ESO seeks to balance budget, increase donations

  • Jerry B. Cain

    Jerry B. Cain

Updated 3/3/2011 5:32 PM

Like all performing arts organizations, the Elgin Symphony Orchestra has been affected by the economic downturn of the past three years. Still, recently elected board president Jerry B. Cain is confident the ESO has the means to remain one of the most admired regional orchestras in the country.

Cain, who succeeded Tom Roeser in July, has an ideal vantage point, having joined Elgin's Judson University as its president in 1998. There are parallels between an educational institution and performing arts organization in that both meet their operating budget through a combination of earned income (tuition or ticket sales) and fundraising activities such as donations, gifts and grants. Judson University, like the ESO, remains a growing institution.


"We changed from a college to a university in 2007, in that we had four graduate programs and over 10 percent of our student body was in graduate study by then, and the number keeps growing," Cain said.

Although the Elgin Symphony posted a $160,000 deficit in its most recent fiscal year, the trend is positive. Just three years ago, the deficit was $360,000, and Dale J. Lonis, the orchestra's chief executive officer, has joined with Cain and the board in aiming for a goal they believe can reach.

"We're looking to balance our budget, or come close, this coming year," Lonis said. "It will be tough, because all arts organizations are feeling the same economic pressures. If you think about your retirement portfolio, most people I'm talking to are seeing anywhere from a 28 percent to 41 percent loss. When we look at our budget over the last three (fiscal) years, we're pretty pleased to say that we're only about 10 percent short, and that this year, we're just 6 percent short. We're projecting that by the end of the 2011-12 season, we'll be back on a solid foundation."

Lonis and the board have worked hard to balance the ESO's budget, including a reduction in administrative staff and other cutbacks. But one thing, both Cain and Lonis assert, will not be compromised: the high artistic standard the orchestra has reached under music director Robert Hanson (who also received a new contract this summer).

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"The thing we will protect to the very end is our musicians and the quality of the music," Cain said.

But, as Lonis emphasizes, "no orchestra is going to sell its way out of its problems."

In other words, maximizing ticket sales will cover only about 45 percent of the budget, the traditional ratio among American orchestras.

"The other 55 percent comes from individual donors, corporate donors, grants and so forth," Lonis said. "So we're putting a lot of long-term effort into our donation side. And where we really have to focus is our corporate partners. What we're doing is giving them more value so they can use their sponsorship to their own benefit. Sports teams use their luxury boxes to entertain clients. Symphonies have not really done that. They've kind of gone to their corporate partners and said 'Of course, you're going to sponsor us; it's good for this community.'

"Well, that approach is getting really harder to sell. So, we hosted our first Business After Hours event last year, where we had about 250 business owners and community members all in one place at a rehearsal. We had some community performing groups come in and sing, showing how our Developing Community Through the Arts program is working. And these business owners got to realize 'I can bring clients to the symphony.'

"Also importantly, we've made a concerted effort to make relationships with foundations, because we want to double our grant writing, and our grants' capacity over the next three years," Lonis said.


There's good news on the individual-donor front as well.

"We just set a record last season for the ESO when just a bit under 50 percent of all of our subscribers also became donors," Lonis said. "The industry standard is 34 or 35 percent. We see that as a good sign."

Because Cain and Lonis are both educators by profession, future generations of musicians and music-lovers are uppermost in their minds.

"I really want to commend the ESO for finding some potential young musicians with talent who probably can't afford lessons, and the Elgin Symphony works with the universities around here to provide the instrument, and the universities provide the lesson," Cain said. "Judson and Elgin Community College each pay a professor to teach this kid lessons; the ESO provides the horn or other instrument, and after two years, the kid gets to keep that instrument forever. Part of our educational initiative is to teach at least four young musicians a year, two at Judson and two at ECC, and hone their skills and take them as far as they want to go."

And, as Lonis knows all too well, cutbacks in public-school music programs has been felt throughout the classical music business.

"We have two generations of lost musical training in many of our public school systems," he said. "As a music educator myself for over 25 years, it was very clear to see that our culture was no longer involved in classical music training. That's why our new family concert series is going to be so helpful to the future of our orchestra. People say it's hard to justify paying for kids' concerts when you're trying to make a budget, because you're not making a lot of money on those educational programs.

"But what they don't realize is that every time that child goes home and says he heard the Elgin Symphony, or that 20- or 30-something parent brings that child to the Elgin Symphony for the family fun series, those parents realize 'I like classical music; I just didn't know I liked classical music.' So we're seeing a lot of crossover, with many of those parents and their kids becoming potential new generations of subscribers."


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