Response to Ernest Bromley op-ed in the Express-News Jan 11, 2022
As musicians and interested bystanders alike read the commentaries offered by members of our board (Kathleen Weir Vale and Ernest Bromley) and statements from our management, one glaring omission is impossible to miss.
Nobody from our board or management is mentioning the core mission of the Symphony Society of San Antonio – the presentation of educational and artistic symphony orchestra concerts – at all. Where is the mention of the many, many artistically excellent concerts presented by the musicians of the San Antonio Symphony? The one reference I have seen is in an email sent several months ago to Symphony donors and subscribers signed by Board Vice-Chair Eric Dupre, in which Mr. Dupre unintentionally ironically reminiscences about being mesmerized by a San Antonio Symphony concert he attended as a child.
I am sure that performance was mesmerizing, since at the time the San Antonio Symphony was composed of more than 80 full-time musicians.
Now our board and management seems utterly bent on the destruction of the artistically respected, modestly compensated San Antonio Symphony in the name of “sustainability.”
Let’s be clear. No American orchestra makes its budget at the box office. At best, ticket sales are typically about 40% of a professional orchestra’s budget, and in fact the San Antonio Symphony does not fall short in this category. Audiences and ticket sales are not the problem here. And with a base pay level of under $36,000, it should be obvious that the highly trained professional musicians that comprise the orchestra are not the problem either.
Where we fall short is, first, in the endowment—where, WHERE is the endowment drive that the musicians have been urging for well over a decade? Why has it taken a back seat to the Tobin Endowment? What is the purpose of a concert hall built to be an orchestra’s home if the orchestra has ceased to exist?
And second, we fall short in annual fund drives. The very purpose of a non-profit board is to raise money. And yet our board behaves as if raising money in a metro area of 2.5 million with a 20% growth rate, many large corporations, many many more small businesses--a metro area that can support a stand-alone Ferrari dealership--is not only inconvenient but it is impossible.
Why has our symphony board ignored or dismissed every bit of good advice and strategy offered by nationally known industry experts such as Michael Kaiser?
How is it possible that Fort Worth, Dallas, and Houston all manage to have stable organizations, but not San Antonio? Why do Kansas City and Nashville, TN, both metropolitan areas of lower population and a very similar median income to San Antonio, manage to fund orchestras with budgets of $20M and $29M respectively when the leadership of the Symphony Society of San Antonio claims to be unable to fund an $8M budget? Even the orchestra in Omaha, Nebraska, has a budget that exceeds that.
Why has our board and management never invested in a professional development department – not a single individual, but a department – when it’s well known that good development people will pay for themselves and then some?
How is it possible to remain on a non-profit board for nineteen years of failure?
We musicians know very well that performance matters. Specifically, our performance matters not only to our audiences, but to each other on stage, and to ourselves. A musician who repeatedly fails to give a professional level performance is a musician in imminent danger of losing a job. Nobody hangs onto a job for anywhere close to 19 years of unsatisfactory performance. And yet the same standard is not applied to members of our board or our management.
Why is it that repeated failure on the part of our board and our management always results in repeated attempts to gain a pound of flesh from the musicians? Why is it that over the years, the many concessions agreed to by the musicians—always accompanied by promises of a better future from Symphony Society leadership—have only resulted in worse situations, not better ones?
Every successful businessperson knows that cutting the product is the beginning of the end. Here is what will happen – not what “might” happen, not what “could” happen, but what WILL happen—if the Symphony Society’s plan to cut the orchestra is not abandoned:
Of the 26 musicians who will lose the full-time jobs they fairly won through arduous and expensive competitive national auditions, most will leave. Why would a highly qualified professional musician stay in San Antonio for just over $11,000 a year with no health insurance? And why, after being subject to this level of abuse from Symphony leadership, would anyone want to continue to work for such an organization?
Of the 42 musicians in the proposed “full-time core” who also face a draconian pay cut of one-third, many are either at or near retirement age and have no incentive to remain in such an abusive relationship. Those who aren’t close to retirement are practicing for auditions in other cities, just as their 26 colleagues offered “B” contracts are doing. And all 42 “core” musicians face the moral decision of whether to remain on stage knowing that 26 of their colleagues lost their jobs so that they could hang onto two-thirds of theirs.
So musicians will leave…who will come to San Antonio to replace them? Who will put themselves through the brutal audition process for $24,000 a year? Or worse, $11,000 with no health insurance? Who would willingly come to work for an organization that is gaining a national reputation for disloyalty and financial abuse of the musicians? A national reputation for dismissing every bit of expert guidance proffered by Michael Kaiser and others over the years?
The choice the Symphony Society leadership faces isn’t between the full-time orchestra that the Symphony has been for over eighty years or a newly structured smaller full-time core augmented by part-timers. The choice is between the full-time orchestra the Symphony has historically been, or no professional orchestra at all.
-Mary Ellen Goree
Principal Violin II
Negotiating Committee Chair