A professional orchestra that's been performing for 36 years at the McAninch Arts Center at College of DuPage could play for the last time Saturday night as school officials debate whether the group still will have a home when renovations to the center are complete.
The New Philharmonic orchestra has been performing away from the Glen Ellyn campus this season while the MAC undergoes a $35 million renovation scheduled for completion in 2014.
The orchestra's two concerts, held in October and December at the Dominican University Performing Arts Center in River Forest, drew small crowds. For a program already struggling to stay afloat in a sea of red ink, it wasn't good news.
The College of DuPage already has canceled the orchestra's three remaining concerts in February and March, and sent letters to the orchestra's general manager, personnel director and librarian that their positions are being eliminated next month.
No other performances are scheduled for the 2013-14 season and, beyond that, no decision about the orchestra -- or any other current MAC programming -- has been made, said Stephen Cummins, the center's director.
"We're going to step back, reassess, and talk to our patrons and donors and decide what programming model can be supported," Cummins said. "No question the college is committed to the arts and culture -- they wouldn't be spending money (to renovate) the MAC otherwise. But at same time, we've got to do it in a way that is fiscally responsible."
Patrons will have to tell the MAC what they want to see, Cummins said, and then support it with ticket purchases and donations.
Saturday's performance of Mahler's "Symphony No. 1 in D Major" is scheduled for 8 p.m. at Wheaton College's Edman Chapel. The group's first two concerts attracted about 500 people each, when as many as 1,200 attended concerts at the MAC.
"This 18 months of construction has thrown a wrench in our usual operating model," Cummins said.
For now, the fate of the 80-member orchestra and its conductor, Kirk Muspratt, is uncertain. The orchestra members are salaried employees of the college and Muspratt has an independent contract with the school.
In October, COD fired five full-time and four part-time MAC employees who served as support staff for costumes, props and other stage activities for the New Philharmonic and Buffalo Theatre Ensemble. College officials asked both groups to rely on contract labor for those services.
COD spokesman Joe Moore said those layoffs -- and the recent firings of the three orchestra staff members -- were due to "a reduction in program schedule and an expected decrease in earned revenue while we are away from our facility" during renovations.
In the 2012 fiscal year, the MAC as a whole lost $519,000. The college's 2013 budget projects the losses in 2013 to be $699,000.
COD officials are expected to discuss the future of the orchestra and programming at the MAC at a Feb. 21 meeting of the board of trustees.
Paula Cebula, the orchestra's general manager whose last day is Feb. 8, said members are hopeful they will be able to return to the MAC once renovations are complete.
"(But) if we keep producing things that lose money, then we will be in the red and I don't think we would have an opportunity to come back," she said.
Cummins said he doesn't know if Cebula or the other two orchestra staff members could be rehired down the line.
Muspratt, the orchestra's conductor, said he's hopeful patrons are willing to support the orchestra to ensure it remains at the MAC.
"We're going to have to probably ask our patrons to be much more involved in helping us, and being a partner with the college in supporting the orchestra," Muspratt said. "The orchestra industry really needs to stop being, in some ways, a 19th-century dinosaur and become very, very much an evolved and business-conscious 21st-century being," he said.
COD Senior Vice President for Administration Tom Glaser said at a board retreat meeting last September that the MAC would be working with the college's foundation to create an arts council to generate money through fundraising, grant writing and corporate sponsorships.
Carolyn May, a flutist who has been with the orchestra since day one, said they were told the orchestra might need to raise about $100,000 in a year to balance the budget.
She said she thinks many of the orchestra's regular patrons will come back if concerts are held at the MAC again.
Some orchestra members are suggesting to the college they be able to perform at an auditorium on campus next season. That would "keep our foot in the door," May said.
"People are trying to come up with lots of different ideas that would convince the trustees and president and all the people in charge we can make this work," May said. "This doesn't have to be a big money loser."