Associate Conductor Akiko Fujimoto listens to the San Antonio Symphony rehearse for their weekend concert. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Associate Conductor Akiko Fujimoto listens to the San Antonio Symphony rehearse for their weekend concert. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Councilwomen Shirley Gonzales (D5) on Thursday cast the only vote against the City’s $50,000 contribution to a collective $600,000 gift from Bexar County and other private donors to balance the San Antonio Symphony‘s budget this year.

“I can’t dispute that (symphony) is important,” Gonzales said after questioning Symphony leadership on their growth metrics. “But I just don’t feel like it’s good money (well) spent … We’re continuing to fund this organization that has been on the decline.”

The local, nonprofit symphony has spent a majority of the last 30 years spending beyond its ability to fundraise, operating in a near-constant deficit.

“It is not going to happen again,” Symphony Board Chair David Kinder told Council members before the vote.

Though financially troubled, the local symphony is one of the best in the nation and features top musicians.

The $50,000 gift came from savings identified from salary adjustments, according to Assistant City Manager Lori Houston.

Revenue went up $500,000 after the Symphony made its official move from the Majestic Theatre to the newly-opened Tobin Center for the Performing Arts in 2014, Kinder said in defense of the 77-year old symphonic institution. The symphony is also working on further expanding its free, educational reach and while developing seasons that offer the classics and more contemporary performances for more diverse audiences.

“We give 15% of tickets away free,” Kinder said, noting the symphony’s programing for San Antonio area schools.

Even Gonzales agreed that so-called “world class” cities need symphonies and as much public art as they can afford, but as a “financial steward” she’s concerned about giving money to an organization that can’t manage its money well.

“It takes greater courage to say yes to these cultural items in our city,” said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1). He agreed that the City should be strategic about how it invests its money, “but we should be increasing funding for arts and culture in our city … For the sake of the city’s cultural competency, we must have the symphony.”

Another battle that the symphony is constantly fighting is that of perception, Kinder said. “The average ticket price is about $30 … there is a misconception that it’s $100.”

And the whole point of the symphony, according to Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), is that it’s music and relationship to STEM education is accessible to the public.

“In (America’s) pursuit to make them conform to a commercial model … we’ve made them exclusive,” Nirenberg said of Symphonies across the county that are indeed out of reach for all but the wealthy. Art is a public good, he argued, and “it’s unfortunate that we do have to have this conversation so much … we’ve left art to the back pages of our budgets.”

Last week, stakeholders signed an agreement that committed public and private agency support to the tune of $600,000. Symphony board members contributed a total of $100,000, and The Tobin Endowment gave $200,000. The Kronkosky Charitable Foundation,  an annual donor to the symphony, gave an additional $100,000. The City of San Antonio, also an annual donor through its competitive arts funding process, contributed another $50,000. H-E-B, a major corporate annual donor, also added $50,000. The newly John L. Santikos Charitable Foundation, managed by the San Antonio Area Foundation, gave $100,000 and is expected to become a major annual donor.

The agreement also decreases the symphony’s budget to $7.2 million, down from $7.8 million. Future year funding (broken down below) is dependent, among other stipulations, on the symphony maintaining this budget.

San Antonio Symphony funding for the next several years, based on the agreement.
San Antonio Symphony funding for the next several years, based on the agreement. This does not include the $600,000 used to balance the FY 2016 budget.

There’s a big difference between donors that the Symphony can rely on year after year for support and those somewhat random gifts that come in, Kinder explained after the vote. “You have to look at them and say, is this someone we can count on year to year? And if you can’t, then you really have to take them out of the budget.”

“Previously the season was planned on the artistic side,” said Symphony President David Gross. “And then we (would) go out and raise the money.”

This new system flips that paradigm to one that most businesses follow.

“We took out of the budget a large amount of the unidentified funds,” Gross said, now the season has to be planned around the more concrete income from the City, County, and philanthropic foundations, rather than counting on those random, one-time donations.

The $600,000 bailout, new board structure, and the new budget, however, comes with a major catch for the symphony’s 72 musicians, its lead conductor, and president who will all take a 10% pay cut in the next season unless funding is found to cancel a three-week performance furlough.

“I was a musician for 28 years and I know how painful it is to be asked to give back,” said Symphony President David Gross. “So I didn’t feel in good faith that I could go to them and ask for them to have skin in the game if I didn’t. And I think (Music Director) Sebatian (Lang-Lessing) feels the same way.”

Coming Performances:

Associate Conductor Akiko Fujimoto will be debuting as the conductor of the Classics Series this weekend. The French-influenced program features the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Camille Saint-Saëns, César Franck’s tone poem Le Chasseur maudit, Delius’s A Walk to the Paradise Garden, and Georges Bizet’s Symphony in C.

Fujimoto has been with the symphony for four years and Delius’ piece is on her personal “bucket list” for performances. Shows at the Tobin will be on May 6 and 7 at 8 p.m. Click here for tickets.

The Symphony’s Young People’s Concerts reach about 40,000 students each year, Kinder said. The next series, The Orchestra Rocks, will take place May 25, 26 and 27 at 9:45 a.m. and 11:10 a.m. at the Tobin Center.

Kinder invited the entire Council to stop by one of the concerts and check out shows remaining in the 2015-2016 season.

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*Top image: Associate Conductor Akiko Fujimoto listens to the San Antonio Symphony rehearse for their weekend concert. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org