For the first time in its 17-year history, the Sacramento Philharmonic will not present any concerts during the fall season, and it remains unclear whether its musicians will return to the stage in the spring of 2015.
The Sacramento Opera has also decided not to stage performances in the fall.
The decision follows months of financial uncertainty for the Sacramento Region Performing Arts Alliance, the organization formed last year when the philharmonic merged with the Sacramento Opera.
Laurie Nelson, president of the alliance, said the board opted in June to cancel the fall season in order to give the organization a “hiatus” so it can reorganize. She said the alliance will work on establishing a sustainable financial plan, restructuring its board of directors and defining the arts groups’ relevance to the city.
This fall, Sacramento will be the only U.S. city of comparable size without an active symphony orchestra.
Both the Sacramento Opera and Sacramento Philharmonic have seen steep declines in their operating budgets since the start of the recession. Both have been on the verge of closure. Although ticket sales have remained relatively stable, the groups have not met their fundraising goals.
At the end of the 2011-12 season, the orchestra made an appeal to the community for emergency funds to deal with a $150,000 budget shortfall.
During the appeal, the orchestra released a statement saying its budget was comparable to orchestras in smaller cities such as Amarillo, Texas; Erie, Pa,; and Wheeling, W.Va.
All of those orchestras have announced full concert seasons for 2014-15.
Although last year’s merger was supposed to strengthen both the opera and the philharmonic, it hasn’t had that effect. The two groups’ combined budgets totaled more than $2 million before the merger. At this point, the alliance has just $131,000 in the bank for 2014-2015, Nelson said.
In January, the organization received a $500,000 gift from the Joyce and Jim Teel Family Foundation, just before it was to appeal to the city for a $350,000 forgivable loan. The Teel gift allowed the alliance to forgo the loan, with most of the gift used to pay for the Sacramento Opera’s production of “Il Trovatore.”
“We really gave this a lot of thought as a board,” Nelson said of the decision to scrap the fall season. “We could have done another season, like we did last year, and struggle along and end up the year with no money in the bank. Instead, we decided to take a pause and really give some consideration to how to build a foundation for the future.”
The decision was greeted with dismay by Larry Gardner, president of American Federation of Musicians Local 12.
“We’re certainly shocked and dismayed that an organization that has had consistent budgets above $1 million annually would suddenly be reduced to one of approximately $130,000,” Gardner said.
“This has been frustrating – very frustrating – for the musicians,” Gardner said.
The financial troubles at the SRPAA are no rarity in the arts; many orchestras and opera companies have severely pruned their seasons, and some have closed altogether.
However, Sacramento seems to be a special case, Gardner said.
“The orchestra is the only one of its size and in a city the size of Sacramento in the Central Valley that will not present in the fall,” Gardner said.
He noted that smaller orchestras in smaller cities such as the Fresno Philharmonic and Modesto Philharmonic are presenting full seasons in 2014-15 after cutting back on offerings directly after the recession.
“Those orchestras have turned a corner,” said Gardner.
“When you look at the skyline in Sacramento and then look at Modesto or Fresno’s, you begin to wonder, ‘What’s going on in Sacramento?’ ” Gardner said. “It sure looks like there is money in Sacramento, but it doesn’t seem to be going to the orchestra or opera company.”
Nelson said bankruptcy is not a likely option if no workable solutions are found.
“That is not in the cards at this point in time,” said Nelson. “If that were to occur, it would be such a blow to this community and the art form. I think it would take years for us to get back to being able to offer something to the community.”
Nelson said the success of the hiatus will depend on two factors: whether new board members can be brought on, and to what extent it is established that the community wants to support the orchestra and opera company.
She called the current SRPAA board “too small and overworked.”
She said the SRPAA is looking for long-term financial commitments from new board members. “Instead of a one-time commitment we will respectfully ask donors to give for three years so we have a foundation to build upon.” Nelson said.
Contributions from individuals will be key, given the region’s less-than-stellar reputation for philanthropic giving to the arts and lack of corporate philanthropy.
The challenges at the SRPAA are also compounded by an absence of long-term leadership. General director Rob Tannenbaum left that role in July, only one year into his tenure.
Nelson said some of the problems stemmed from the fact that when both organizations merged they discovered that only 7 percent of their audiences overlapped.
“We had a steep learning curve,” said Nelson. “We had some challenges figuring what direction we wanted to go.”
At present, the only concert likely to happen is a May 2015 event that will be produced in a partnership between the orchestra and Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, said Julian Dixon, principal tuba with the philharmonic and its head of community outreach.
That partnership, called “Link Up!” is in its fifth year and involves orchestra musicians working with students in the region’s schools on music curriculum. The culmination is a May concert with students performing alongside orchestral musicians.
For Dixon, that effort is a bright spot in a sea of uncertainty. The absence of fall concerts and the expectation of a deeply reduced spring concert slate means he will have to scramble to make ends meet.
“It’s a definite blow,” Dixon said. “The challenge is, when we get so reduced, how can we rebound?”
Nonetheless, Dixon remains optimistic that the philharmonic can recover.
“Sacramento is looking at the big picture right now. We’re bringing the arena to downtown, and we have the railyards, and there seems to be a buzz around the arts,” Dixon said. “We have to position our organization around that big picture.”