Last Saturday morning, artist Cruz Ortiz sent a message out on social media asking his fellow San Antonio artists to come out in creative support of the San Antonio Symphony during its free public concert in Main Plaza.

The full orchestra performed despite a breakdown in negotiations between musicians and management, which has proposed slashing the number of full-time musicians to nearly half and using part-time musicians to make up the difference at 30% of current wages and without health benefits.

Ortiz is one among several fans of the symphony who agree that while financial support from individuals and corporations is important, city government could provide more funding — a suggestion that aligns with Music Director Emeritus Sebastian Lang-Lessing’s oft-stated notion that the Symphony is an essential part of San Antonio’s civic infrastructure.

“Is intellectual capacity or the creative class an infrastructure of a city? I would say it is,” Lang-Lessing said by phone from South Korea, where he is currently conducting the Korean National Opera. “The time is right to change the model.”

At Main Plaza, a crowd estimated at 400 cheered enthusiastically as the musicians were introduced by guest conductor Troy Peters. Evidence of the Symphony’s most recent struggles was scant but for a few handwritten placards reading, “Support the Musicians’ Union” and “This City Needs Its Symphony,” along with a flyer made by the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony soliciting support in their ongoing labor negotiations.

Negotiations have become more difficult since last Thursday, when the musicians unanimously rejected the board and management’s “last, best, final offer” to reduce pay and slash the size of the orchestra.

Ortiz has a proposal. “If the city would allocate 1% of the police budget — we probs wouldn’t have this issue,” he said in a text message.

Ortiz’s idea plays off recent calls by activists to reduce the annual budget for the San Antonio Police Department, which is $501.3 million for 2022. One percent of that figure would equal $5 million, an amount that would largely resolve not only the Symphony’s annual budget deficits, but give seed money toward an endowment that could provide long-term sustainability.

The city gave the San Antonio Symphony $460,000 in 2019, and $383,000 was recommended for 2020 – a reduction due to an equity budgeting funding realignment – before the pandemic struck and funding was reduced overall for arts agencies. Proposed funding for 2022 was $336,585.

From 1939 to 2039?

The day before the Symphony’s Main Plaza concert, media gathered in Brackenridge Park for an announcement of a project to renovate the Sunken Garden Theater. Speaking in support of the renovation, Mayor Ron Nirenberg pointed out that the San Antonio Symphony performed its first-ever concert on the Sunken Garden stage on June 12, 1939.

“You might circle the date on your calendar – June 12, 2039,” Nirenberg said. “That would be the 100th anniversary of the first … public performance of the San Antonio Symphony. And I, like you, treasure and value our symphonic arts … and we do not want to see them leave San Antonio.”

City financial support of venues such as the Sunken Garden Theater and the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, the symphony’s official home, “are extremely important to show our community’s collective support for the classical arts,” Nirenberg said, referring in part to the City’s donation of the municipal auditorium that became the Tobin Center. He expressed hope that the symphony would live to see its 100-year anniversary.

However, garnering additional governmental support for the symphony might prove difficult. After the nearly canceled 2018 season was restarted, the Bexar County Commissioners Court hinged its emergency $350,000 matching grant to the formation of a task force to once and for all address the orchestra’s ongoing financial issues, suggesting Bexar County would not be an endless source of additional funding.

Though interim Executive Director and noted national “turnaround specialist” Michael Kaiser said at the time that “the money is there, the money is in the community” to support a full-time, full-size orchestra, a budget deficit of $2 million for 2018 demonstrated the challenge ahead.

A deficit of $1.6 million followed for 2019. Kathleen Weir Vale, board chair of the Symphony Society of San Antonio, which manages the symphony, said that the number of individual contributions grew 50% over the past year. That growth suggests a successful campaign to promote awareness of the orchestra among the community, but a projected budget deficit of $3 million for the current season shows that support from individual community members is not enough to sustain the symphony at its current level, she said.

Whether a significant increase in city funding is possible, or even politically feasible in the wake of the pandemic, is an open question.

Two amendments to the proposed 2022 police budget – both in the range of Ortiz’s suggested 1% diversion – were defeated during recent budget discussions.

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) objected to any notion of reducing the police budget.

“I would fight any move to take money away from the police department to fund another organization here in the city,” Perry said.

That said, he continued, “I understand the value to the city of the symphony, as well as any of the arts programs that we are currently funding, I totally understand that. But at the end of the day, you only have so many resources. … It’s a balancing act.”

A boisterous audience

Loud applause after each of nine selections in the hourlong Main Plaza program on Saturday showed clear audience appreciation for the performance of symphony musicians.

Charles Ryburn, 68, and Tommy Phillips, 66, said they contributed money to the San Antonio Symphony Society when they heard of the orchestra’s latest struggles, in addition to their regular Pops Series season subscriptions. They placed the primary responsibility for symphony support on philanthropic foundations and corporate sponsors, though they acknowledged that San Antonio has not demonstrated such a commitment, Ryburn lamenting a “small-town mentality that just seems to never go away, no matter how big we get.”

Desiree Rodriguez, a 29-year-old Southside resident who played orchestral music as a student, enjoyed the concert from a seat in the back of the plaza. She said she hasn’t been to a symphony performance for a couple of years, but has been looking into a season subscription because she appreciates the musicians.

“They’re just so talented,” Rodriguez said.

She lamented that “the arts is always the first to go, the first to get cut” and said the City government should invest in the Symphony in part to grow its tax base.

“I feel like it should be the government,” she said of where financial support should come from. “I know that philanthropy will come into play, and it’s a big endorsement for the Symphony. But ideally, if we had better arts here in San Antonio, it would help to bring more people here as well.”

Moices Olivo, a 70-year-old avant garde musician, said the newest members of San Antonio’s growing population also could make a difference in support.

“If anybody’s going to bail out the Symphony, it might be the influx of new blood coming from different parts of the country that have … regular symphony-goers from wherever they came from,” Olivo said.

The audience shows their support for the San Antonio Symphony during a free concert in Main Plaza Saturday evening.
The audience shows their support for the San Antonio Symphony during a free concert in Main Plaza Saturday evening. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

His partner, who identified herself as “Mrs. Olivo,” said she regularly sees the Symphony perform as an usher at the Majestic, and that performing movie soundtracks is one important way of attracting new audiences. However, the Symphony’s education program, which annually performs for nearly 50,000 students, is the key to securing a future audience, she said.

Erin Amendola held a placard that read, “A city is not complete without its symphony!” The 48-year-old french horn player and sometime substitute musician for the symphony said she long ago moved to San Antonio from Philadelphia with her father, and that “the symphony has always been in our life. And that’s the way it should be.”

On Sept. 15 Amendola started a Facebook group, Save the San Antonio Symphony, in an effort to rally support. The group has attracted 600 members so far.

The cold, hard numbers

Vale said that corporate donors give according to their priorities, which include programs for underserved youth, the homeless population, and other important causes, and the symphony is one need among many.

Symphony board member Frank Stenger-Castro praised Vale’s leadership and fellow board members’ generosity, and said the underfunding of the orchestra is not for lack of trying.

“This is the most hard-working board I’ve ever been on,” he said, and praised Vale in particular. “Kathleen has worked her butt off.”

Vale said the board has continually sought funding from every reasonable source, but has been unable to reach aspirational budgets. Facing continued, dramatic budget deficits would be “unethical,” she said, a realization that arrived during the pandemic as “a corporate epiphany.”

Looking at the “cold, hard numbers,” she said, she and the board concluded that decades of unsustainability required a change.

The current standoff between management and musicians marks a significant departure from the tone of negotiations in 2018, when the currently active contract was agreed upon. Then, musician’s representative David Reinecke praised Vale and Cowart, described the negotiating environment as collaborative and expressed optimism for the future.

“We’re all on the same page. We have similar goals and visions for the organization, which is to make it a bigger, more vibrant part of the San Antonio community. It’s a unified vision right now,” Reinecke said at the time.

That unified vision has splintered due to the current proposal, which threatens the livelihoods of many of the musicians, according to Mary Ellen Goree, principal second violinist and a member of the negotiating committee representing the musicians.

Barring an intervention from the city as suggested by Ortiz, or a rescue from the corporate sector, whether the orchestra lives to take the Sunken Garden Theater stage in 2039 is anyone’s guess.

For the moment, no negotiations are scheduled, though Vale said the negotiating committee would likely meet this week. The symphony continues to solicit donations for the Big Give on Thursday, the annual event wherein nonprofit organizations ask for widespread donor support.

This article has been updated to clarify that the City of San Antonio donated the municipal auditorium that became the Tobin Center.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...