EDITORIAL: ISO gets lift, needs leader

February 9, 2013

Thanks to the generosity of donors, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has cleared one major hurdle on its path to financial stability. But the biggest challenges lie ahead.

The most immediate threat to the ISO’s future was put to rest when the orchestra announced it had exceeded its goal, set last fall, of raising $5 million by Feb. 3. Reaching that fundraising milestone, which required it to raise almost as much in three months as it typically raises in a year, locked in a long-term employment contract for musicians that was cobbled together after a contentious labor dispute delayed the start of the ISO’s season.

Failure to hit the fundraising mark would surely have sent management and musicians back to square one on contract negotiations, a scenario that could have caused irreparable damage to the 83-year-old orchestra.

That was avoided, but of course the orchestra didn’t emerge unscathed. Uncertainty about its future must be the reason the ISO has been without a chief executive for an entire year now. It was last February that longtime CEO Simon Crookall parted ways with his employer after a mostly calm seven years that turned stormy after the recession put the orchestra in a financial bind.

It’s hard to hire a skipper for a ship that appears to be sinking. Now that the musicians’ contract is in place, the ISO board should move swiftly to introduce a chief executive capable of leading the orchestra on the new course that’s been set.

The new strategy revolves around raising enough earned and donated income to lessen the ISO’s reliance on its endowment. It drew 44 percent of its 2011-2012 operating budget from the endowment, an unsustainable level in the long run.

Reducing the endowment draw isn’t likely without restoring the public’s confidence in the orchestra as an organization and finding new audiences for its music.

The contract dispute and down-to-the-wire fundraising campaign made it apparent the ISO is on shaky ground, but there’s a positive story to tell about exceeding the goal. The money was raised, after all, without a chief executive and with scant vocal support from city leaders. That should send a positive signal about the ISO’s resilience and its standing in the community.

The bigger challenge is tweaking the product. The public’s appetite for classical music is still there, but it’s spread among fewer people. The pops concerts the ISO offers have an audience, but it’s not substantial enough to fill the seats.

Perhaps the answer lies in an experiment launched Feb. 1. That was the ISO’s first performance of music from New Amsterdam Records, a Brooklyn-based label that prides itself on pulling together music that can’t be pigeonholed by genre. As IBJ’s Dan Human reports on page 6, New Amsterdam is the ISO’s partner in trying to redefine the orchestra’s role in contemporary society.

It’s a riddle consuming orchestras around the country. We’re just glad the ISO is still in a position to help solve it. •


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