Saving the Symphony: Spokane orchestra looking for more donations as it faces $1 million deficit after pandemic
By Kip Hill
April 27, 2023
Hundreds of elementary students from far-flung areas of the Inland Northwest brought their recorders to their lips Wednesday morning, awaiting instruction from Kelsey and Marissa Weddle.
Improvise, the singing duo told the rapt pupils at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.
“Feel the beat, and just play free,” they said, followed by a rising crescendo of woodwind notes reverberating off the walls.
This Link Up performance between the Spokane Symphony and schoolchildren is just one of the services offered by a local orchestra that is facing a $1 million annual budget deficit if changes aren’t made in the ledger. Expiring pandemic-related government funds, a scuttling stock market and the increasing cost of doing business have left the 78-year-old arts organization seeking some help.
“It’s actually not that surprising that we’re in this situation,” said Jeff vom Saal, executive director of the symphony. “Orchestras have historically faced significant challenges in trying to manage resources and provide the most value they can for the community.”
Symphony boosters are right now seeking $300,000 in donations ahead of the end of their fiscal year in June to offset a loss of COVID-19-related assistance and diminished giving that the symphony attributes to the poor performance of investments over the past several years.
The symphony received two Paycheck Protection Program loans during the pandemic, intended to cover labor costs during government shutdowns. The loans totaled more than $1.4 million over two years, according to reporting by the investigative news nonprofit ProPublica.
Without that continued pandemic money, vom Saal and Jan Ager, development director for the symphony, said such donations the symphony is seeking from the community would put the organization on a sustainable path to the future.
Still, in an April 6 internal letter to boosters, musicians and other supporters , vom Saal and Francisco Velázquez, chairman of the symphony’s board of directors, said of that deficit that there “are no easy answers, whether through increased income or reduced costs.”
For vom Saal, who has led the symphony since 2016, the preference would be a focus on revenue, not reductions.
“I’m very sensitive to wanting to cut into things that will diminish our output, that will diminish the work of the orchestra,” vom Saal said.
James Lowe, music director of the Spokane Symphony, said the community deserves professional performances that can expand musical perspectives.
“I do not think just New York City, Chicago or Los Angeles should have these institutions,” he said.
The Spokane Symphony has a 2023-24 season planned that will maximize opportunities to sell tickets. Younger audiences and families have bought enough tickets to sell out shows that include performances of popular movies, along with seasonal offerings like the annual “Nutcracker” performances. Wednesday’s performance by local elementary students is the continuation of a mission to bring the symphony to the community, organizers said.
“Part of our mission is to be really accessible to the community,” said Kathy Gustafson, director of marketing for the symphony. “We believe that arts are for everyone, and what we do is for everyone.”
Dave Weatherred, the host of Wednesday’s performance and a longtime music educator in the area including at Ferris High School, helped bring the Link Up curriculum from Carnegie Hall a little more than a decade ago. He said the performances, where elementary students get to participate, are among the few concerts for kids that age when they ask at the end if it’s really over.
“They’re not charging anything for today’s show,” Weatherred said of the performers. For many in the audience, it’s the first time seeing the orchestra and its stately home in downtown Spokane.
Performances of more contemporary pieces, and partnerships with the community, can’t mean also sacrificing performances of master composers either, vom Saal said.
“This is, of course, the balance, to offer the range of activities that engages the broadest possible set of constituents, and audience members, and maintain our commitment to profoundly inspirational work, in the more classical sense,” vom Saal said, noting that the performance the previous weekend by Zuill Bailey and the chorales of the symphony and Gonzaga University produced one of largest crowds for a Masterworks series in the past seven years at the venue.
The symphony also owns the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, having purchased the historic building for a little more than $1 million in 2000 and raising millions of dollars for a renovation project six years later. Despite the economic challenges, vom Saal said, and that the ownership is relatively unique among orchestras nationwide, there are no plans to sell the building.
“We love the hall. It is a huge part of our identity,” vom Saal said.
“That is something we would not entertain,” he added about the possibility of selling.
But the board and staff have looked at ways to increase donations while also reducing costs, he said. Though the symphony has faced financial challenges in the past, including cancellation of some performances in the 1980s in an effort to reduce costs, the deficit has ballooned in recent years, vom Saal acknowledged.
Those belt-tightening moves in the early 1980s coincided with poor market performances, a phenomenon that also explains some of the most recent declines in giving, said Jan Ager, development director for the symphony.
“People have a tendency, especially when they hear the word ‘recession’ on television all day, every day, to really kind of keep their cash close,” Ager said.
Added to that pressure is the increase in wages that was mandated by state law beginning Jan. 1 of this year. The changes created new income thresholds for employees to receive overtime pay and other benefits, which adds to the orchestra’s expenses, Ager said.
The Spokane Symphony, formed in 1945, isn’t the only one looking to change its ways of doing things as the performing arts sector has been hit hard across the board by the COVID-19 pandemic. In December, the New York Metropolitan Opera announced it would tap into its endowment to the tune of $30 million and begin emphasizing compositions from living writers over the classics in an attempt to stanch shutdown bleeding.
The Spokane Symphony has its own endowment fund with assets totaling about double their annual revenue expenses. But those funds are important to the ongoing mission of the orchestra, vom Saal said, and the other method employed by the Met to tamp down costs – reducing performances – also wouldn’t be beneficial, he said.
“We have been very decidedly trying to lean in to re-engaging the community, getting back to doing concerts, rather than taking the foot off the gas pedal,” vom Saal said. The 2023-24 symphony season includes the first Spokane performance by renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, among other eclectic performances that will celebrate local author Jess Walter and beer, and the 50th anniversary of Expo ’74.
In addition to the symphony, the Fox routinely brings in national-level talent in music, comedy and film, vom Saal said, noting the recent Chelsea Handler show . This summer will see performances from singer-songwriter Jason Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, as well as prolific folk outfit Old Crow Medicine Show.
The union representing symphony performers, the American Federation of Musicians 105, said in a statement they believe the symphony fundraising efforts will be successful to get the orchestra to a sustainable financial position in the near future.
“We have weathered many decades, some good, some bad, and we are no stranger to financial difficulties like the ones the board has outlined in their letter,” the statement reads. “The Symphony is beloved by Spokane and we know we have an extremely strong and supportive community here. … We are confident that symphony leadership will continue to build and prioritize strong connections with the people and organizations of Spokane and, as a result, successfully fundraise for a long, robust future.”