Why the Elgin Symphony Orchestra is atypical in the suburbs
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The Elgin Symphony Orchestra is unusual among its suburban counterparts because it received direct funding from the city of Elgin — an average of $125,000 yearly from the city's share of Grand Victoria Casino revenues — until recently.
A sample of other suburban orchestras shows they received, at most, $35,000 from local municipalities, if any funding at all, and even then only through a competitive grant process.
But those numbers should be put into context, says Alan Dennis, board president for the Illinois Council of Orchestras.
The question of how or whether Elgin should resume its funding of the symphony has been an issue before the city council in recent months. Last month, the council voted to move forward with a plan requiring the ESO to apply for grant funding through the city's cultural arts commission — which currently provides up to $8,500 per organization — rather than resume the practice of direct funding that ended in 2011.
The 68-member ESO, which has a current annual budget is $2.3 million, is the largest professional orchestra in the suburbs and the second-largest in Illinois after the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Dennis said.
The Lyric Opera of Chicago's orchestra has a larger budget than ESO, but it's in a different category, Dennis explained.
"You could easily say without question that, excluding the CSO, they are one of the largest orchestras in the whole Midwest," Dennis said.
Very few orchestras in Illinois get direct funding from a municipality as ESO did for so many years, he added.
"It's because the ESO has had such a close relationship with its community. I think of that as a positive," Dennis said.
ESO also has a unique relationship with Elgin because it is the most frequent tenant of the city-owned Hemmens Cultural Center, which seats 1,200, ESO Interim CEO David Bearden pointed out. ESO has paid, on average, a bit less than $85,000 in yearly rent since 1995, according to data provided by the city.
The symphony stopped receiving direct funding from Elgin in 2011 after the city determined riverboat money would instead go to human services nonprofits through a grant process. The orchestra, in turn, decided to stop paying rent for the Hemmens.
ESO now owes Elgin at least $304,000, city officials say, and the parties have been working on debt resolution.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, whose operating expenses last fiscal year were $73 million, received $4,000 from the city of Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, said Celeste J. Wroblewski, vice president of public relations for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association.
This year, CSO will get no money from Chicago, because only organizations with budgets of less than $5 million are eligible for cultural grants. The CSO performs at Symphony Center in Chicago, which is owned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, Wroblewski said.
The Chicago Sinfonietta is almost the same size as ESO, with 63 members on its roster and a budget of about $2.2 million, said Executive Director Jim Hirsch.
Last year, the Sinfonietta received less than $5,000 from Chicago's department of cultural affairs and special events, plus $15,000 from the city of Naperville's special events and cultural amenities (SECA) fund, he said. This year, Naperville's contribution increased to more than $23,000.
Sinfonietta Director of Development Courtney Perkins said this year's budget estimates just less than $14,000 for each performance at Symphony Center, and just more than $3,000 for each performance at Wentz Concert Hall at North Central College in Naperville. According to the Sinfonietta's website, five concerts are scheduled this year in both Chicago and Naperville.
Kate Houlihan, communications specialist for the city of Naperville, said organizations based outside the city can be awarded SECA funds if their programs are deemed a benefit to the community.
The trend over the last few years has been for municipalities to stop direct funding and instead require orchestras apply for grants, DuPage Symphony Orchestra Executive Director Jennifer Fair Margraf said.
"It's becoming very typical, at least through the Midwest, that cities are not supporting (orchestras) through direct funding," she said.
This year, the 85-member DSO received three grants totaling $34,500 from the city of Naperville's SECA fund.
That's about 20 percent of the yearly budget for the orchestra, whose musicians are all volunteers except the music director and conductor, Fair Margraf said. The DSO pays rent to perform at Wentz Concert Hall and elsewhere in Naperville, Lombard, Wheaton and Aurora.
The 55-member Lake Forest Symphony, whose musicians are all paid professionals, receives no municipal funding, Executive Director Susan Lape said. The symphony has an annual budget of about $600,000 and pays rent to perform at The James Lumber Center for the Performing Arts on the College of Lake County campus in Grayslake, Lape said.
The Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra has a budget of about $270,000, including about $22,000 from a community grant by the city of Elmhurst, said Cynthia Krainc, the orchestra's executive director.
The orchestra, now in its 53rd season, pays rent for office space and performances at Elmhurst Christian Reformed Church. The orchestra is a hybrid of 60 percent professionals and 40 percent volunteer players, with an average of 65 players per concert in the last two years.
"I think it's very important (for municipalities) to fund orchestras. But if it's too much of a percentage of (an orchestra's) annual budget, then you're too dependent on it," Krainc said.
Showing municipal support for orchestras is also important when applying for grants from entities such as the Illinois Arts Council, Krainc pointed out.
"They look at that in their conversations, grant review process," she said. "For several years I've heard that comment from the panel."
The 65-member Fox Valley Orchestra, now entering its fourth season, has an annual budget of about $150,000, President Jonathan Hauser said. A few years ago, the Aurora-based orchestra received about $5,000 from the city of Aurora to help pay for concerts at the Paramount Theatre but nothing since, Hauser said.
The orchestra started with volunteers, but now all its musicians are professionals, Hauser said. The musicians' pay rate, however, "is not very substantial," while the Elgin Symphony members make union rates, he said.
The Kishwaukee Symphony Orchestra plays for free at Boutell Memorial Concert Hall at Northern Illinois University, said orchestra board President Ann Tucker. The orchestra's budget is about $60,000, with no funding from the city of DeKalb.
Smaller suburban orchestras include the Waukegan Symphony Orchestra, which performs four times a year with a $18,600 budget plus administrative fees and is part of the Waukegan Park District, said Claudia Freeman, superintendent of cultural arts for the park district.
The symphony gets free rehearsal and performance space from Waukegan Public School District 60, she said. Musicians are volunteers with the exception of the conductor and principal players.
If ESO's funding from the city of Elgin is limited to $8,500 from the cultural arts commission, the symphony plans to use the money for established programs like the spring children's concert, said CEO David Bearden. He notes that the ESO still gets free rent from the city for its office on DuPage Court.
"We will still have that support, which is very important to us," he said.
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