The Arts and the Edifice Complex

The situation facing the Nashville Symphony is sad and frustrating. Unfortunately, it is also not atypical. Symphony officials recently announced that it would default on the bonds for its performance hall--the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

It is not immediately clear what impact this will have on the organization or its musicians. Will banks step in and save the day? Will funders step in and rescue the organization? Or will cuts to the Symphony's budget have to be made to help balance the books? What is clear is that the Nashville Symphony is in for a challenging few months or years. And that is sad.

But what is frustrating is that so much debt was incurred when this hall was built. Why was a regional orchestra borrowing $100 million? This is an organization with a history of artistic accomplishment but a record of financial challenges as well. Why wasn't the project delayed until the capital campaign was in place to raise the necessary funds?

At a time when many orchestras are evaluating whether they can continue to afford the salaries of their musicians, one must acknowledge that debt incurred during the construction of a facility is not the fault of the musicians. They were not the ones to decide that a new concert hall is needed. They were not the ones to build a beautiful new hall without the funds to do so. They are not the ones charged with evaluating the costs of operating a new facility. And they were not the ones to commit to a project with a price tag that the organization was not able to pay. How many more arts institutions must face financial woes, labor unrest, reduced performing schedules and even closure because they commit to capital projects that are beyond their means?

While it is true that many arts organizations can raise more for a capital campaign than they can for an annual effort, it is equally true that organizations can get into serious difficulty when they commit to capital projects that far exceed their fundraising means. And far too many organizations place themselves in this position. And even when an organization can scrape together the money to build a new building, operating this new, (typically larger, more sophisticated) building often places great pressure on the organization's annual budget. And when the budget doesn't balance, it is all too frequently art that is sacrificed to pay for the new building.

It is imperative that arts organizations consider their missions before they decide to invest in bricks and mortar. I have yet to read a mission statement (and I read hundreds of them a year) that mentions a facility, except when a landmark building is involved.

Arts organizations' missions are about music, dance, theater, education and community engagement. But the quality and quantity of music and education programs are put at risk when debts are incurred that cannot easily be covered.

And that is a true shame.