The Challenges of the Napa Valley Symphony

Yet another American symphony orchestra has suspended operations. The Napa Valley Symphony recently announced that it was laying off its entire staff and ceasing performances for the foreseeable future. In a statement to the local newspaper, the Symphony's chairman stated, "The board of the Napa Valley Symphony Association voted to suspend all operations and to explore the wisdom of dissolving. I expect a decision within the month -- there's too much that's unknown. We don't have all the answers. I'm not sure we even have all the questions."

This was an honest assessment of the situation facing the Napa Valley Symphony and so many other institutions. It was not unusual in today's difficult climate for all arts organizations, especially symphony orchestras which face high fixed costs and a difficulty attracting audiences.

What was remarkable to me was the next statement by the Chairman.

"We were dealing with the unforeseeable and the unforeseen."

Why was this innocuous statement so telling? Because from all accounts, the Napa Valley Symphony was funded, to a remarkable extent, by one individual. When this generous philanthropist was killed in a car crash last year and his estate was tied up in probate, the major source of funds for the symphony was cut off. (The same donor was the central funder to the theater where the symphony played; the theater has already closed its doors for the same reason.)

No arts organization can rely on simply one donor, no matter how generous. Donors die, lose their resources, lose interest, move away. When an arts organization can count only one or two or even a handful of major donors, it is always at risk.

It is seductive to have angels, people who are so engaged by the work of the organization that they are willing to give much or all of what is needed to support its mission. But this generosity can be a double-edged sword. It can reduce pressure on the organization to find a larger family of donors and can give the angel far too much power.

This is not dissimilar to what is happening now in Europe as central governments in England, France, Italy and Germany, not to mention Spain, Portugal and Greece, are not able to maintain the level of arts funding they have granted in decades past. As a result, the arts organizations in those countries, which were used to receiving up to 70 percent of their budgets from one government grant, are struggling. They did not create large, supportive families because they did not have to.

And now, like the Napa Valley Symphony, they are suffering. The Napa Valley Symphony was not dealing with the unforeseeable and the unforeseen; its demise was all too predictable.

And, unfortunately, there is no easy fix. One doesn't build a family quickly. It takes time to build relationships and it requires consistent artistic success, strong marketing and a helpful board.

Arts organizations with a handful of major donors take heed: use this largesse to spur new gifts; be grateful for the major donors, and be inspired to find new ones while you have the chance.