Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra facing major funding crisis, while Minnesota Orchestra remains in deadlock

- 11 December 2013

10% cut – MSO music director Edo de Waart

10% cut ‒ MSO music director Edo de Waart

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra is ‘facing possible extinction’ and announced a $5m (£3m) fund-raising campaign and a restructuring plan that will see redundancies for both musicians and administration staff.

The crisis is the latest to hit America’s troubled orchestral sector and follows a $2m (£1.2m) budget shortfall for Wisconsin’s largest arts organisation.

Orchestra president and chief executive Mark Niehaus has described the public appeal as ‘critical’ to the 54-year-old orchestra’s future, adding ‘Right now, the MSO is in real danger of shutting down’.

Contributing to the orchestra’s financial problems are a $1 million (£600,000) pension fund obligation despite the scheme having been frozen in 1996 and a reduction of more than a third over the past decade in subsidies received from a local performing arts fund.

The new salvage operation will see an 11% cut in operating costs resulting in the loss of seven administration staff and around nine musicians. Over the last two seasons, player numbers have reduced by a quarter from 88 to the mid- to upper-60s. It is the seventh time in 11 years the orchestra’s musicians have agreed to reducing their financial package as the orchestra continues to struggle with one of the smallest endowments of any orchestra in the Midwest: just $17m (£10.4m) compared to Detroit’s $54m (£33m) and Cincinnati’s $140m (£85.4m).

Agreements with the city’s Marcus Center, where it is a tenant, and the Florentine Opera and Milwaukee Ballet companies are also being re-negotiated, with music director Edo de Waart agreeing to a 10% cut in his fees and a reduction in his Milwaukee residency to just eight weeks each year.

* Further north, as the 14-month lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra from its Minneapolis base continues in deadlock, calls are emerging for the crippled orchestra’s management to be evicted from the city’s Orchestra Hall, recently renovated at a cost of $52 million (£32.3 million), and for its musicians – currently performing as the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra – to cut all ties with its management and re-form as the Minnesota Symphony. Earlier this week, the musicians revealed they had earned $201,000 (£123,000) from ad-hoc concerts and raised $650,000 (£396,000) for further planned performances. Ironically, at the beginning of the month, the orchestra received its second Grammy Award nomination in successive years for its recording of Sibelius’ First and Fourth Symphonies under recently departed music director Osmo Vänskä. Plans for to complete the cycle were scrapped because of the continuing dispute.

In the year to the end of August, the Minnesota Orchestral Association reported an operating deficit of $1.1m (£672,000) on total revenue of just under $12m (£7.3m) despite not having given any concerts in the past 12 months. Earned income for the period – essentially from unreturned pre-purchased ticket sales – was a meagre $14,000 (£8,500). Costs relating to negotiations with its locked-out musicians amounted to $885,000 (£540,000).

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