Symphony Society of San Antonio Is Shutting Down In Six Weeks

According to an article by David Hendricks in the 7/19/2017 edition of the San Antonio Express-News, the Symphony Society of San Antonio (SSSA), which operates the San Antonio Symphony (SAS), will dissolve at the end of August, 2017. But here’s where things get unusual: a new 501(c)3 has announced they will replace the SSSA.

Adaptistration People 102Hendricks’ report indicates the new nonprofit organization, Symphonic Music for San Antonio (SMSA), will assume the SSSA’s mission and related activity, which includes negotiating a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with musicians (their existing agreement expires August 31, 2017).

This sort of mission handoff from one nonprofit to another is highly irregular inside the field.

Although there are plenty of examples of orchestras shuttering operations only to be replaced by a new organization, those are almost always defined by the original organization filing Chapter 7 (liquidation) bankruptcy.  In some cases, the replacement orchestra appears very quickly, such as the case where the Colorado Springs Symphony Orchestra shut down in 2004 but the replacement organization, the Colorado Springs Philharmonic Orchestra, was already formed before its predecessor closed shop.

In that case, both organizations jockeyed over issues related to assets and this is where questions arise via the San Antonio situation.

Shutting down a nonprofit the size of the SAS is no a small task. There are regulations in place that govern what the Internal Revenue Service defines as a “liquidation, dissolution, termination, or substantial contraction.”

Long story short, there’s a lot that goes into the process.

For now, the person running the new SMSA board is also the current Tobin Endowment Chairman J. Bruce Bugg (the Tobin Center for the Arts is the SAS’s primary venue).

Buggs was quoted in the Express-News article saying the SMSA “is in ‘a hurry up offense’ to create a new board, plus a community advisory board, to oversee the upcoming concert season, Bugg told Express-News editors.”

To recap, the new organization does not have a full board (one member is serving as board vice president, treasurer, and secretary), no community representative involvement, and assuming the musicians do not contest anything, they anticipate completing a new CBA all within the space of six weeks…more or less.

One thing the new group apparently does has squared away is buy-in from SAS music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing.

 The new organization has a goal to operate the already-planned 2017-18 season under conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing that starts with a special concert Sept. 16.

Setting aside having the music director on board, much of the SMSA’s plan for success hinges on securing a new master agreement. A bitter labor dispute could end the organization before it begins and given the unique nature of this entire situation, it will be interesting to see how the stakeholders approach the process.

UPDATE, 7/20/2017 9:30am CT: The SAS musicians have released the following statement:

Dear Friends, as you read the [7/19/2017 San Antonio Express-News article by David Hendricks] we want to first thank all those who have supported the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony as well as the Symphony Society of San Antonio for the near 80 years of its existence. There are so many people who deserve an enormous thanks for the time, money and courage it has taken to get us to the point we are today; not least of which are the hard working and ever faithful staff members of the San Antonio Symphony without whom none of our great music making would be possible. Change is always difficult and it is our sincere hope that everyone will support the efforts of Symphonic Music for San Antonio as they bring exciting new possibilities to the San Antonio Symphony. The Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony look forward to presenting the 2017-18 season and hope that this new partnership ushers in a new era of stability and prosperity for us all.

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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