San Antonio is now witnessing the brain drain of talented orchestra musicians and music educators who lost their jobs when the Symphony Society of San Antonio board declared bankruptcy and dissolved the organization.

One by one, the musicians have been welcomed in Chicago, Atlanta, Phoenix, Indianapolis, Tampa/St. Petersburg, Salt Lake City and Dallas — cities where symphonies continue to flourish. It’s sad to see, and winning them back, if possible, will only happen if a reasonably funded, reconstituted symphony organization becomes a reality.

Getting to that day will be difficult, too, but it is possible. Other cities San Antonio’s size or even smaller have devised public funding mechanisms to support arts and cultural organizations that otherwise might not have endured.

Not only is a reborn symphony possible, but I would argue, it is essential to the quality of life in San Antonio, and preservation of the performing arts and the city’s creative class.

People are already working on it. Ironically, one of the people working the hardest is Sebastian Lang-Lessing, fired from his post as music director emeritus in April by the board, which dissolved itself and the orchestra one week ago on June 16.

Lang-Lessing, in between commutes to Seoul to conduct South Korea’s national orchestra, has met with Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, both of whom understand the importance of the symphony and the orchestra musicians to the city’s profile as well as its music education ecosystem. Other community leaders are coming on board to join the effort.

A working group of city, county and community advocates would be wise to look at other regional U.S. cities that have adopted funding mechanisms that provide a steady, sustainable revenue stream for arts and culture groups. That foundation of public funding serves as a vote of confidence for patrons purchasing ticket subscriptions, for corporate support and for philanthropic donations.

Denver residents, for example, benefit enormously from the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD), a metropolitan district created in the 1980s that has generated more than $1 billion in funding via a 0.1% sales tax for nonprofit arts and culture organizations in Denver and six surrounding counties. The Denver Symphony does not participate as a recipient arts organization, but art museums, the zoo and dozens of regional arts nonprofits do benefit.

In 1972, St. Louis was the first city to create a municipal tax district, the Zoo Museum District benefiting the city’s zoo, arts and cultural institutions. The property tax produced $85 million in 2020. Since then, Chicago, Cincinnati and Cleveland in Ohio, and Salt Lake City have done so, too.

Detroit, a city with a storied history that, like San Antonio, struggles with some of the country’s highest high poverty rates, benefits from property tax support often called millage funding for both the Detroit Zoo and the Detroit Institute of Arts. Owners of a $200,000 home pay about $20 a year to support the arts and cultural organizations in the city.

San Antonio could seek approval for its own taxing district and, if successful, identify the most vulnerable arts and culture organizations in the city, making sure that such an initiative does not simply benefit the majors arts and cultural organizations. Including community-based groups would help ease the us-versus-them clash that now occurs when City Council and Bexar County consider allocating funds to local nonprofits.

In the Denver plan, for example, 20% of the annual funds must be allocated to community-based organizations in the outlying counties.

Corporate leaders and the city’s top philanthropists are not going to support efforts to revive the symphony in San Antonio unless they’re convinced that it has a sustainable business model, as well as some oversight over whether a new management team and board of directors is established to forever break the cycle of deficit spending.

Resurrecting the symphony orchestra in San Antonio will be a long and challenging task. The city deserves to stand along other cities that recognize the many social, cultural and economic benefits of vibrant arts and cultural institutions, including an orchestra performing classical music and preparing next-generation music students to take their place in the ecosystem.

In the meantime, let’s hope benefactors underwrite periodic performances by those orchestra members still in San Antonio. Let’s not let the music die.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.