Concert Hall Projects Update: Richmond – Part 2

This installment will answer the questions from the conclusion of Part 1 as well as examine additional issues surrounding how the RSO plans to deal with continued artistic and customer service issues while living a nomadic existence throughout the coming years…

So where will the orchestra perform while it’s displaced from its typical performance venue through 2008? Currently, the organization is performing the majority of their masterworks programs between three different church venues (performing in a different church for each performance), all of which hold less than 1000 patrons.

I contacted RSO executive director, David Fisk, to see what the orchestra plans to do in the wake of VAPAF’s revised project schedule which no longer includes plans for a new music hall. I asked him what plans the organization has regarding their masterworks and pops venues. Apparently, contingency plans have not yet been formulated. David responded via email with the following answer,

“As you can appreciate, it feels hard to represent clearly to an outside reader of your column the complexity of the situation we are wrestling with at present, and I won’t attempt to do it justice in a few words…the Virginia Performing Arts Center has – sadly – become the subject of a bitter political fight between the newly-elected strong Mayor and the business leadership of the city, as represented on the Board of the Performing Arts Foundation. The external situation here changes almost by the day. Because of the parts of the equation that our outside our control, we don’t have the answers yet to all [of your] questions. The short – and incomplete – answers are:

We have established a pattern of concert activity outside the Carpenter Center on which we are growing our audience and donor base, and at the same time we also want to be alert to new opportunities which may arise in this period of displacement; therefore we are keeping the range of possibilities under active review.”

Although the organization did see a 1% increase in subscription sales over the 04-05 sales goal, that figure was still a 22% reduction from the previous season. Furthermore, single ticket sales between 03-04 and 04-05 were lower by 5%. Combined, the orchestra saw a $96,952 reduction in ticket income along with increased production costs related to being displaced from their primary concert venue.

Given the reduced size of the church venues compared to their old venue, I asked David if the organization will be able to perform full orchestra size repertoire and if they will be able to maintain their current artistic expenditures until a renovated or new facility is completed.

“We are performing Bruckner #8 in churches as part of our Masterwork series [on October 28-31], and that will provide a great test as an example of the type of full symphonic repertoire that we aim to sustain,” said David. “Clearly [the ability to maintain current artistic expenditures] depends partly on factors outside our control, but it is fully our determination to sustain the organization through this testing time, and to meet expectations about the level of service and artistic quality that the community would expect us to provide.”

I followed-up by asking what sort of assurances the RSO is offering patrons that the artistic quality they’ve become accustomed to will continue. David responded with,

“The musicians (through the Artistic Advisory Committee), Music Director, Associate Conductor and senior management are working on the season plans for 06/07 and 07/08 at present. The range of programs being presented this season gives the best indication of the type of repertoire programming we aim to sustain. Our patrons are aware, from direct communications from the Symphony as well as from the widespread media coverage of VAPAF’s situation, that we are providing the best service to the community that we can in the circumstances in which we have been obliged to operate.”

Given the fact that the church venues deny the use of a concert grand piano or a full 90+ piece orchestra, the differences in masterworks programming will undoubtedly be noticed by RSO patrons. Whether or not the RSO can maintain a large enough audience to sustain accustomed artistic standards through no less than fall of 2008 (and much longer if the Carpenter Center renovations run long) will be the challenge.

In a related situation, the Florida Orchestra recently reported that they are experiencing a sharp decline in attendance figures while they perform in a church venue which doesn’t match their accustomed acoustic surroundings during the necessary renovation of their primary venue. However, their situation is only expected to last until February, 2006. When asked what they would do if their hall renovations ran late, the Florida Orchestra marketing director said “It would be [her] worst nightmare”.

I then asked David if he could clarify what he meant by calling the Richmond City Mayor, Douglas Wilder, a “strong Mayor”.

“The Mayor, the former Governor of Virginia, was elected by a landslide majority on a platform to address the city’s challenges, and his immediate priorities do not include the arts, it is fair to say. His strength lies in the respect in which he is held on a variety of issues, in his electoral mandate, and in the fact that the city councilors need a 6-3 (or greater) vote to overturn any budgetary decision he makes. The Symphony needs to respect his position and authority even if we, as a member of the Alliance for the Performing Arts, respectfully disagree with the stance he has taken thus far on the Virginia Performing Arts Center and on the importance of the arts to this community.”

The real matter at hand for the orchestra (and every other performing arts group in Richmond who tied their future to the success of the VAPAF) is whether or not the issues surrounding the battle between the mayor and VAPAF’s executive leaders is really something which is out of their control. This is an important issue to examine since according to the numerous media reports coming out of Richmond, the political battle between the mayor and the VAPAF has much more to due with the mayor’s concern over the VAPAF’s financial discrepancies and spending practices and less to do with where the arts falls on a list of government priorities. The financial discrepancies will be examined in further detail in an article appearing tomorrow, 10/28/05. Nevertheless, the heart of matter surrounds publicly reported issues related to the VAPAF having less money in their bank account than they reported to the city.

In order to help clarify whether or not the RSO’s executive leaders knew about the VAPAF’s internal problems surrounding discrepancies over their assets in advance of the media attention, I asked David if, as a member of the Alliance for the Performing Arts, the RSO was aware of these discrepancies before they went public. David responded saying,

“There is speculation that the issue goes deeper than that, to ‘who runs Richmond?’ – the business community or the mayor. The disagreement over the size of the assets of VAPAF relates to whether restricted or conditional written pledges should be counted in any calculation of total funds raised. Any further comments on VAPAF’s calculations I prefer to leave to VAPAF, if they choose to make them.”

Unfortunately, that answer doesn’t really answer the question. Considering that the RSO is a partner with the VAPAF they should have been paying attention to the foundation’s assets. Apparently, it wasn’t a very difficult task as the discrepancies which are now public record were discovered by two regular Richmond citizens (which is a large part of the story appearing tomorrow). Regardless, appropriate due diligence procedures and insistence on institutional transparency are issues which are completely unrelated to the political duel between the VAPAF and Mayor Wilder.

In order to help clarify whether or not the RSO knew about the VAPAF’s financial problems I sent another round of follow-up questions to David asking:

  • Did the RSO ever question the VAPAF regarding the actual value of their assets or the methods the VAPAF used to calculate funds?
  • As a member of the Alliance for the Performing Arts, did that organization ever consider conducting due diligence procedures regarding VAPAF assents and funds?
  • Did the RSO, or any current or former member of its board, ever raise funds directly for the VAPAF or the Alliance for the Performing Arts as a representative from the RSO?
  • Did the RSO postpone any major fundraising efforts so as not to interfere with fundraising efforts by the VAPAF?

  • At the time of publication, those questions have not garnered a response. However, one beneficial aspect of writing online is there’s plenty of time to wait.

    In the end, based on the organization’s approximate $229,000 deficit reported for the 04-05 season and the $250,000 deficit reported for the 03-04 season by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the orchestra apparently has a considerable challenge ahead in order to maintain recent levels of service and artistic quality.

    Throw into that mix the very real uncertainty about where the organization will play after the 07-08 season and the upcoming CBA negotiations (the last two year agreement was already a concessionary contract for musicians), and you have some very grim challenges in the organization’s future.

    If nothing else, the situation in Richmond is an excellent example of why due diligence in selecting business partners isn’t something to be taken lightly. The RSO certainly isn’t the only performing arts organization to feel the impact from the breakdown of the VAPAF’s plans. More than a dozen organizations belonging to the Alliance for the Performing Arts, including the local ballet, opera, and theatre companies, will feel similar effects.

    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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