Philadelphia Orchestra fund-raising still has a way to go

Philadelphia_Orchestra_2012_600
In a February performance of "The Rite of Spring" by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Stravinsky's score got an assist from video and an aerialist.

More than nine months out of bankruptcy, the orchestra is still struggling to get past living hand-to-mouth.

  • The "pinch point," where cash dips below a safe margin of $1.9 million, is mid-August.
  • Philadelphians are stepping up with gifts, but it's not enough.

It was a rare sight. Not long ago, a woman stood at the entrance to the Kimmel Center before a sold-out Philadelphia Orchestra concert, holding a sign: "Need one ticket." A few weeks earlier, a couple called the box office the day after a performance of The Rite of Spring and made a $10,000 gift.

Points of contact like these represent the kind of passion the orchestra must stoke if it is to survive, yet they remain all too infrequent. More than nine months out of bankruptcy, it's still a struggle to get past living hand-to-mouth. A few months ago, leaders believed they had only enough cash to get them comfortably through mid-April. Now the "pinch point," where cash dips below a safe margin of $1.9 million, is mid-August, chief financial officer Mario Mestichelli said.

Philadelphians are stepping up with gifts, but it's not enough. "It's not that people aren't investing in the future of the orchestra," president Allison B. Vulgamore said. "The building blocks are coming in, but they're not as chunky as we had hoped."

The vibe in the hall is good, orchestra chairman Richard B. Worley said. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, in his first season as music director, has gotten strong reviews from critics. The New York Times has been particularly enamored, issuing an early verdict after a Carnegie Hall concert in January that "the Philadelphia Orchestra seems to have found its ideal music director."

Are buzz and some critical successes translating into the necessary fund-raising momentum? Not quite.

"I'm not as uncomfortable as I was last summer, immediately out of bankruptcy, when we knew we needed a lot of money in a hurry," Worley said. "And yet I think that the task is still daunting. We need to change the mix very much from the extraordinary gifts of a few to the greater generosity of many who come to our concerts, as well as new members of our audience.

"In the end, it doesn't look like government is going to be a lifeline. I think it is unrealistic for us to expect very much from people in our community who don't personally enjoy the orchestra. People give to the things they are most interested in. We really need to gain, through good work and cooperation on the part of our audience . . . more support."

The orchestra is missing fund-raising targets for its transition fund, set as it was coming out of bankruptcy. In September, the group fixed a goal of $25 million over two years; now, $23 million over three years seems more likely. And that goal will be reached only if it can raise $2 million more this year and in each of the next two. These amounts are on top of regular annual fund-raising of about $9 million.

"We've got a couple of million dollars to raise yet to finish the year without drawing down liquidity," Worley said. "We had hoped to build liquidity, so we haven't raised as much money as we had hoped for the year. The year's not over yet" - the orchestra's fiscal year ends Aug. 31 - "but I feel confident we will raise the money to finish the year and get a good start on next year, and we have some of the funding in place for next year already."

Not making the goal means some adjustments.

"We are prioritizing our expenses as we go, evaluating and making choices on a day-to-day basis, choosing to defer some projects to a later time, and launching initiatives which are funded and secured," a spokeswoman said. "Presenting our concerts and programs is always the first priority. The outcome of making such choices will be a delay in what we call balance sheet repair - for example, it would take longer than we would like to pay off our $3.1 million debt [line of credit]."

Attendance is inching up. Paid capacity is 82 percent of Verizon Hall, and because attendance tends to improve toward the end of the season, it's reasonable to expect the orchestra could exceed the 83 percent figure with which it ended last season.

But even 100 percent paid attendance leaves the orchestra with much money to raise, as ticket sales cover only a portion of the budget.

"We've been able to convert a number of conversations into firm pledges, and we have two or three ongoing conversations that are important to us, and one new conversation that we're entering," Worley said about donor prospects. "I would say that a handful of Philadelphians have been very generous with us, and we have been seeking and gaining some three-year commitments. We are not yet to the level where we have the funding for our plan in place."

Beyond its transition fund, the orchestra's financial well-being hinges on being able to greatly increase the size of its endowment. A specific goal has not been set.

One way to boost enthusiasm, Vulgamore and others say, is by augmenting the music with visual elements. In the February performance of The Rite of Spring that elicited the $10,000 donation, Stravinsky's score got an assist from video and an aerialist. Bach's St. Matthew Passion a few weeks ago included a theatrical element, an idea Vulgamore conceived. A Salome for next season was first unveiled as a straight concert version; announced later was the addition of sculptural elements and the talents of Opera Philadelphia.

The reason some repertoire is being rolled out for marketing even before the presentation element is fully conceived is that augmented projects like these require extra funding and will happen only to the extent they can land it.

"We have more vision than we can employ, and that's a creative tension, because choice always has two sides to it," Vulgamore said. "I think you'll see more often than not that we have additional announcements around repertoire, like the Salome, announced first only as repertoire. And then when we can really pull together the conceptual and fund-raising, we [will] announce more of what that week can be."

It might be easier if these ideas could be rolled out fully formed. But more ambitious plans await funding - at the Philadelphia Orchestra, the future arrives on a paid-for basis.

Before the bankruptcy, Worley had determined $214 million was needed to bolster artistic plans and build endowment. When major funders balked, the orchestra filed for bankruptcy to lower operating costs and emerge with a less ambitious fund-raising goal.

The strategy is to monetize what leaders perceive as a surfeit of joy in the concert hall more robustly than ever before.

Matthew Loden, orchestra vice president for institutional advancement, put it this way:

"People are coming. It's just a matter of the magnitude with which we can turn this artistic excitement and the things that are happening into real live cash."

 


Contact Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at www.philly.com/artswatch.