The $4.7M Elephant in the Room

Updated: Mar 15

It’s time to address the elephant in the room, the underlying cause of the current situation between the Symphony Society of San Antonio and the musicians.

I am referring to the Symphony Society’s insistence that in San Antonio, raising more than $4.7 million for the season is impossible and that therefore the musicians must agree to draconian cuts to live within this artificial limit. Leaving aside the likelihood that the current leadership may indeed find fundraising difficult because potential donors are withholding gifts due to a justified distrust of how the Society would use the money, here is some recent history regarding Symphony Society budgets along with [conversions into 2022 dollars for five years ago and earlier]. All information is from the Symphony Society 990s.

2013 $6,980,900 [$8,501,968.28]

2014 $8,055,451 [$9,654,046.43]

2015 $7,950,598 [$9,517,088.91]

2016 $8,161,040 [$9,647,292.06]

2017* $8,794,872 [10,179,691.19]

2018 $8,114,690

2019 $6,870,434

2020** $2,990,597

*Including the Symphonic Music for San Antonio [SMSA] budget from Sept 2017 on.

**No concerts in 2020 after mid-March due to the pandemic, and no musician salaries from June – December 2020 by agreement with Local 23, American Federation of Musicians.

In summary, with the exception of the pandemic year of 2020, all prior seasons had budgets ranging from $6M - $9.5M in today’s dollars. It’s worth noting that even immediately following the 2003-2004 bankruptcy, the Symphony Society had a budget of $5M, equivalent to about $7.5M today.^

I have often heard it claimed that supporting a symphony is difficult in San Antonio because we are a “poor” city. While it is true that San Antonio has a significant population of low-income people, there is enough money in San Antonio to:

Support a stand-alone Ferrari dealership

Sell a full arena’s worth of expensive tickets to every home Spurs game

Generously support art museums, private universities, and the Zoo

Provide a home base or a significant center of operations to approximately five dozen corporations

Additional economic facts about San Antonio include:

Growth rate of over 19% in the past decade

Leading the United States in white-collar job growth (along with Austin)

Now let’s consider some other comparably sized cities with symphony orchestras. San Antonio ranks 24th by population among metropolitan statistical areas of the United States.

Metropolitan Area Pop (rank) Median income Growth rate Symphony budget

St. Louis, MO 2.8M (21) $25,000 1% $30M (2018)

San Antonio, TX 2.5M (24) $24,000 19% $4.7M (proposed)

Cincinnati, OH 2.3M (30) $26,000 5.6% $47M (2015)

Kansas City, MO-KS 2.2M (31) $24,540 9% $19M (2018)

Nashville, TN 2M (36) $24,000 21% $29M (2020)

Salt Lake City, UT 1.3M (47) $23,016 16% $18M (2018)

The argument that San Antonio is a low-income city is rendered moot by the fact that smaller cities with comparable income levels to San Antonio have much higher orchestra budgets than the $8M that the musicians of the San Antonio Symphony are fighting for. A $20M budget would be much more proportionate.

How is it that the cities of Kansas City, Nashville, and Salt Lake City—all smaller than San Antonio, none with a significantly higher median income—can support their orchestras at levels ranging from four to six times as much as is claimed possible by the Symphony Society of San Antonio?

Where does the $4.7M figure come from? And why is Board Chair Kathleen Weir Vale on record as saying, “I believe we’ll be able to raise more money from the corporate community, when the corporate community understands that we are going to be a financially viable organization.” (Nicholas Frank article in the San Antonio Report, October 20, 2021)

Ms. Vale’s statement begs the question of whether there are potential large donors pulling strings behind the curtain, withholding grants to the Symphony until the donors’ conditions (smaller orchestra, smaller budget) have been met. It’s no secret that forces in the community have been pushing for just such a model for some time. From a July 21, 2017 article by Nancy Cook-Monroe in the San Antonio Report, about the new Symphonic Music for San Antonio [SMSA] organization then poised to take over the Symphony Society: “An unanswered question is the size of SMSA’s budget, which affects the size of the orchestra and length of its season…[Symphony Board member Frank Stenger-Castro] and others, including some musicians, are concerned the new organization could reduce the size of the orchestra from its minimum of 72 musicians (one of them a music librarian) to about 40, and contract the rest through a ‘per service’ agreement used by smaller orchestras. Such a freelance arrangement, rumored to interest the new leadership, obviates employee benefits.”

The terms imposed by the Symphony Society in September 2021 are virtually identical to the concern about orchestra size expressed in 2017, differing only by two musicians (42 instead of 40). Those involved in the formation of Symphonic Music for San Antonio (SMSA) were Kronkosky Foundation chair Tullos Wells, Tobin Endowment chair Bruce Bugg, and Dya Campos, Director of Governmental and Public Affairs at H-E-B.

So where does the $4.7M figure come from? And why are allegedly civic-minded members of the community content to take such a back seat to cities like Kansas City? Who could think that San Antonio, a thriving, vibrant, multi-cultural city, belongs in the basement of American cities?

I mean, who could think that other than the members of the Symphony Society of San Antonio Board of Directors?

^Editing to add that a fair criticism of my budget chart is that the Symphony Society hasn't always been able to raise 100% of the funds expended, so I will note that from 2012-2013 through 2018-2019 (the most recent "normal" season), every fully completed season brought in a minimum of $6M in revenue, and in several years, more than $8M. Even the two partial seasons (2017-2018 due to SMSA and 2019-2020 due to COVID) brought in more than the $4.7M currently being proposed as a ceiling by the Symphony Society. So where does the $4.7M figure come from?

-Mary Ellen Goree

Principal Violin II

Chair, Negotiating Committee

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