Tom Strini
Where We Are Now

The MSO

By - Sep 8th, 2010 05:19 pm
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The Milwaukee Symphony enters the 2010-’11 campaign on a box-office roll.

Don Tyler, the MSO’s interim executive director.

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.”

Tyler, 57, was vice-president for investment products and services at NML. He retired with the goal of (1) hiking the Appalachian Trail and (2) working with non-profits to make Milwaukee a better place. He’s anxious to hit the trail and has no interest in taking the MSO job on a permanent basis. But good help is hard to find in arts management, and Tyler and the MSO’s search committee don’t want to be hasty. And yet, he hopes to have an exec in place by early 2011.

“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.'”

0 thoughts on “Where We Are Now: The MSO”

  1. Anonymous says:

    It is sad to read about the MSO deficit, but during these tough economic times a loss in contributions, matching funds and investment returns was to be expected. Apparently, MSO’s management and board didn’t prepare enough ahead of tough times. It is still impressive that ticket sales have increased and that income from ticket sales has also increased. Obviously, this is mostly due not only to Maestro de Waart’s competence and reputation, but it also reflects the excellent performance and artistic level of the MSO’s musicians; they are the ones that make the music after all!

    Not only have the musicians risen to perhaps their highest artistic level in years, by meeting de Waart’s artistic demands – I have heard the MSO for at least a decade – but as I remember from an article by Mr. Strini, they also made financial and benefit sacrifices during their last contract negotiations. BRAVO to the Musicians!

    As an avid audience member, I truly hope that the MSO won’t take the Detroit Symphony’s management approach by trying to pass on the deficit shortfall to the MSO musicians.

    It is nice to read that contributors are willing to dig deeper in the future.
    Mr. Strini, thanks for your article.

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