Nashville Symphony's Near-Foreclosure is a Warning to Orchestras

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A symphony orchestra gets a gleaming new concert hall. It’s a symbol of cultural ambition, civic pride and even a centerpiece of urban renewal. Or, is it an albatross and a money pit whose costs ultimately come back to bite the organization?

As we hear in this edition of Conducting Business, the recent history of orchestras in Philadelphia, Detroit and now, Nashville, has led to questions about the "build it and they will come" philosophy. Some argue that, in the push to build or renovate halls, orchestra administrators and their patrons succumbed to an irrational exuberance that proved particularly disastrous when combined with the 2008 financial crisis.

This week, the Nashville Symphony narrowly averted a foreclosure on its concert hall, the $123.5 million Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Only with the help of a major donor was it able to reach a last-minute deal to pay off its lenders and keep the hall out of the banks' hands.

Nashville's situation is particularly unique in that it experienced a natural disaster on top of man-made ones: in 2010, a severe flood caused some $40 million in damages.

But at times, orchestras sometimes build or significantly renovate halls when they aren't sure what else to do, said Adrian Ellis, principal of the firm AEA Consulting. "You often find museum extensions and new facilities are not so much the result of deep imagination but the result of actually thinking 'well, here's something we can all get around.'"

Arts organizations can also suffer from delusions of grandeur. Some orchestras have looked to the example of Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles, which used award-winning architecture (by Frank Gehry) as a way to lure tourists and economic development while generating excitement around the orchestra. "But what you can do in an L.A. or a New York or a global city you can't necessarily do in a Nashville or a Minneapolis," said Ellis.

The Minnesota Orchestra is currently undertaking a $50 million renovation of Orchestra Hall, the ensemble's home in Minneapolis, in an effort to improve onstage acoustics as well as public amenities like an expanded lobby. But the orchestra just lost an entire season to a lockout of the musicians, who are balking at steep pay cuts demanded by management.

Photo: Design for the renovated Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis (KPMB Architects)

"[Management's] argument is this is important to their strategic plan because they need a better facility to generate more money, to monetize more off-nights, to bring in more community events and concerts from outside," said Graydon Royce, the classical music critic of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "The hall is supposed to open in August. But what are they going to open with?"

The orchestra also runs a real risk "of completely alienating their audience and you're going to have this new hall and I'm not sure what the value of that will be," added Royce.

Ellis sees a pattern in the U.S., "around a lot of civic ambition and very expensive concert halls combined with either static or declining audiences, and critically, patterns in philanthropy."

In Nashville, the immediate crisis is past but the orchestra has told subscribers that it needs to take aggressive actions to improve its finances. "What we have seen in the last few days is a reprieve, not a solution," said Nina Cardona, a host and reporter at Nashville Public Radio, who covers arts and culture.

"Yes, they keep their hall now and that is great for them. But they've still got to operate the hall. They've still got to pay for the staff that it takes to keep a place of your own running. That's the real expense. The debt payments are not what have driven them into the ground. It's operating the building."

Weigh in: have orchestras over-invested in concert halls? Or do halls bring in audiences who might not otherwise attend a concert? Share your thoughts below.