With the future of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra in doubt and the newly announced plans to renovate the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium causing a stir in the community, some question whether $142 million should be spent on the Gaillard if there's no symphony to play in it.
But George Stevens, executive director of the Coastal Community Foundation, which manages endowments, said the symphony isn't the "lynchpin" upon which all other groups depend; it's the "church steeple" that calls members of the community together.
"I would like a broader conversation about how you frame the arts community," Stevens said. "The symphony is the best way into that conversation."
To further that goal, the foundation, the College of Charleston and the Charleston Regional Alliance for the Arts announced Friday a series of public forums to "address the future of symphonic music in Charleston."
A steering committee will be co-chaired by College of Charleston President George Benson and Blackbaud President Marc Chardon. The forums will be led by Dianne Culhane, former creative director for Coca-Cola and a consultant who specializes in collaborative strategic planning.
Laura Deaton, who served as interim operating officer for the Charleston Symphony during the 2006-07 fiscal year, will provide support. She runs Full Glass Consulting.
Other members of the steering committee are Stevens; Anthony Bland, head of Merrill Lynch in Charleston; Martha Rivers Ingram, chairwoman of Spoleto Festival USA; and Nella Barkley, who runs the Charleston Regional Alliance for the Arts.
Mayor Joe Riley has endorsed the initiative.
"Charleston has a long and rich cultural heritage, and symphonic music is at its heart," Riley said in a statement. "Our symphony orchestra has struggled financially for many years, and we must find a way to ensure that the future of this art form is on a sound financial footing."
Symphony musicians rejected last month the terms of an interim agreement meant to keep the orchestra in business for the 2010-11 season, saying the average salary of $3,600 that most players would receive and the reduced number of planned performances were unacceptable.
In late March, symphony management announced it was shutting down operations temporarily in order to restructure the organization.
Stevens insisted the new initiative should not only be about saving the orchestra, but should emphasize instead the role of the arts in the community and the ways in which arts groups interact with one another and with audiences.
"We need to look at all the arts, this isn't just about one organization," he said.
The symphony is made up of musicians who supplement their CSO incomes by playing in other ensembles, working in schools and performing at local weddings, special events and in the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, he said. They teach private lessons and serve as college faculty.
The symphony, he said, is a mechanism that keeps the arts alive in Charleston.
Benson said it makes sense for the College of Charleston to help facilitate the symphony discussions; the college's new strategic plan calls for more community engagement and leadership.
The symphony is not the only organization struggling financially, he said. The college, embedded in downtown Charleston for 240 years, also is looking for a new financial model. The stabilization of the symphony and the success of the Gaillard renovation is certain to strengthen the college, he added.
"You simply cannot separate the college from the community, or the college from the arts," he said.
Martha Rivers Ingram, who helped develop the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, which opened in 2005, said she's been through a symphony restructuring before.
In the late 1980s, the Nashville Symphony was forced to declare bankruptcy when the players union rejected pay cuts. It took about nine months and a budget reduction, from $5 million to $3 million, to get the organization back together.
They hired back fewer players but raised their pay, she said. And the orchestra limited its repertoire to smaller works. It took several years to rebuild audience confidence, and several more to beef up the orchestra and its programming, she said.
"If I could do it over again as chairman, I would try to avoid a shutdown." It is difficult to win back subscribers and it is a terrible financial burden on musicians, she said.
The public sessions are meant "to inform the community about the resources necessary to support a professional symphony orchestra; to educate participants on how other comparably sized communities successfully support such orchestras; and to gauge the public's desire for a symphony orchestra in the city and how willing the public is to provide support," according to a statement from the college.
The sessions will be held in locations around Charleston in June. The first is scheduled for 9 a.m. on June 16, at the College of Charleston's Stern Student Center. Additional sessions will take place in the Kiawah Island/Seabrook and East Cooper areas.
"Great symphonies thrive on great community involvement," Chardon said in a statement. "We need to build a dialog and hear the community's voice, so we welcome attendance at these sessions by all who value live symphonic music."