DOWNTOWN — For the fist time in nearly 70 years, the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra will not provide locals with free concerts.
The Santa Monica Symphony Association announced Monday that it was suspending next year’s concert season to give the organization time to restructure and raise money after several years of operating in the red.
The plan is to return for the 2013-14 concert season, at which time the orchestra will move from its home at the Civic Auditorium to Barnum Hall on the Santa Monica High School campus.
The Civic will be closed as of June 2013 for basic maintenance and may remain shuttered longer as the City Council grapples with the loss of redevelopment agency funds that would have been used for significant upgrades to the aging venue.
“What we wanted to do was have a sustainable financial model,” said Ron Davis, a member of the symphony’s board. “We could not continue the way we were [spending reserves]. You’re dead if you do that.”
The symphony receives donations as well as corporate sponsorships and funding from City Hall to pay its conductor and musicians. City Hall was in the process of negotiating with the symphony to provide five free concerts in exchange for $26,500 when the decision was made to shut it down for a year.
“I think they are going through a transition from a volunteer organization to a more professional one and we hope to work with them to make sure that the transition is a good one and they return to pleasing audiences in Santa Monica,” said Jessica Cusick, cultural affairs director for City Hall.
In addition to canceling the season, the association had to part ways with long-time conductor and music director Allen Robert Gross. Davis said it made no sense to continue paying for a conductor if the association could not afford to put on concerts.
“He will be missed and the association greatly appreciates his tenure and his contributions to the growth and achievements of the orchestra and to the Westside community,” wrote David Bendett, chairman of the board, in a press release.
The Santa Monica Symphony isn’t the only one facing tough times. The Philadelphia and Syracuse orchestras and the Louisville Symphony have recently filed for bankruptcy.
Those in the field say a combination of the recession and an aging donor base contributed to the downfall of those musical institutions.
While donations seems to be on the upswing this year, Cusick said, the challenge will be to continue attracting younger audiences and build a loyal fan base that appreciates, and ultimately gives money to, community-based orchestras and symphonies.
Some suggestions that have been made to help these organizations survive include having fewer concerts, changing how musicians are paid to a per-concert model, creating more cutting edge programming to attract a wider audience and appoint professionals in the field to the boards of directors.
If there is any community that can support an orchestra or symphony, it is Santa Monica.
According to a survey conducted by the Cultural Affairs Division at City Hall, 50 to 80 percent of households in the city by the sea are regular cultural consumers, depending on which zip code they are located in.
“It’s a pretty large crowd to draw from,” Cusick said. “And the symphony was drawing a good audience. They had, on average, around 2,000 people per performance.”
Davis is confident that the symphony will return stronger and more able to weather financial storms.
“It is a very important part of the community,” Davis said.
The Santa Monica Symphony made its debut in 1945. To learn more about the symphony or to donate, visit www.smsymphony.org.