Is the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Choosing Pay Cuts Over Fundraising?

A blank billboard on Forest Park Boulevard has come to serve as a symbol of the disagreement between the management of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and its musicians, currently on strike.
A blank billboard on Forest Park Boulevard has come to serve as a symbol of the disagreement between the management of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and its musicians, currently on strike.
Paul Unger

The holidays are generally a busy time for orchestras, but this year's the exception for the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. Its musicians have been on strike since Sept. 8, protesting pay cuts that would have placed their salaries $20,000 below the national average, equivalent to what they were paid in 2003. The average salary for a full-time musician with the FWSO is $61,000, according to an article in The Dallas Morning News.

The FWSO is operating with a deficit of $700,000, and everyone recognizes something needs to be done. But an Oct. 22 meeting between the musicians and the FWSO's management did not yield a compromise. In fact, it produced quite the opposite: The meeting resulted in all of the orchestra's concerts being cancelled through the end of the year.

"The musicians sought to work together and collaborate to find some creative ways to raise money to close the gap, but management, all they wanted for us to do was to take the cuts," says Ed Jones, principal tuba player for the FWSO and head of the negotiating committee.

"In the past five years, the Orchestra has experienced a significant loss in revenue, primarily from corporate and government sources," says Amy Adkins, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, who spoke with us by email because she was home recovering from an emergency appendectomy.

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Adkins says corporate mergers and acquisitions have resulted in a loss of $350,000 annually; the grant the FWSO received from the Arts Council last year, $155,000, was half of what it received in 2009; the orchestra has been affected by cutbacks at the opera, which is also paying half of what it used ($115,000) to hire the orchestra for its performances; and contingency funds have been drained.

This deficit is puzzling because there seems to be steady demand in Fort Worth, even with competition from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Sales were up 14 percent from last year and their most popular event, Concerts in the Garden, broke attendance records and raised over a million dollars.

Meanwhile, the orchestra already cut musicians' pay by 13.5 percent in 2009, and is looking to do so again, rather than bolstering marketing or soliciting donations.

"Their creative solution is to cut musicians' salaries," says Jones.

Jones and Paul Unger — assistant principal double bass in the orchestra — are convinced that management is being careless with the FWSO's money. As an example, they point to a billboard on Forest Park Boulevard in Fort Worth that the orchestra leases to promote its events. Unger says it has been blank for some time, despite being paid for through April. He sees this as either a missed opportunity to draw people to the orchestra or a sign that the FWSO had intended to cancel its winter concerts prior to their most recent negotiations.

"We know that billboards like that lease for a pretty good amount of money," Unger says. "What we’re wondering is, why aren’t they using this resource that’s already being paid for as way to promote the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and to promote fundraising?"

Adkins says that the decision to leave the billboard blank was made after the musicians went on strike in early September and performances were beginning to be cancelled. The cancellations are unavoidable because the FWSO could not afford to hire replacement musicians. "In order to conserve our lean marketing budget, and to avoid further patron confusion, we temporarily suspended the use of the billboard so as to use our marketing funds to promote future concerts," she says.

Adkins adds that management entered the Oct. 22 meetings hopeful about what might result. "The board and management were encouraged that the union wanted to come back to the table, and we were hopeful that it would lead to productive discussions and a resolution to the strike," she says. "However, the union had not altered its position, despite its knowledge and recognition of the Orchestra’s financial condition."

Since going on strike in September, the musicians of the FWSO have raised over $35,000 through GoFundMe pages and small benefits, Unger and Jones say.  They are not aware of any fundraising efforts by the management since they began negotiating 16 months ago.

"If they’ve known about this problem for this long why haven’t they done something to turn the ship around?" Jones says. "This billboard kind of stands out to us as an example of that."

The Observer exchanged emails with several people who have donated to the FWSO in the past and replied they have not received any personalized requests for donations in the last year or more.

"We have contributed at the Circle Level for several years and previously received quarterly hard copy updates from management on the state of the symphony," says donor Jean Hadley. "We ceased getting those or any targeted communication about a year and a half ago. We did not receive the annual fundraiser request in September 2015 or 2016 and did not make our regular donation."

Phil Hoskins, a season ticketholder at the FWSO for 25 years, says despite having contributed in the past, he has not been asked to donate either. "The only contact we have had, in terms of giving, has been recent invoices for our tickets with the suggested $100 contribution; never anything from a fundraising drive."

Scott Chaney, who bought a table for the gala last year, worth a $4,000 donation, said he was never thanked or asked if he was interested in making a more substantial donation.

"I think my wife had found out something about what the musicians were being paid and it's not like they're getting rich," he says. "We bought a table to try and support. With the lack of follow-up it became clear to us that maybe they don't have people who do that kind of thing to keep the ball rolling. Maybe it's easier for them to cut salaries than call people."

Chaney, who attends the symphony in both Dallas and Fort Worth, said he feels the FWSO is burdened by the cost of renting out Bass Hall, whereas the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO) gets the Meyerson rent free. He asked why the Basses wouldn't be willing to offer the FWSO a similar break so it can survive.

The DSO doesn't pay rent on the Meyerson because it helped raise the bulk of the money to build it, according to Chelsey Norris, the communications manager for the DSO. It does pay a portion of utilities, and for upgrades and building maintenance, which has amounted to $800,000 in the last five years. As part of their free-rent agreement, they're also obligated to put on free concerts in Dallas parks.

Adkins characterized the suggestion that past contributors to the FWSO were not contacted to donate this year as "implausible, at best." She cited that the FWSO raised $3.1 million from individuals alone last year, including 1,200 new donors. She directly disputes the idea that the orchestra has not been aggressively fundraising.

"The organization conducted more than a dozen distinct fundraising campaigns including three special events that raised more than $1 million," she says. "Data provided from the FWSO development office conservatively estimates that the Orchestra made more than 225,000 solicitations during the 2015-16 season that ended on July 31 through direct mail, email, tele-fundraising and major gift campaigns."

Adkins adds that the deficit the FWSO has been operating under for the last five years is so great that it cannot be resolved through individual contributions alone.

Unger and Jones feel the FWSO had a great opportunity to correct course in 2010, when the DeVos Institute, an arts consulting firm from the University of Maryland, examined its operations. Michael Kaiser, the former executive director at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. who oversees DeVos, presented the orchestra with a strategic plan based on its findings the following year, in 2011.

This plan was a consolation to musicians who felt it would ensure growth and ward against future pay cuts. But Unger and Jones say recommendations such as monthly marketing spikes were not followed.

"At that time management said they were going to increase the donor base and increase fundraising," Unger says. "There’s a number of things in the strategic plan that we’ve made note of that were recommended and they had agreed to do related to marketing and fundraising that they have not implemented," Jones adds.

According to Adkins, the hiring of DeVos had nothing to do with the pay cuts.

"The musicians’ pay cut of 2010 has no causal relation to the DeVos Institute which the management engaged to craft the organization’s next strategic plan," she says. "It is true that management and board committed to creating a five-year plan. This plan was adopted in May 2012 and includes marketing, fundraising, artistic, and operational strategies to improve the organization. Management and board have implemented dozens of these strategies and tactics, many of which have been extremely successful."

She says the increase in ticket sales was a direct result of dynamic and demand pricing strategies they learned from DeVos.

A Fort Worth Star-Telegram story about the failed negotiations on Oct. 22 reported that the management had said the wages musicians have lost during their strike are equal to the sacrifices the orchestra has asked them to make. For Unger and Jones, this line of thinking largely misses the point. It's about more than money.

"This is also about preserving the future and the artistic integrity of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and while those figures may be true it’s important that the musicians stand for the future generations of the musicians that will be playing here and for what this orchestra will look like 5 and 10 years down the road," says Jones.

A woman who served on the board for three years, but asked to remain anonymous, supports the strike. "I don't think you treat musicians of that caliber the way they're being treated," she says. "They're graduates of some of the best music conservatories — they deserve much more than what they're getting."

She hopes the strike will be successful, as were similar strikes in Minneapolis and Detroit, but asked that her name not be included because she is helping to bridge the gap between the musicians and the management and doesn't want to set the negotiations back.

However she also countered certain claims Unger and Jones made about the FWSO's lack of initiative regarding fundraising. One in particular suggested that a March fundraiser which had the possibility to be successful had been wrongly cancelled at the last minute. Our source shared with us that the reason for the cancellation was the murder of pianist Vadym Kholodenko's children the day prior to the event. "It wouldn't have been appropriate to ask for money at that time," she says.

The musicians intend to remain steadfast in their strike, and have been teaching, doing freelance and picking up other odd jobs in the meantime. However, some players are subbing for other orchestras and even being poached.

"One of our violin players subbed in Atlanta last week; our bass trombone player went down to Houston," says Unger. He adds that since the 2010 pay cut, the FWSO has been losing musicians at nearly twice the rate of the previous decade, and that about a third of the orchestra has left.

"The management can’t just continue with this business philosophy that all they have to do is cut back musicians' salaries," says Jones. "That’s not sustainable. We have to have an economic plan that goes into the future that gets the orchestra back on track."

Sustainability is a concept that is echoed by Adkins, although to serve the opposite point. She wouldn't speculate on the outcome of the negotiations but seemed every bit as committed to her position that pay cuts must be a part of the answer to the orchestra's financial crisis.

"The musicians, administration and board of the FWSO share a common desire: to make sure that the Orchestra is in business and thriving now and for years to come," she says. "Where the union and management disagree is on how to solve the problem."


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