Many people think of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra as a Saturday night at the Belk Theater attended by upscale patrons in fine clothes.
I think of Max Rubio, a third-grade student at Winterfield Elementary School southeast of uptown. Max, 8, plays violin in the Winterfield Youth Orchestra, a program run with the Charlotte Symphony to allow children in a high-poverty school to experience classical music.
"What I like most of being part of orchestra is when we play concerts our parents come and they see us do something really nice," he says. "My parents take a video of the concerts and they show it to my good friend Nachito. I like playing the violin because it sounds sweet. Mr. Carlos [Tarzona, a CSO violinist] always helps me with the notes when it is hard and when I practice, the notes get better and better and I like that."
Winterfield is just one of the ways the CSO musicians give of themselves to Charlotte. CSO players challenge budding musicians at Northwest School of the Arts, interweave music and history in a Music of the Holocaust performance and introduce elementary students to symphonic music through sold-out education concerts. Altogether, the CSO reached more than 22,000 area students and teachers last year.
Whether in the Charlotte Mecklenburg schools or playing at occasions around the city, CSO musicians contribute to the cultural fabric of Charlotte in a unique way.
So imagine Charlotte without a symphony. I can't but I have friends who say if the orchestra can't make it on ticket sales alone, it shouldn't survive. No major orchestra can.
Major orchestras generate less than half of their revenue from tickets. The other half comes from a combination of private contributions, public money and endowment earnings. For the CSO, the split is roughly one-third from tickets and two-thirds from contributions.
Unfortunately, the orchestra financial model is imploding. Orchestras all over the country, even in the major markets, are suffering from severe financial strains. The venerable Philadelphia Orchestra a few years ago declared bankruptcy in order to reorganize its finances. The Minnesota Orchestra has been locked out for almost a year as management and musicians feud over demands for extensive retrenchment. There was a lockout in Atlanta. Orchestras in San Jose, Honolulu and New Mexico have gone out of business.
Public money is drying up. Private philanthropy has not been able to plug the gap. Of the 21 orchestras in Charlotte's peer group, 14 suffered operating losses in 2012. The CSO that year had a deficit of about $423,000.
Many communities, and Charlotte is no exception, are at a crossroads. Do they value a symphony orchestra as an important part of the community? If so, are they willing to pay for it? And in this case, "they" is both the private and public sectors. The public-private task force on how to fund the arts in Charlotte is an important step. But this community is below average in both the amount of private philanthropy and public money to support the arts.
In answering the question of financing our cultural future, I hope people think of Max Rubio.
Robert Stickler is president and executive director of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. Read more here.
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