The Milwaukee Symphony enters the 2010-’11 campaign on a box-office roll.
Edo de Waart’s first season as music director, savvy marketing and exceptional music-making drew big numbers to Uihlein Hall. The orchestra beat 2008-09 — the 50th anniversary year and the last in Andreas Delfs’ tenure — by 3%, even with four fewer concerts.
Single tickets for classical concerts jumped from 13,125 in 08-09 to 17,709 last season. The orchestra topped its sales goal for the year by April. The Pops did well, too, as single tickets rose to 10,580 from 8,078. A good portion of those single-ticket buyers appear to be buying in at a higher level this season. According to marketing VP Susan Loris, the current subscription drive is tracking 4% higher in both revenue and numbers of subscribers.
So the MSO enters 2010-11 with a strong tailwind. But the orchestra has some problems, too. Contributed revenue has been a problem in a struggling economy; because of that, the MSO’s fiscal year ended Aug. 31 will show a deficit in the neighborhood of $400,000.
But the orchestra’s biggest problem is the lack of a president/executive director. The MSO has still not replaced the talented Mark Hanson, who left for the Houston Symphony last spring. Don Tyler, a four-year board member recently retired for Northwestern Mutual Life, holds the position on an interim basis.
“Chris Abele (MSO board chairman) knew exactly when to call,” Tyler said. “I was packing boxes in my office when the phone rang.”
“We’ve gone through one round of interviews,” he said. “Interest is high, because of Edo and because the MSO has high recognition in the field.”
But the MSO is still taking applications. Tyler didn’t say so, but that fact indicates that the search committee is not especially enamored of any of the candidates.
The orchestra is using an international search firm, Spencer Stuart, to find and filter candidates. Spencer Stuart has a non-profit search department, but it is a more general sort of executive headhunter. Tyler said that the MSO would not necessarily recruit a career arts administrator.
“Spencer Stuart has access to markets in arts and culture but also in the corporate world,” Tyler said. “We’re casting our nets in two directions. I’m not saying we’re going down the corporate path, but we want to explore it.”
As for the financial challenges, the 2009-10 operating deficit did not surprise Tyler or anyone else at the MSO. He was on the board’s executive committee when deficit was written into the budget.
“We budgeted in a $410,000 deficit in January of 2008,” he said. “We recognized the situation going in to last season.”
About that time, MSO brass found out that the United Performing Arts Fund contribution to the MSO would be about $600,000 below expectation. That was the biggest blow, but not the only blow to the contributed income stream as the economy chilled. The slide hurt on the expense side, too, as falling investments in the musicians’ pension fund required some hefty payouts that hurt the bottom line last year and will again this year.
“On the earned side, Susan (Loris) has it almost down to a science,” Tyler said. “We can predict that. The contributed side is more problematic.”
To underscore the case, Tyler couldn’t give me a firm deficit number on Aug. 30, the day before the fiscal year ended, because he was waiting for checks that may or may not come in. Those checks and UPAF excluded, the MSO took in about $4.4 million in contributions from the annual campaign, board members and foundations. The MSO’s endowments yielded $1.52 million.
Tyler might be interim, but he’s not behaving like a caretaker. Anticipating gains on the earned side but another difficult year on the contributed side, he’s paring the budget from $16.7 million last year to $16.33 million in fiscal 2011.
“I’m driving the staff crazy,” he said. “I come from a risk-averse insurance company. We’re trying to create a more predictable model for contributed income and drive expenses around that. The encouraging thing on the contributed side is, we’re not hearing ‘no.’ We’re hearing ‘not now.'”