Show and Tell Hawai'i

What’s up with the Honolulu Symphony’s endowment?

July 25th, 2010

These are critical life-or-death times for the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra, idled and silenced while facing extinction. The musicians and management are worlds apart, so a quick, efficient resolution to the bankruptcy issue is not likely.
The bizarre “resignation” of the 63 musicians, as the symphony society has alleged, has been denied by the orchestra union. It doesn’t look like an amicable solution will bring the orchestra back to the concert hall anytime soon.
What’s astonishingly missing, in media reports about the differences between the musicians and management, is a traditional revenue-producing peg that helps to keep the organization operational and afloat. It’s called an endowment.
There have been outrageous but expected thoughts bobbing in the current sea of discontent: the notion of a down-sized orchestra to keep costs down, the feasibility of a reduced, cut-back season, the incredible rumor that the muscians would form their own orchestra — like they can get the ship sailing without resources in a dour economy?
No way!
That’s the measure of an orchestra’s stability, or lack thereof. In the current standoff, neither party has brought up the issue of an endowment, which is a fund that helps generate income, through interest, to fuel operations, provide scholarships, enable projects to see fruition.
What’s up with the Honolulu Symphony’s endowment? Does the orchestra even have an endowment anymore? If so, much has been invested in the nest egg? How much interest has accrued over the years? How much has been spent? How much is left?
Traditionally, an endowment is the source and core of an orchestra’s survival; it is an investment for the musicians and management’s future, because interest drawn from the endowment provides ongoing revenue to help keep the doors open. Or, in the case of the orchestra, a season with a string of concerts.
Most orchestras across the nation have endowments, which somewhat ensures the future of the organization, reflects a legacy of commitment and investment from present concert subscribers and donors, who believe in the orchestra and therefore willing write checks to the endowment fund as an investment for future generations of musicians and subscribers to continue to share the joy of music.
Endowments can be specific, custom-made to the donor’s wishes: like provide funding for a specific principal section chair, a precise educational program like a music-in-the-school series, a designation to help cover musician expenses on a tour, or even establish a legacy for a beloved deceased family member.
It’s easier said than done, of course, but an endowment is the heart of an orchestra’s soul.
But in hard times, it can’t resolve all the money issues.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra, one of the nation’s best, is said to have one of the largest endowments in the industry; $370 million in 2006, when the economy was better and philanthropy more widely practiced. Even with endowments, the BSO had a $1.4 million deficit at the end of 2006, launching cost-cutting measures and a campaign to fuel the endowment.
In 2007, the Indiana Symphony Orchestra’s endowment reached an unprecedented $127 million, but deteriorated to $87 million due to the economy, triggering a $100 million campaign to try to fatten the coffers.
Orchestras with huge operational budgets — the likes of Atlanta, Cleveland, Houston, Milwaukee, New York, Pittsburgh and San Francisco — have had major fundraising campaigns since 2009 to build their endowments and pay for other operational needs.
In Honolulu, endowment seems to be a foreign word few speak.
I’ve raised the question of an endowment last year, regarding the rocky financial picture at the Honolulu Symphony, which has been accustomed with having an angel sweep in to save the day.
If anyone else agrees about the worth of an endowment, he or she has never come clean about rebooting this conventional core of an orchestra’s livelihood.
I’ve read, with sorrow, the plan to cut the size of the orchestra here, to 30-plus, which is about half of the 63 or 65 which has been the norm for some time. Do that, and you have a second-class orchestra, which won’t be able to perform specific repertoire pieces, which ultimately demotes the reputation of the orchestra.
Would you try to play football with nine players, or basketball with four, because cutting back is the best solution? No, of course.
Some musicians already have packed up to seek a future elsewhere; so the reality of those rosy days seem bleak, indeed.
Cutbacks in a season also means reduction in pay, loss or deterioration of medical benefits; fewer performances mean less opportunity to fill the seats, less chance to earn money.
The bottom line: You can’t really market a season of four concerts if you expect to be a world class orchestra.
And a world class orchestra has a solid endowment.

One Response to “What’s up with the Honolulu Symphony’s endowment?”

  1. Marsha Christiansen:

    Thanks for posting this. Very nice recap of some of the key points. Your readers find it useful! Thanks again. I've been reading along for a while now.

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