San Antonio symphony officials and striking musicians to mediate in the coming weeks
The San Antonio Symphony’s difficult financial situation is decades in the making, and the musicians are still on strike. But there is change in the air with a mediation session on the calendar next month.
Symphony Executive Director Corey Cowart is optimistic about ending the strike.
“The fact that we're meeting and talking and making proposals is a good sign for the future,” he said.
As to what it will take to get the musicians back on stage performing the public, his answer is a deceptively simple one.
“The easy answer to that is a mutually agreed upon contract. And that's what we've been working on for almost a year now,” he said.
But Cowart knows more than anyone that symphony management and its union players are poles apart. Cowart’s office is in the building next to the Tobin Center, and his walls are lined with cardboard boxes.
“A lot of these boxes that are in my office here are executive director files from the '80s, '90s, early 2000s,” Cowart said. “And this has been a challenge for 30 years.”
That’s true. Shortened seasons, strikes, musician wage and benefits concessions, bankruptcy, a revolving series of executive directors, unpaid furloughs, city/county and patron bailouts. There are few financial difficulties the San Antonio Symphony hasn’t faced. And its current situation is dire.
Prior to the current performing season a new contract was being negotiated, but with little progress.
”We made our last, best and final offer. And that was eventually implemented in late September, and then the strike was called,” he said.
That last, best and final offer would turn 26 full-time symphony players into part-timers with no benefits. Cowart said he understands why that offer could be seen as extreme, but cites last year’s audit of the symphony as justifying that severe a cut-back.
“On that audit, just like I believe for 12 of the last 12 years that we have, we have a ‘going concern disclosure’ from our independent third party auditors, which means that according to what the auditor is looking at, they don't necessarily believe that we would be in business a year from now” he said.
His memory is off by just one. Eleven of the last 12 audits contain that disclosure, each of which is some iteration of this statement: “There is some doubt whether the symphony can continue to operate as a going concern due to cash flow problems.”
Auditor Martin Schuh of Sagebiel, Ravenburg & Schuh said the going concern statement is a troubling one.
“It usually means that there's some issues going on that really raises a red flag as to whether it’s solvent or that you’ll be able to continue in business for the next year,” Schuh said.
He said that statement found in an audit would give any investor pause.
“It just sometimes is worse for nonprofits because when you're going out looking for funding, it kind of like it could be a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said.
Cowart noted the symphony has come close to failing many times.
“This organization as a whole has always been on the brink of financial collapse,” he said.
And yet to San Antonians’ credit, it never does.
“Time and time again, either individual donors, institutional donors that have stepped in at sort of emergency save-the-symphony campaigns to either help us get through the end of the season or to shore up some, some stopgap,” he said.
To really understand the day-to-day challenge that funding a symphony orchestra is, Cowart remembers the day he started at the symphony.
“My first day on the job in 2019, I believe we had $175,000 in the bank in total as far as cash assets. Ten days later, we paid out over $180,000 in payroll, and we needed to do same thing again in two weeks,” Cowart said.
With 72 full-time musicians and 12 employees at symphony headquarters, the payroll beast is a very hungry one. So how to best get and stay ahead of those bills? One way is by creating an endowment fund through which a double-digit percentage of those bills can be paid.
The Fort Worth Symphony has a $32 million endowment. Houston’s symphony has just shy of a $90 million one. San Antonio’s about $2.2 million. With that blaring a difference, why not start an endowment campaign to build up the fund? Cowart said there’s a good reason: their lack of stability.
“You need three to five years of stability to be able to know that, ‘OK, we can run this endowment campaign. We're not going to go into organizational crisis. We're not going to need to do another save-the-orchestra campaign.’ That these individuals [donors] will feel very good about their gift and really view it as an investment for propelling the organization forward,” he said.
Richard Oppenheim, the head of the musicians’ union, sees things quite differently, blaming management for the dire straits they find themselves in.
“They have refused multiple requests on our part for us to take part in a joint fundraising venture. They claim that to do so would somehow put an aura of emergency operations over everything and that that would put a chill on donations,” Oppenheim said. “So you can see it as a sort of circular logic going on here.”
He points out that the size of a healthy organization’s endowment is a function also of its budget size.
“There's a sort of general rule of thumb that these organizations have, which is that your endowment should have at any given moment, between three and four times your annual budget,” he said.
The symphony’s $6 to 8 million yearly budget — it varies a bit from year-to-year — would suggest the need for a $15 to 20 million endowment, of which they only have a fraction. Cowart said that even despite these troubled times, the symphony’s donor base has grown, except in one key area.
“You also need your significant investment from individuals and institutions that are $100 plus thousand a year annually, and regularly and repeatable. The top end is really what we've lost over time,” he said.
And those top-end donors are the very ones that are needed to build up a sizable endowment.
A sudden development landed with the option to enter mediation.
“Yeah, this just bubbled up,” Oppenheim said. “Both sides have apparently been contacted by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and the FMCS has assigned their senior most mediator.”
The first mediation session is set for, of all days, Valentine’s Day. No one knows where this will go, but Oppenheim said that four months into the strike, the musicians are holding strong.
“There is no doubt in my mind. I have seen no wavering,” he said. “The players are frankly in no mood to cave in. That ain't gonna happen.”
Cowart said symphony management wants nothing more than to come to an agreement.
“No one is enjoying what we're going through, and we understand it's hardest on the musicians more than anything,” he said. “The board wants the music back. The community wants the music back. Everybody wants it back.”
Both sides have an opportunity on Feb. 14 to make that happen.