The 46-member CSO, led by David Stahl, is the largest professional performing arts organization in South Carolina. Yet its eight-person staff, The Post and Courier points out, has only sporadically included a full-time fundraiser and has largely neglected to solicit donations from local corporations.
Five years ago, the CSO posted a $304,353 profit, but its financial situation worsened, despite relatively strong tickets sales and individual contributions. The CSO finished the latest fiscal year $179,000 in the red; its cash reserves have also plunged 85%, from $606,223 to $93,010, according to the Post and Courier.
In response to the orchestra's money troubles, the CSO's musicians agreed to an 18% pay cut in August 2003; their salaries were restored earlier this year to their previous levels, which average $21,000.
Charleston Symphony interim executive director Laura Deaton — filling in for Sandy Ferencz, who abruptly stepped down in August after three years in the job — told the paper that the orchestra starts each year about $300,000 in the red.
A major fundraising drive by the CSO's board and Mayor Joe Riley has been launched, with a goal of raising $500,000 annually for the next five years. According to The Post and Courier, the city of Charleston has increased its funding commitment to $130,000 from $80,000 this year and will pay the CSO another $110,000 for its performances at Piccolo Spoleto, the municipally-financed fringe program of Spoleto Festival USA. The local governments of North Charleston and suburban Mount Pleasant have also been asked to help fund the orchestra.
Ted Legasey, the orchestra board's vice president of finance, told the paper that the CSO should have solicited the numerous regional real estate companies and law firms that dot the South Carolina Lowcountry. "It shouldn't be big money to anybody if we get enough people interested," he told the newspaper. "We'd love to have $400,000 and $500,000 sponsors, but we're not going to get those, and that's not the answer to this problem."
The Charleston Symphony is not the only orchestra in the region to hit hard times. In 2003, the Savannah Symphony — whose hometown, about 100 miles down the coast from Charleston, is similar in size, history and tourist allure — went bankrupt and dissolved. (Later that year, CSO officials made overtures to Savannah about offering a season there and becoming a regional orchestra serving both cities; the proposal was dismissed by Savannahians as opportunistic.) The South Carolina Philharmonic in Columbia (the state capital, 110 miles from Charleston) gives no indication of financial distress, but the Charlotte (North Carolina) Symphony, based in the second-largest banking center in the United States, has just completed its second consecutive season with a mid-six-figure deficit; that orchestra's music director, complaining about a lack of support from such a prosperous community, has just decided not to renew his contract.
If sufficient funds aren't raised to keep the organization going, the Charleston Symphony will begin to cut performances and performers in early 2007, hoping to pay its final bills and fulfill its contract with the musicians' union.