Concert Hall Projects Update: Nashville – Part 1

It’s been 20 months since the initial articles examining four orchestras engaged in concert hall projects were published and it’s time to check in to see where things are. First up is the Nashville Symphony…


Of the four orchestras included in the examination (Dayton, Kansas City, Nashville, and Richmond) Nashville has, by far, the most ambitious capital project. They’re in the midst of building a $120 million symphony center in a prime location of downtown Nashville. Not only will it be the orchestra’s home but they will also own and operate the facility as opposed to merely serving as the primary tenants.

Given Nashville’s rapid progress (detailed here in a follow-up article from June, 2004), I decided to arrange a trip to Nashville to visit the managers, musicians, and project team members in person to see if things looked as good first hand as they did on paper and over the phone. Nashville’s management and musician representatives graciously honored my request and I scheduled a visit from April, 29, 2005 – May 1, 2005.

Up to that point, I had not only been impressed with quantity of Nashville’s accomplishments but also the quality. Out of the four orchestras in the examination, Nashville had demonstrated the ability to develop a unique process which included nearly every stakeholder in a meaningful way. Simply put, the project wasn’t being dominated by the will of a few individuals signing the checks. The project concept, design, and implementation has been influenced by every constituency at one or more points.

The Extraordinary Event Of Getting Here From There
What’s particularly heartening about these events is how well the musicians and managers have worked together toward building the institution during a period when nearly every other American orchestra is only holding their own or plunging headfirst into institutional chaos. And most of those same organizations were healthy, vibrant institutions 20 years ago whereas the Nashville Symphony filled for bankruptcy in 1988, only 17 years ago.

That bankruptcy was preceded by a long period of intense labor trouble which included a strike which lasted for nearly three months. The orchestra returned to operations eight months later but only as a shadow if its former self, with the number of full time musicians reduced by over 20 percent and a shorter concert season. The orchestra wasn’t released from bankruptcy until seven years later in 1995. In the space of a decade, the organization has moved from being a “ward of the state” to building a $120 million symphony center.

Shortly after being released from bankruptcy in 1998, the organization hired Alan Valentine as their President and CEO. Upon arriving at the organization the orchestra embarked on the first step toward stability and normalization by instituting a $10 million endowment campaign. They ended up raising $25.5 million dollars ($3 million of which were designated as bridge funds) over two-and-a-half years.

In the same month the endowment campaign was completed, the orchestra embarked on a tour of the East Coast which concluded with their debut appearance at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Within eight months of that performance and the conclusion of the institution’s largest capital campaign project to date, the Nashville Symphony board of directors did the last thing most people in this business would expect them to do, they approved another capital campaign five times larger than the one just completed.

A few months later, in August of 2001, the organization formally launched the $120 million “A Time for Greatness” campaign, designed to raise funds for all related aspects to the new symphony center. In 2003 they held a groundbreaking ceremony on the 435′ x 330′ lot donated by the city with more than 1,000 in attendance. As of August, 2005 they report to have raised $110,514,475. From the official start of the project, that works out to approximately $27 million per year and with eleven months remaining until the official opening of the new hall, they have to raise another $9.5 million.

Conclusions
A key point to remember throughout all of the above information is that the Nashville Symphony accomplished all of this during the same economic meltdown lamented by other organizations and in a town riddled with conventional wisdom dictating why classical music shouldn’t be very popular.

Nevertheless, it’s not simply the results which should be of interest to others in the business so much as the process Nashville has used to make their gains. Another crucial point worth examination is the dynamic between the orchestra musicians and their managers. Tomorrow’s article will examine that relationship from the viewpoint of the musicians.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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