Symphony needed $2 million to stay afloat

The Charlotte Symphony needed $2 million from an emergency fund drive to help it pay its expenses during the 2009-10 season, its recently completed audit shows.

The infusion from the emergency campaign, launched in summer 2009, covered nearly a fourth of the orchestra's $8,119,833 expenses for last season, the audit shows. The season ended June 30.

"We made a deliberate decision not to mask" in the audit the use of the $2 million, executive director Jonathan Martin said Monday. The need for the emergency money, he said, demonstrates that the orchestra's situation is still "very challenging."

The orchestra has been struggling with deficits since the 2002-03 season. The recession intensified the financial troubles, especially by squelching contributions from businesses facing their own hardships. The orchestra reduced expenses in a variety of ways, including pay cuts for players and staff, but those measures didn't make up for the drop-off in revenue.

The challenges intensified in May 2009, when the Arts & Science Council - whose fundraising also has suffered from the recession - announced it would reduce its support of the orchestra by $1 million a year.

Soon after that, the orchestra launched its emergency drive, seeking $5.7 million for a multiyear bridge fund to help the orchestra pay its bills while it works to increase its ticket sales and donor base.

As the 2009-10 season unfolded, it brought some encouraging signs, Martin said. Ticket sales, at $2.4 million, were more than 15 percent higher than in the preceding season.

But the ASC's $1 million cut took effect as the season began. And corporate contributions, continuing a slide from the 2007 high of $1 million, totaled less than $450,000.

The emergency fund helped fill the gap. When the 2009-10 season began, Martin said, the orchestra expected to use about $1,750,000 million from the fund. But circumstances pushed the total to a little more than $2 million by the end of the season.

Including what the orchestra already spent, the emergency drive had brought in $5,319,000 in cash and pledges as of November, the audit says.

The total includes pledges of $1 million each from the McColl and Spangler families and $500,000 from the Leon Levine Foundation.

The drive's success may have had "an unintended consequence," Martin said Monday. In talking to scores of people around the community, he said, he has found that many got the impression the money solved the orchestra's problems.

Actually, he said, the bridge fund "was never designed to save the symphony." Instead, he said, it accomplished its primary goal: keeping the orchestra going while it works on building financial support.

The orchestra has to keep attracting new ticket buyers and donors, Martin said. It hopes to do that by showing that its value to the city comes not only from playing concerts, but from benefiting the community - such as through programs for children. For instance, the orchestra is backing a string-instrument program for students at Winterfield Elementary in east Charlotte.

As the other key element, the orchestra is beginning an endowment campaign to raise $20 million to $25 million. That would contribute more than $1 million a year to the orchestra's coffers.

Charlotte's other two biggest performing groups came out better last season, according to audited figures:

-- N.C. Dance Theatre, with expenses of $4,609,709 had a surplus of $55,318, executive director Doug Singleton said.

-- Opera Carolina, with expenses of $3,008,644, had a surplus of $174,469, general director James Meena said.