Robert Stickler lobbed good and bad news at the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s board of directors at the end of August.
The bad news? He wants to step down as president and CEO in March, when he turns 65. The good news? The organization has finished with more revenue than expenses – this time, by a whisker – two years in a row.
Stickler’s team roused the community to meet a $200,000 challenge grant at the end of fiscal year 2014-15. That put the organization over its $9,488,000 budget by $9,000 for the first back-to-back years in the black since 2001-02.
The biggest boost came from foundations. Stickler hired Amy Jackson as grants manager, hoping the money she raised would more than cover the cost of adding her, and foundation giving shot up from $192,000 to $440,000.
The Summer Pops series, blessed with uniformly good weather, brought in $20,000 more than expected. The income from “fee concerts” (where other groups hire the orchestra) rose when Charlotte Ballet added three “Nutcrackers.” And program support costs, especially money spent on guest artists, went down 3 percent.
“Some of the best-attended shows, especially in the Pops series, had the lowest costs,” says Stickler. “(Music director) Christopher Warren-Green has a knack for uncovering people who’ll make audiences say 10 years later – when their prices go up – ‘I heard them back when.’”
There were also drawbacks. Ticket income stayed level, but flutist James Galway netted $40,000 less for his special event than violinist Itzhak Perlman the previous season. And individual giving remained flat, prompting Stickler to say, “I hope people don’t think, ‘They finished in the black, so they don’t need us any more.’ It’s an ongoing challenge.”
The symphony still has long-term issues that demand attention, from a $6 million accumulated deficit to the need to increase its endowment. It brought in a consultant, who worked pro bono, to assess its operating systems; the study yielded 19 projects that could improve the infrastructure, and CSO leadership is prioritizing those.
The biggest challenge, as ever, is two-fold: To remind the community of all the work the orchestra does, from run-out concerts to educational opportunities, and to put ticket-buyers in seats.
Sometimes a small change does that: Oratorio Singers of Charlotte has been renamed Charlotte Symphony Chorus to reinforce the CSO brand.
Sometimes a fresh project will do it. The CSO will host a free Symphony On Tap concert Sept. 16 at Belk Theater, with audience members wandering in and out of the hall. The orchestra will play selections from upcoming Classics, Pops and KnightSounds gigs and offer $2 beers and $4 Olde Mecklenburg Brewery Copper drafts.
“We need to be relevant to people who aren’t going to classics concerts,” says Stickler. “The trick is not to hurt your core product, yet to have diverse offerings. There’s a real untapped audience; if we come up with different ways to market ourselves, we think we can reach them.”