The San Antonio Symphony is in danger of being dismantled by its own board of directors. After struggling through the pandemic, as many arts institutions have, the board has proposed cutting the symphony nearly in half. The move would, as Music Director Emeritus Sebastian Lang-Lessing put it, result in “the destruction of an orchestra.”
The musicians of the San Antonio Symphony (SAS) already accepted an 80% pay cut to help preserve their orchestra during the pandemic and now the SAS board is asking for the symphony to play with nearly half their musicians gone, a reduction from 71 to 42 full-time musicians. The board proposes to eliminate four positions and cut back 26 musicians to a per-service contract. This is an evisceration of 30 full-time musicians.
The first and most critical responsibility of any nonprofit board is to believe, unequivocally, in the value and significance of its given mission. Without this full-hearted commitment, they cannot possibly hope to succeed. If they don’t believe, no one does.
An orchestra performance is a participatory work of art. Musicians draw on decades of practice, experience, and knowledge to create a living, timeless, event that has the capacity to touch the souls of their listeners. It requires dedication, sacrifice, and a desire to persevere that supersedes the ordinary. It also requires that we play together consistently. No orchestra can perform with half its musicians. Nor can those musicians be replaced at a moment’s notice. The board’s proposal would crush the artistry and viability of the San Antonio Symphony, an orchestra that has been a part of San Antonio for 82 years.
The San Antonio Symphony is a member of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, a player’s conference within the American Federation of Musicians made up of 53 orchestras from across the United States. Some of these orchestras were severely affected by the pandemic but none had to make the kinds of sacrifices that are being asked of the San Antonio Symphony musicians.
Ultimately, it is the enduring support, generosity, and belief of our boards, donors, and audiences — their belief in the value of an orchestra to the cultural life of a city — that make it possible for an orchestra to survive through good times and bad. The latest proposal from the SAS board would decimate this orchestra which has done so much to grow the status and economy of their city. If the board projects “no confidence” in the viability of their own orchestra, how could they possibly expect to generate commitment and financial support from corporate, community, and city sponsors?
Beyond the concert experience itself, it is easy to underestimate the contribution of an orchestra to its hometown because so much of what we do happens behind the scenes. Our musicians teach your children, we play in hospitals and homeless shelters, in schools and community centers, and we provide and preserve a musical experience that cannot be replicated in another format.
Pre-pandemic, the nations’ arts and culture sector — non-profit, commercial and education — was tallied by the U.S Bureau of Economic Analysis as an $878 billion industry that supports 5.1 million jobs. Between 2000 and 2010, the San Antonio Symphony helped to generate $222 million in annual employment income, as well as nearly a third of a billion dollars in annual economic impact. The arts get people out of their homes and spending money in the community. They don’t just reflect the state and local economy, but actually accelerate economic recovery. The arts are good business, plain and simple.
Despite this, San Antonio isn’t investing in its symphony in the same way as other cities. Orchestras in cities with metropolitan areas similar in size to San Antonio like Nashville and Kansas City, as well as smaller ones like Milwaukee and Fort Worth, all operate with much larger budgets than the San Antonio Symphony. This inadequate financial investment in SAS speaks to a lack of belief in the value of an orchestra.
San Antonio must turn the tide on its commitment to the arts, and the SAS board can lead the charge. The San Antonio Symphony is a world-class orchestra. It is an artistic and financial asset to the city. The musicians put their hearts on the line every day and deserve the support of the SAS board and the city of San Antonio.
Where there is a will, there is a way. If the San Antonio Symphony board does not have the will to preserve and grow their symphony, they should not be the curators of this great orchestra. The musicians deserve better and the city deserves better.