An Odd Turn Of Events In Colorado

It wasn’t all that long ago that mainstream media reports about the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (CSO) were nothing but positive. The 4/13/2011 edition of the Denver Business Journal reported that the group was on the fast track to stability and success but fast forward barely five months later and the 9/10/2011 edition of the Denver Post published an article by Kyle MacMillan that reports the orchestra is in dire straits and could go under.

Although it isn’t unheard of for an orchestra to keep negative news under wraps and fill an otherwise clear sky with storm clouds out of the blue, this situation is particularly puzzling. Stack what we know side by side.

[sws_2_column title=”April 2011″]

  • Revenue from ticket sales so far this season is up $1 million, or 23.5 percent, over last year… the symphony’s best on record.
    4/13/2011 Denver Business Journal
  • “We can credit changes made in administration, marketing and programming with a true renaissance for the Colorado Symphony in terms of record-breaking earned revenue and audience growth…we are experiencing substantial results from these changes and are proud to report that the Colorado Symphony is on strong artistic ground and has gained significant momentum toward financial stability.”
    CSO press release
  • “These remarkable success stories are testimony to the thoughtful way the [CSO] board and staff worked to engage and respond to their community while pursuing ambitious and a clearly focused set of strategic objectives. They are a wonderful client, and we are honored to be celebrating their success!”
    press release from consulting firm retained by CSO
  • The CSO ratifies new three year master agreement with musicians that restores four furlough weeks, provides a 4.5 percent wage increase in the final year, and 0.73 percent increase to pension fund contributions.
    CSO press release


[sws_2_columns_last title=”September 2011″]

  • CSO announces that it has a cash reserve of $16,000, a “minimal endowment”, ended last season with a $657,000 budget deficit, and has $1.2 million in accumulated debt.
    9/10/2011 Denver Post
  • CSO declares that it “has targeted a smaller budget for 2011-12 that can be feasibly balanced” but target figures are unknown. Furthermore, CSO has declined comment on its recent announcement nor has it released a full copy of the related Sustainability Study Committee report.
    9/10/2011 Denver Post
  • According to an excerpt from the Sustainability Study Committee report the organization has a dire need to initiate a “one-year turnaround plan” and “…if the Colorado Symphony does not adopt all of the above recommendations in full and achieve success in their implementation, it faces a high probability of demise within the next two years,”
    9/10/2011 Denver Post
  • CSO attempting to reopen negotiations on recently ratified three year agreement with the goal of securing immediate financial concessions.
    9/10/2011 Denver Post



Since announcing the gloomy news alongside select excerpts from their Sustainability Study Committee report, there has been precious little information. It’s akin to walking into work and having your boss tell you that things are great, you’re doing a terrific job, and she wants to talk to you about that raise you’ve been asking for. But later that same morning she sends you an email message with the subject line “Arghh!” but no body text.

Puzzled? You should be.

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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0 thoughts on “An Odd Turn Of Events In Colorado

  1. A little bird told me a couple of large-donor board members are interested in union-busting, and have threatened to withhold donations. Have you heard anything about this, Drew?

    • Little bird = hearsay.

      And there’s no good from spreading panic and fear; if there is credible and verifiable information about a motive such as that then it’s certainly something worth examining; otherwise, it doesn’t have much value.

    • Very good points Paul, which is why I inserted that paragraph before the lists.At the same time, it brings up a host of other issues related to spin (when is it too much?), board development (board coups producing institutional schizophrenia), etc. A few colleagues wrote to me shortly after the news went public bemoaning the organization’s decision to drop such a bombshell and then follow up with “no comment” style silence.

      It certainly doesn’t build a great deal of confidence and may only serve to shock nerves and freeze up supporters like a deer in the headlights.

      It’s all very puzzling since the goal related to the announcement seems anything but clear.If nothing else, perhaps it’s a good reason to revisit disaster control.

    • Many thanks Heather, that reinforces much of what came before in the earlier article. the inclusion of comments from the local AFM president also projects the image that all of the stakeholders believed things were looking very good at that point in time.

  2. Drew,
    The fact of the matter is, the Colorado Symphony has implemented transformational change in programming and marketing efforts resulting in audience growth and growth in earned income. Over a period of 12-15 months, including both the season ending June 30, 2011 through the new ticketed July concerts launched this summer which fall in the new fiscal year starting July 1—the Colorado Symphony has grown ticket sales by an astonishing 43%. Achieving positive recognition for these accomplishments in the press this spring was no small feat given the prevalent journalistic tendancy to gravitate toward the sensational, controverisal or negative events in our world today.

    That said, and as you well know, even with ticket sales growth of this magnitude, an equal or greater amount of contributed income is required to maintain a healthy full-time orchestra in any community due to fixed personnel costs and variable income that is dependant on both expendable entertainment dollars and the local fundraising climate. Much of the Colorado Symphony’s contributed revenue has come in historically between April and June 30 between our major fundraising event–the Colorado Symphony Ball–and end-of-year giving, so beyond a shadow of a doubt, pacing and confidence is also about timing.

    The truth is, the Colorado Symphony’s preliminary balance sheet for the year ending June 30, 2011 is positive, including the required GAAP recognition of pledges resulting from a successful multi-year, major gifts fundraising campaign in the spring.

    Despite an ultimate, and very real cash shortfall from FY11 and all of the challenges that go along with this, the Colorado Symphony has many things going for it. Having set institutional sales records and an accumulated attendance growth of more than 50,000 over the last 25 months, all members of the institution (board, administrative staff, artistic staff, and community) are working exhaustively together to meet these same challenges which are shared by many of our colleague orchestras across the country. We are facing these difficulties head-on from what many characterize as a position of strength (attendance), with clarity and vigorous exploration of the nature of our business model, and with a vision for how the Colorado Symphony can, in a responsible, nimble and sustainable manner maintain a healthy full-time orchestra and meet the needs of our community with true relevance and innovation.

    Margaret A. Williams, Vice President of Marketing & Communication
    The Colorado Symphony

    • Thank you for the very thoughtful reply Margaret; all of this information ostensibly reinforces what’s already in the first column in the comparison section of the article that ticket sales are doing great. It’s the information in the second column combined with the fact that the organization ratified a collective bargaining agreement merely six months ago that draws the most questions and perhaps concern. Moreover, MacMillan isn’t known for exaggeration in his writing so when he mentions something in such dire terms as “A report says a quick fiscal turnaround is needed, or the symphony could go under.” in the sub header, it is probably worth paying attention to.

      The other consideration as it related of cash flow is that the period from the onset of subscription sales through approximately the end of October is the other cash flow positive cycle within the fiscal year. And although everyone familiar with the business knows that earned income doesn’t cover the majority of expenses, it does contribute on average 30 percent of overall annual revenue. So when combined with the orchestra’s recent gains in subscription and single ticket sales, this inflow of revenue should be a good bit higher than the previous few seasons. So when combined with MacMillan’s report about a dire cash situation, it presents another puzzling element.

      At the same time, much of the curiosity can be put to rest with answers to questions such as 1) whether or not MacMillan’s article was inaccurate and/or misrepresent the situation? 2) Is the orchestra really in danger of closing within the next two seasons without modifying the current collective bargaining agreement with its musicians? 3) Given the recent success in ticket sales and fundraising, why did the board approve the three year agreement with musicians? 4) When will the organization release the Sustainability Study Committee’s report, appendices, plus summary and recommendations?


  3. It’s a pity the publishers of the positive stories din’t see the IRS Form 990s for the last two years which show revenue declining 40%. Which begs the question, who allowed the press releases about “record revenues” to go out? Either they were completely wrong, or they were using a very small subset of data, either classifications of revenue or time period, to make an unwise statement.

    Putting your head in the sand, like an ostrich, is not the way to save a failing company. As in many “self-help” programs, you must first acknowledge the problem. The CSO would help itself considerably if it recognized that it had a revenue, and not an expense issue, and took steps to attract a younger audience by re-instating the cheap seats and half price tickets for children, and the City did its bit by re-instating 4 hr evening parking meters, and allowing parking back on 14th Street.

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