Where to start with this one.
“Symphony Executive Director Corey Cowart is optimistic about ending the strike. ‘The fact that we’re meeting and talking and making proposals is a good sign for the future,’ he said.”
“Making proposals” is a strange choice of words when only one side has made any proposal since the Symphony Society wrongfully imposed the terms of their “last, best, final” offer—terms which had been unanimously rejected by the musicians—last September.
“’The easy answer to [what it will take to get the musicians back on stage] is a mutually agreed upon contract. And that’s what we’ve been working on for almost a year now,’ he said.”
Our board and management knew at the very beginning of this process that the musicians would never agree to an A/B contract* and yet they have doubled down on their insistence that the great city of San Antonio, one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the United States, cannot support an orchestra even at the level achieved in Omaha, Nebraska.
“Shortened seasons, strikes, musician wage and benefits concessions, bankruptcy, a revolving series of executive directors, unpaid furloughs, city/county and patron bailouts.”
It is disingenuous, no, dishonest, to include “strikes” in that list, implying frequency, when the last time the musicians went on strike was 1985, before some of our current colleagues were even born. As for the rest of the list, the only item under the musicians’ control was the wage and benefits concessions, which have been inevitably followed by broken promises on the part of Symphony Society leadership.
“[The] last, best and final offer would turn 26 full-time symphony players into part-timers with no benefits. Cowart said he understands why that offer could be seen as extreme, but cites last year’s audit of the symphony as justifying that severe a cut-back.”
More on last year’s audit and the blatant misrepresentation of the Symphony’s current financial state in a moment, but let’s examine this, shall we?“he understands why that offer could be seen as extreme.”
Taking full-time jobs away from 26 highly qualified musicians who won those jobs through nationally competitive auditions, an expensive, brutal process endured by every musician who aspires to play in a professional orchestra is not “extreme.” Oh, no. It is so morally bankrupt as to shock the conscience. And it is so shortsighted as to beg the question of what color the sky is in the world inhabited by Symphony Society leadership.
Does anyone think that 26 gifted artists with degrees from the best music schools in the world are going to remain in San Antonio for the insulting offer of $11,000 a year (plus change)? Does anyone think that equivalently gifted and trained musicians will want to audition in San Antonio to replace those musicians when they inevitably move on?
Now let’s consider the proposed 42 remaining “full-time” (at $24,000/year) musicians. Many are at or near retirement age already. Of those who aren’t, many if not most (like their 26 proposed part-time colleagues) are practicing diligently for auditions in other cities. And all face the ethical issue of choosing to sit on stage next to their artist colleagues who have been treated so unfairly. A large percentage of those musicians will, either through retirement or resignation, refuse to participate in the evisceration of the orchestra. Does anyone think that equivalently gifted and trained musicians will want to audition in San Antonio to replace those musicians when they inevitably move on? And who will populate the audition committees?
The San Antonio Symphony is supposedly engaged in a Music Director search. Does Symphony Society leadership imagine that chopping up the orchestra into bits will be attractive to qualified candidates?
“’On that audit, just like I believe for 12 of the last 12 years that we have, we have a ‘going concern disclosure’ from our independent third party auditors….” “His memory is off by just one. Eleven of the last 12 audits contain that disclosure.”
This was a huge missed opportunity. What about the one time the “going concern” was NOT there? I believe that was during the time Michael Kaiser was advising our board. Maybe Corey can explain what was different at that time. What a shame that Michael Kaiser didn’t put together a plan for the Symphony Society….oh, wait.
“Cowart noted the symphony has come close to failing many times.”
A rare accurate statement.
“This organization as a whole has always been on the brink of financial collapse.”
Yes, we do not dispute that the symphony has chronic, long-standing structural issues. We just dispute the nature of those issues. The claim that San Antonio is a “poor city” is not supported by the evidence; median income in San Antonio is at or near the levels in several other cities with much better-funded orchestras. The claim that “demographics” in San Antonio are to blame is beneath contempt.
The long-standing structural issues are as follows: Refusal to hold an aggressive endowment drive. Refusal to expand the fundraising net as the city has exploded with growth – how many of the large law firms have been approached? How many of the small law firms and other small businesses? What about the 60 – 70 (by one count) corporations either headquartered in San Antonio or doing significant business here? Refusal to invest money in professional development. And the list goes on and on.
“The Fort Worth Symphony has a $32 million endowment. Houston’s symphony has just shy of a $90 million one. San Antonio’s about $2.2 million. With that blaring a difference, why not start an endowment campaign to build up the fund? Cowart said there’s a good reason: their lack of stability.”
“’You need three to five years of stability to be able to know that ‘OK, we can run this endowment campaign. We’re not going to go into organizational crisis.”
I agree that after three to five years of management’s proposed “stability,” they won’t go into organizational crisis, because there won’t be an organization at that point to have an endowment drive for. But more to the point, what? Where is the evidence to support this statement, when the Symphony’s lack of endowment is well known to be one of the biggest reasons for its financial instability? It’s as if a doctor looks at a patient who is bleeding profusely and says, “Sorry, I can’t give you stitches to stop the bleeding because you’re too weak from blood loss.”
“The symphony’s $5 million yearly budget – it varies a bit from year-to-year”
The Symphony’s budget for the past decade has ranged from $6 million to $8 million. The last time there was an actual $5 million budget, $5 million at that time was closer to $10 million now.
“’You also need your significant investment from individuals and institutions that are $100 plus thousand a year annually….The top end is really what we’ve lost over time.”
Question one: why is the SSSA Board so very very much smaller than the huge boards in Fort Worth, Dallas, and Houston? Wouldn’t a larger board likely include more (any) visionary thinkers, and wouldn’t a larger board have proportionately that many more contacts with potential donors?
Question two: Why has the Board refused to grow itself to a more appropriate size? Are they not in fact neglecting their charge?
Question three: If large donors are deciding to or being convinced to withhold donations, why? Someone or something is dissuading them, that is, if they are even being approached. The musicians are hearing on a regular basis from potentially generous donors who all say that the Symphony has never, not once, reached out to them.
Question four: Why are metropolitan areas similar to San Antonio in size or even smaller, with a median income similar to that in San Antonio, able to support orchestras with budgets several times the $8 million budget that the musicians are fighting for? (See: Kansas City, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Salt Lake City)
“’No one is enjoying what we’re going through, and we understand it’s hardest on the musicians more than anything.’”
I have it on good authority that butter does not melt in Corey’s mouth.
“Both sides have an opportunity on Feb. 14 to make that happen.”
Given Symphony Society leadership’s continuing efforts to misrepresent their current financial situation, the evidence strongly suggests that they have no intention of listening to anything the musicians say.
The audit that our management and board are doing their best to keep in front of the public eye is dated June 30, 2021. The reasons given by the auditor for our going concern are negative unrestricted net assets and negative working capital.
But as of December 31, 2021, both unrestricted net assets and working capital are in the black.
Post audit, the Symphony Society has received about half a million dollars in shuttered venues grants along with about $800,000 in an employee retention tax credit, and it has not had to pay musicians or a music director for months.
Why, WHY, is Corey choosing to parade outdated audit information in front of the public when he could more accurately and more effectively point to the Symphony’s improved financial situation as part of an aggressive fundraising initiative? It is impossible not to wonder about ulterior motives here.
The strike is currently the only path forward that has the hope of a professional orchestra for San Antonio at the end of it. The A/B plan imposed by Symphony leadership will result in the death of the San Antonio Symphony. #growthnotcuts
*an A/B orchestra is typically found in smaller cities and consists of a small full-time “core” of musicians augmented by part-timers as required for larger works.
-Mary Ellen Goree
Principal Violin II
Chair, Negotiating Committee