Time to Pay the Piper

There were more than a few sour notes at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s annual meeting last week in bunkerlike Buntrock Hall. President Henry Fogel summarized the fallout from a $1.3 million operating deficit in fiscal 2001 (which ended June 30) for an audience of supporters too polite to react. “Reductions will be coming from all departments,” Fogel said. “Difficult decisions will have to be made.”

The casualties so far include Echo, the CSO’s three-year-old, $3.7 million learning center, which shut down for the summer and will not reopen. (A “noble effort,” but not cost-efficient, said Fogel of the Edwin Schlossberg-designed, bell-and-whistle-heavy project.) CSO ensemble visits to high schools have been cut from 186 to 100, and there will be one high school concert at Orchestra Hall, not two. A dozen staff jobs have been eliminated, with more cuts to come. Even the staging and lighting costs for an upcoming performance of Tristan and Isolde have been shaved. Most startling, the orchestra’s weekly national radio broadcasts–a 25-year tradition–will end this fall: no sponsor has been willing to come up with a paltry million dollars a year. To add insult to injury, for the first time anyone can remember, the orchestra will soon be without a recording contract. As for fiscal 2002, the $2 million deficit projected before September 11 now looks too rosy. The CSO is far from broke: it has net assets of $262 million. But “we’re doing a financial analysis of the entire organization,” Fogel said. Decisions on further cuts will come next month.

The contrast with last year–when Fogel was applauding his board for its willingness to take risks, and a 46 percent rise in operating costs over five years was noted without blinking–was marked. But the broadcasting and recording crises were already in the works. Amoco, longtime sponsor of the WFMT broadcasts, notified the orchestra two years ago that it would be bowing out. “I think when Amoco was locally owned they did this partly out of a belief in it and partly to support a local organization,” said Fogel after the meeting. “When it got taken over by BP, they didn’t have that tie.” The Elizabeth Morse Charitable Trust offered a three-year, $1.2 million challenge grant to keep the broadcasts going, but the orchestra still couldn’t come up with the additional funding. After spending $120 million to expand its facility four years ago, it’s too cash-strapped to keep itself on the air. As a temporary solution, Fogel is planning to ask the musicians to accept less money for broadcasts that would be heard only locally. He says $850,000 of the $1.1 million annual broadcasting cost goes to union-stipulated musicians’ fees.

According to Fogel, union rates are a major reason neither the CSO nor any other American orchestra will be making commercial recordings. “American rates are much higher than European rates and they’re also inflexible.” For example, he says, a good (not great) CD can be made with an eastern European orchestra at a cost of $5,000, “whereas it would take $125,000 to compensate an American orchestra.” With classical CD sales diminishing–in part because CDs don’t wear out like LPs–and with the large backlog of existing recordings, fewer new records are being made anyway.

Fogel says weaker than expected ticket revenues and contributions caused the deficit. Ticket sales were down 1 percent from the previous year and ticket revenues were down more–1.5 percent–perhaps impacted by new, airline-style “dynamic pricing” that makes filling seats the top priority. (If advance sales for a concert aren’t going well, prices are cut.) The CSO ran into price resistance on tickets a couple of years ago, he says, after raising prices “6 to 8 percent a year for seven or eight years.” But, he adds, “The fact is, we still sell more than 85 percent of the seats of a 112-concert season in a 2,500-seat concert hall, so it’s not like nobody’s coming.” He blames the changed economic climate for the disappointing sales and donations. “We’re not alone in this,” Fogel says. “The economy has hurt a lot of nonprofit organizations.” As for the transformation of Orchestra Hall into Symphony Center, it “probably did lead our costs to go up at a higher rate than maybe in hindsight was wise.”

He Probably Would Have Bombed Anyway

Ayers and Dohrn Withdraw as Humanities Festival Speakers,” said the notice from the Chicago Humanities Festival in bold type, then: “Discussion of Memoirs Would Bring Up New, Sensitive Issues Of Political Violence and Flight From the Law.” Huh? Had former Weathermen Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn gone back into hiding? Or was the Humanities Festival, with its mission “to awaken intellectual curiosity and nurture critical thought,” ducking a discussion that might venture into “sensitive” territory? Word was that Ayers had been forced out. We dialed him up to ask. “No comment,” he said. “Why don’t you ask them?”

Festival president Eileen Mackevich says that after September 11, and after reading articles about Ayers in the Tribune and New York Times, she called him to ask what he thought. “He wrote the book [Fugitive Days] to promote discussion,” she says. “He was the first person to say to me over the telephone, ‘That may not be possible now.’ He was referring to the fact that people have closed themselves off. He said, ‘Eileen, I can understand the difficulty. I will offer to withdraw if you wish.’ I said I want to think about it for 24 hours. I tried to reach him the next day. I decided it was appropriate that we do it at another time. I couldn’t reach him because he was out of town. So I took him at his word, which was, he offered to withdraw.” Ayers and Dohrn participated in a previous festival, Mackevich says. But now, “It’s as if 30 years of political history have been forgotten. I felt this was not a moment to try to recapture discussion. And so I agreed with him. It’s a hard time to be talking about these things.”

It Takes a Thief

Indiana artist Beth Parin’s photograph The Game was on display in a temporary street-level gallery at Paulina and North for the “Curator’s Choice” exhibit of the Around the Coyote fall arts festival. At ten o’clock on the morning of September 11, while the whole world was distracted, a man walked in, calmly plucked the two-and-a-half-by-five-foot framed photo from the wall, and walked out with it. The picture had been sold for $1,800 in the festival’s silent auction, but he wasn’t the buyer. Neither he nor The Game has been seen since.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.