Bexar County Commissioners approved a $350,000 matching grant Friday to fund the San Antonio Symphony that will come from money earlier set aside for Tricentennial support.

Earlier this month, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and County Commissioners pledged to support the Symphony after it nearly dissolved in late December. The County will match the Symphony’s fundraising dollar for dollar, up to $350,000, to help maintain its current season.

Wolff and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg appeared together on stage at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts on Jan. 6 before one of the Symphony’s Tricentennial performances to announce City and County support for the orchestra.

At the commissioners’ meeting Friday, County staff identified several sources of money for the funding, largely pulling from funds previously designated for Tricentennial-related events.

Kathleen Weir Vale, board chair of the Symphony Society of San Antonio, said after the commissioners’ meeting that “a lot of money has come in the subsequent days” because of the County’s commitment, but she declined to disclose specific amounts.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff speaks to the audience at NAFTA 2.0: The Future of North American Trade at St. Mary's University.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Wolff and the commissioners approved the funding after critiquing and commenting on the role of the Symphony in San Antonio, its operation, and, at one point during the meeting, the musicians’ pay. Wolff asked Symphony members in attendance about the musicians’ relatively low pay, confirmed to be a little more than $30,000.

“We could just split up the City Manager’s salary and we’d have all of you paid,” Wolff said to laughter from members of the Symphony and its managing board.

The judge was referring to a recent controversy about the performance review process for City Manager Sheryl Sculley, the highest-paid city employee with a base pay this year of $$475,000. A Rivard Report article on Jan. 17 detailed concerns about the review process raised by Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), who has sparred with Sculley on several other issues.

County Manager David Smith said there are several different Tricentennial-related budgets with surplus funds that have yet to be allocated. County monies for the Symphony came from the following: $100,000 from funds earlier dedicated to several Tricentennial events; $80,000 from the budget for the County’s Tricentennial fireworks show; and $120,000 from the County’s Suenos de Bejar Tricentennial opera budget.

Smith said pulling money from the fireworks show would not reduce its size. However, the county’s Suenos de Bejar performance will be delayed until at least the fall because of the shift of funds to the orchestra.

Bexar County Commissioner Precinct 2 Paul Elizondo conducts practice for the Fiesta Pops concert in the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.
Bexar County Commissioner Paul Elizondo (Pct. 2) conducts a rehearsal for the Fiesta Pops concert at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts in April 2017. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Another $50,000 for the matching grant to the Symphony came out of a fund that Commissioner Paul Elizondo (Pct. 2) has reserved for public concert series. Elizondo on Friday stressed the importance of maintaining the Symphony.

“It befuddles the mind to think that you can have a performing arts center without a quality symphony,” Elizondo said.

Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) said “the elephant in the room” in Symphony budget discussions is the high rent that the the nonprofit orchestra pays the Tobin Center for performance space.

He said when voters agreed to spend $105 million in taxpayer dollars on the Tobin Center it was so the Symphony, ballet, and opera essentially would be given a rent-free space to perform. The $400,000 rent that the nonprofit pays keeps it from climbing out of its deficit, Calvert said,.

Performance sales losses were offset by dipping into the Tobin Endowment, Calvert said, which he called “bad business.” He said there should probably be fewer performances at the Tobin to better account for “a market of our income level and size.” He suggested considering other venues around the county.

Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4)
Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

He also said the Symphony board and artistic managers should do a better job reviewing supply and demand, citing slight decreases in Symphony attendance nationwide. Calvert suggested they “modernize” by looking into more enticing options for young audiences.

“They need to be more strategic about the concerts that they actually produce,” Calvert said. “That’s just business.”

Calvert and Wolff said the County would continue to help court new donors to contribute to Symphony funds. Wolff said the Symphony needs its own endowment, but that a fundamental challenge lies in courting widespread appreciation for symphonic music.

“Each and every comment that you have made are all things that are right here on the top of my list,” Vale said. She introduced Karina A. Bharne, who is the new interim executive director for the nonprofit board. She had previously served as vice president of concert production for the San Antonio Symphony.

“I think we’re home safe for the season,” Wolff said after the vote. “Now we need to start thinking about where we go from here for the next season.”

Jeffrey Sullivan

Jeffrey Sullivan is a Rivard Report reporter. He graduated from Trinity University with a degree in Political Science.