Symphony getting business in tune

Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Two years ago, the Charlotte Symphony was hitting a lot of sour notes.

Sales and contributed income had declined steadily for five years.

The symphony was running a six-figure deficit for the fourth straight year.

And a lengthy work stoppage in 2003 over wages for its musicians had scarred the organization and “left a bitter taste in the mouth” of its supporters and the community, says Jonathan Martin, who joined the symphony six months ago as president and executive director.

So the symphony hired consultant Thomas Morris, former CEO of the Cleveland Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who assessed the organization and recommended changes in its governance, sales, marketing, fundraising, administration, and community and artistic oversight.

The changes, which the board began putting into place starting in 2007, have helped the symphony make some dramatic improvements, despite the recent plunge in the economy and capital markets, says Martin, who as general manager of the Cleveland Orchestra worked for Morris.

Donations by the symphony’s board, which now is elected by the organization’s members, have doubled to nearly $300,000 in the past two years.

Reopening its contract with the musicians led to a new pact that will expire in 2010 and save the symphony $750,000 over three years.

A new task force giving the Arts & Science Council greater oversight over the symphony has accelerated the flow of funds it will get from an endowment campaign to support construction and renovation of cultural facilities in downtown Charlotte.

And as the symphony continues to focus on sharpening its business model, Martin says, it also is looking ahead to increasing its $4 million endowment to between $30 million and $40 million over the next five to seven years.

“We’re in a very challenged environment,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of issues we’ve got to continue to work on in our balance sheet.”

Martin joined the symphony in March, succeeding Rich Osborne, who had been board chair and served as interim executive director starting in late summer 2007 after Richard Early resigned.

Martin is building on changes begun before he arrived that included giving the board closer oversight and making it more accountable to the community, and instituting basic marketing and sales strategies that had been lacking.

Martin, in turn, has replaced two senior staff members and begun for the first time to seek grants from regional and national foundations.

And those changes are paying off, he says.

In the current season, for example, ticket subscriptions are up 6 percent from last year.

“This isn’t supposed to be happening,” Martin says. “We’re defying the odds.”

And a “staggering” 86 percent of subscribers to classics concerts are renewing their subscriptions, he says.

“You have a paradoxical situation,” he says. “You’ve got a financially stressed orchestra in a financially stressed economy, but some of our most important pieces of business are trending up.”

Changes the symphony has made have helped it tap a market that was “underpenetrated,” Martin says, and the organization offers customers something they want in a troubled economy.

“People want what we have,” Martin says. “It’s not so much aluxury. We’re providing something that for many people is a necessity. People are choosing to spend money in an otherwise tough time because we’re giving them something they really need now.”

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