Good News from Kansas City

It is a true pleasure to read about the health and harmony that reigns at the Kansas City Symphony. At this difficult time when so many orchestras are facing economic turmoil, the Kansas City Symphony is balancing its budget and just signed a three-year contract with its musicians. (As if this were not enough, the contract was agreed to one year early -- it begins in July, 2014!)

Having lived and worked in Kansas City, I know that the Symphony is one of the great treasures of a community that values its arts organizations highly from the world-class Nelson-Atkins Museum to my alma mater, the Kansas City Ballet.

This is one instance where having a new hall is a true asset; the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts is a beautiful, new facility but it is also an independent institution and the Kansas City Symphony does not have to divert its attention to funding or managing it.

This is a great advantage. We see in Minnesota and Nashville how an orchestra can lose focus when it begins to raise funds for a new facility. It is easy to see how musicians and the public can come to believe that the capital effort has taken priority over operating funding and the true mission of any orchestra -- making music.

However, there are other ingredients to the success of the Kansas City Symphony:

  • Strong artistic and executive leadership: Michael Stern, the Symphony's Music Director and Frank Byrne, its Executive Director make a great team who have worked hard to create strong base of support for the symphony.
  • Stable board leadership: Shirley Helzberg, who recently stepped down as chair of the board, has played an immensely important role; she has ensured the board, staff and musicians are working toward the same goals.
  • Supportive culture: Strong leadership and a clear plan have allowed every member of the organizational family to feel important and secure. In fact, the lawyer representing the musicians in the latest round of negotiations stated, "What we see in the Kansas City Symphony is a culture of mutual respect. A lot of orchestras talk about respect, but the Kansas City Symphony really practices it. I think that what perhaps makes the difference aside from mutual respect, is a sense of optimism. Things are looking brighter and brighter. That really goes a long way to helping the musicians accept less-than-ideal terms and conditions."
  • Diversified revenue streams: In addition to performing its own annual concert series, the Kansas City Symphony also is the pit orchestra for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and the Kansas City Ballet. This provides multiple strands of income to the organization.
  • Commitment to community engagement: The symphony makes 60 outreach appearances each year and is dedicated to building bridges to every part of the Kansas City community.

It cannot be easy to achieve balance in the orchestra world today. No doubt, the board, staff and musicians of the Kansas City Symphony work very hard and sacrifice to achieve artistic success and fiscal stability. But clearly, it can be done.