Walla Walla Symphony faces declines in funding, attendance

Liz Sieng

Photo Credit : Bowman

During our nation’s current period of economic decline, Walla Walla’s town orchestra, the Walla Walla Symphony, faces the continuing challenge of maintaining both donor funding and audience attendance.

According to the Walla Walla Symphony’s CEO Mike Wenberg, the symphony’s position is not unique; they are only one of many orchestras in the United States affected by a shrinking audience pool and cutbacks in funding.

“We’ve stayed about static since last year,” said Wenberg, summarizing the symphony’s current financial status since the economic downturn.

Running in its 103rd  year, the symphony is the main provider of live classical music entertainment for the city’s residents and tourists. In addition to their classical music concerts and performances at city-wide festivals and events, the symphony promotes education through several music programs, including a youth orchestra, an instrument lending service and music scholarships.

Wenberg explained that few people listen to classical music and concert attendance nationwide is gradually decreasing.

“There is a perception in this country that classical music is for old people,” said Wenberg, discussing how the majority of classical music audience members are women in their mid-40s to 50s, an aging group in the United States.

According to a 2009 Audience Demographic Research Review by the League of American Orchestras, the live classical music audience has declined by 13 percent, or by 3.3 million, people from 2002 to 2008.

Dick Simon, chief governing officer of the Walla Walla Symphony Board of Directors, stressed that although people generally do not attend classical music concerts, they do listen to recorded music.

“People listen to music more than they ever have. But they don’t have to go to concerts,” said Simon,as he discussed how electronic devices like the iPod provide a more convenient way of listening to music.

The League of American Orchestras reports that media consumption has shifted from live shows to digital media since the mid-1990s. The study also reports that classical music audiences are adopting digital media more than the overall U.S. population.

Wenberg said that while the classical music audience is decreasing, national ticket sales in 2009 were actually above average.  However,  aid from individual and corporate sponsors significantly declined.

J.D. Smith, the Walla Walla Symphony grant writer, said the symphony now receives significantly less in community aid as a result of tightened finances.

“It’s true for the arts in general,” said Smith, who also works as a financial director at the Pendleton Center for the Arts. “People give what they can, and that’s basically 30 percent down from before.”

In addition to ticket sales and aid from private donors, funding also derives from community grants and foundations. Wenberg explained that in relation to money from ticket sales, individual and corporate donations and occasional state and federal allocations, money from foundations will be the most difficult to attain.

“The short term plan is to survive. It’s kind of a delayed tsunami,” said Wenberg. The next two to three years should be the most difficult for foundations.

The symphony receives a yearly endowment from the Walla Walla Symphony Trust, a community fund set up in the 1970s. In addition,  the symphony applies for grants from organizations like the Kinsman Foundation, a grant-based non-profit group, and the Donald and Virginia Sherwood Trust, a local community trust in Walla Walla.

Wenberg said that foundations were affected by the stock market crash and thus are scaling back on donations and even cutting aid completely. In addition, foundations are less likely to accept grants from newly-applying orchestras.

Wenberg also discussed difficulty of being a small town organization competing for funds with surrounding city organizations.

“There is definitely a biased side [in funding] that gives to the West over the East. And it doesn’t match the population percentage or anything,” said Wenberg, explaining how orchestras in Western Washington attract the majority of funding. Wenberg gave the example of two years ago, when the National Endowment for Arts distributed 20 grants to arts organizations in the state of Washington, 14 of which went to Seattle and six to other organizations in the Puget Sound area.

“We put together our pitch, but we didn’t get it. And it was not just us, but arts organizations in the Tri-Cities, Spokane, Yakima . . .” said Wenberg.

With major decreases in funding on the horizon, the symphony has continued business while making several changes in programming. It typically holds six classical concerts and six performances at local events. In recent years, the symphony scaled back to five yearly classical concerts and cut performances from programs such as the Discovery Series.

The Discovery Series, which features traditional music from international countries, will hold one performance in 2010, two less than in the previous year.

Smith and Wenberg both agreed that programming is the most important factor in maintaining funding.

“Find something that’s worth doing. And if it’s worth doing, the money follows that,” said Smith, describing the cycle in which good programming attracts crowds and funding.

“Keep it local. You have to find programs that the foundation is interested in [too]. Hopefully that brings good community and money. Hopefully it brings volunteers, ticket buyers, musicians,” said Smith.

According to Wenberg, in one previous year, community members staged a fundraising campaign and raised $300,000, an amount which the Sherwood Trust agreed to match.

“If someone came to us with a great idea, we’d certainly be interested in it,” said Wenberg, mentioning the example of a music teacher who applied to the Walla Walla Symphony Instrument Lending Library service and received violins for every fourth grader in Waitsburg, Wash.

“We’ve survived many years when other places are going under. Other orchestras are in big trouble, suspending and laying off musicians from the rest of the season,” said Smith.

The symphony maintains a history as a valued and well-supported arts organization in the Walla Walla Valley, Smith said.

“I’m not saying we’re set for life, we’ve done fine,” said Smith. “We’re not in any danger immediately, but who knows . . . if it gets worse.”

The Walla Walla Symphony’s next performance is Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty,” on Saturday, March 27, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 28, at 3 p.m. in Cordiner Hall at Whitman College.