching all segments of our community and being relevant to them.”

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