Tough decisions pay off for ISO

December 12, 2015

For years, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s off-stage dramas were nearly as transfixing as its musicians’ performances.

The organization spent five years awash in red ink, fueling tensions that led to the sudden departures of key personnel and ultimately triggered a month-long lockout during which ISO management sought to renegotiate musicians’ contracts, a move that canceled the first several shows of the 2012-2013 season.

All parties involved—from the ISO’s new management team to the musicians, who took steep pay cuts in the interest of securing the organization’s long-term future—deserve kudos for how far they’ve taken the symphony since those dark days.

On Dec. 7, the ISO reported its third straight budget surplus, thanks to a rise in ticket sales and steady fundraising. It took in $23.8 million in the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, while racking up expenses of $22.9 million.

Even more important, the ISO board remained disciplined about drawing from its endowment, which closed the year at $91.2 million. The draw rate was 6.2 percent, a far cry from the double-digit-percentage draws it sometimes took after the financial crisis hit in 2007.

The collapse of the stock market combined with the heavy draws decimated the endowment, which topped $127 million in August 2007.

Running a world-class symphony is a tough business. If you doubt it, Google “symphony” and “financial crisis” and you’ll find examples of carnage in cities large and small, from Memphis and Milwaukee to Philadelphia and Detroit.

We’re thankful the ISO did not achieve its newfound stability by slashing its artistic ambitions. Under Music Director Krzysztof Urbanski, who also performs with other orchestras across the globe, its reputation is as strong or stronger than ever.

But managing a successful orchestra in the 21st century also means recognizing that the traditional pool of devoted classical music fans is not large enough by itself to carry the financial load.

So the ISO has continued to capitalize on the popularity of its pops programs, including Symphony on the Prairie. It’s also been reaching new audiences through the launch of its 317 Series, which brings concerts to communities throughout the Indianapolis area, and its Lunch Break Series, which features short-form concerts at Hilbert Circle Theatre in the summer.

The Lilly Endowment’s leaders last month demonstrated their confidence in the new course, awarding the ISO a $10 million grant, among the biggest gifts in its 85-year history.

The money will fund investments in technology that will enable audio and video streaming of ISO performances, as well as help fund the organization’s pension plan and support the endowment.

ISO CEO Gary Ginstling expressed gratitude last month, saying that “throughout the years, the endowment has supported the ISO at crucial moments in our history.”

True enough, but the latest support would not have been forthcoming had the ISO not demonstrated in resounding fashion that it could get its own financial house in order.•


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