Pay cuts, rescheduling, deficits and uncertainty.
It sounds like today’s headlines, but for the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra it’s history.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to churn and disrupt lives everywhere, the ASO is a unified, thriving organization making plans for a virtual version of one of its biggest fundraising events, the Nov. 7 Opus Ball, as well as continuing its educational programs and performances.
“We can’t do this the way we’ve initially conceived and it’s creating a lot of excitement,” says Martin Thoma, co-chair of the Opus Ball with his wife Melissa. “On the other hand we have a lot of opportunities open up to us.”
After surviving a real recession, what’s a little virtual reality?
In 2008-2009, the ASO was laid low by financial problems exacerbated by the Great Recession, just as Martin was assuming the four-year chairmanship of the symphony board.
The duo had been ASO supporters for years, individually and through their Little Rock marketing firm Thoma Thoma. The support included the 1995 ASO Guild’s Symphony Designer House, helping to sponsor the Opus Ball and pro bono work including promotional and fundraising campaign material and an award-winning campaign for the ASO’s popular “Beethoven & Blue Jeans” annual performance.
“In our view, there’s no great city without a great symphony,” Martin says.
Martin was invited to the board by chair Julie Marshall and executive director Bill Vickery in 2005, was chair-elect in 2007 and took over the post on July 1, 2009, right in the teeth of the recession.
If the economy wasn’t bad enough, the ASO was in the midst of misfortune that had seen Vickery die of a heart attack in 2006 and in 2010 would see music director David Itkin depart after 16 years. The symphony was also facing a multi-year operating deficit of $500,000 at the outset of Martin’s chairmanship.
“When I came into the chairmanship, the symphony was facing a lot of challenges,” Martin says, “not least of which was the Great Recession, which was hammering nonprofits everywhere, symphonies especially. And during that period of time numerous symphonies around the country went out of business altogether.”
Without a symphony, Martin and Melissa agree, there is no center of gravity to hold a city’s talent pool together, and a community can lose not only the cultural enrichment that comes from the performing arts, but numerous educators in the form of musicians who teach private lessons as well as in schools and universities.
A symphony is important, Melissa says, “in a community and, in our case, for a state in terms of culture building and, really, community building.”
With the economy in a free fall and people protesting in the streets for economic justice, how could the ASO avoid winking out of existence?
Skin in the Game
The ASO, whose primary venue is the Robinson Center, was incorporated in 1966 and performs more than 60 concerts a year heard by roughly 165,000 Arkansans. It employs 12 full-time musicians, more than 70 part-timers and an administrative staff of 14.
Performances include Masterworks and Pops Concerts, as well as the ASO Chamber Series, Intimate Neighborhood Concerts, statewide touring and educational performances and collaborations with Ballet Arkansas and the Arkansas Repertory Theatre.
Numerous notable guest artists have graced the stage, and the ASO also has resident string and brass quartets, the ASO Big Band, Arkansas Symphony Youth Ensembles and education programs that reach more than 40,000 children a year.
By 2008-2009, all of that was in danger. The ASO was about six months from insolvency at the beginning of Martin’s term and its debt was more than its fundraising total.
If the symphony was going to be salvaged, it would happen with a good dose of love thrown in.
Martin and Melissa have been symphonygoers for more than 30 years and their firm has been supporting the arts since 1988, with nearly $2 million in pro bono services since then.
“A community without vibrant artistic activity is most likely a desolate place to live,” Martin says. “The arts make us better as humans, as communities, as economic engines.”
The couple has supported the arts directly and through various board memberships and chairmanships including the Arkansas District Metropolitan Opera Auditions, Wildwood Park for the Arts, UA Little Rock Friends of the Arts, Mid-America Arts Alliance and has supported other nonprofits like the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.
Suffice to say, Martin and Melissa knew something about raising money.
“We know what it takes,” Martin says. “We know what it takes to win. We know what the stakes are to lose. We don’t want to lose.”
In a moment of serendipity, Martin assumed the chairmanship the same day Christina Littlejohn, who Martin had recruited, was named CEO. Littlejohn had worked with the Pensacola Symphony in Florida, the Cleveland Orchestra in Ohio and the Mobile Symphony in Alabama after starting her career as a marketing intern with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
The alliance would prove to be instrumental in growing the board, hiring staff and, most importantly, getting the financial house in order during turbulent economic times.
The ASO attacked its operating deficit with the two-headed goal of $200,000 in expense reductions and $300,000 in new revenue.
Littlejohn and the board, under Martin, cut salaries and prices and scheduled non-traditional concerts to attract a wider range of ticket buyers. Focusing on fundamentals, the ASO worked at balancing its revenues and expenses and, most importantly, engaging every stakeholder: musicians, board members, staff, donors, patrons and guilds.
“We asked our board to take a significant new role in financing the symphony,” Martin says.
Getting people to go all in, financially as well as physically and emotionally, was one of the keys to survival, Melissa says. If people feel invested and share the risk, they are going to put forth the effort.
“It really requires them to live, breathe and communicate the value that organization has to the community,” she says. “You have to get really clear. When you are accountable for the stability and the growth of an organization, then you are also accountable for really understanding what the value proposition is.”
When it came to expense reduction, the symphony performers earned Martin’s and Melissa’s undying gratitude by accepting a pay cut.
“Our musicians have a collective bargaining agreement with the symphony and they accepted a 10% pay cut and that was a real, skin-in-the-game moment for our musicians,” Martin says. “They came along with the organization to turn it around.”
While it didn’t feel immediate, the turnaround began the first year as board giving was $350,000 and 2008 ended with a small budget surplus. By the end of Fiscal Year 2019, board giving was $415,000 and the ASO had operated in the black for 11 straight years.
Today the ASO has an annual operating budget of $3.5 million and an endowment of $7 million.
“Putting that all together, not only did they make it through that tough time, but the symphony laid a foundation for this vibrant future,” Melissa says, “and has been operating in the black and building its programming to be able to maintain everything. And that certainly has set it up to be able to weather storms, and right now we’re in a storm.”
On With the Show
If the ASO gained anything from the Great Recession, it was resiliency, Melissa says, which is why she was able to accept radical changes to her plans for the Opus Ball during the great pandemic of 2020.
“We’ve got a culture of resilience to adversity, and that is absolutely being activated this year,” she says.
In its 36th year, the Opus Ball nets close to $250,000 annually, around 10% of the ASO’s entire budget, all of it earmarked for youth music education efforts that include the youth orchestras conducted by interim music director Geoff Robson.
This year’s dreams of a live, black-tie gala quickly evolved into a reality that includes an unprecedented, virtual format, the Opus 36 Musical Spectacular.
“This isn’t the Opus we expected to do,” Melissa says. “I thought I was planning one heck of a party to take place at the Capital Hotel with all of my 450 best friends. We didn’t get that, but what we got was a pretty heartwarming experience of how people can come together and be creative in a challenging time and secure the future of the educational programs for the symphony.”
The “Rhapsody in Blue”-themed event, a nod to Ira Gershwin with a 1920s-1930s vibe, has become a 90 to 120-minute spectacular with entertainment ranging from the ASO and its youth musicians to American Idol alum and Arkansas native Kris Allen, New York City musical theater actress Traci Bair and the America’s Sweethearts retro girl group.
Depending on their level of tickets, attendees will receive a gift basket with hand-curated wines, gourmet food items, specialty cocktail mixings and more in time for the event, which will include private chat rooms to recreate the concept of table group seating.
“We’ve been able to lean on a tremendous staff that’s there day in, day out, keeping the wheels on,” Martin says. “We’ve been able to reach out and ask for help from other board members who have relationships or influence. We’ve been able to pull on threads from our own relationships that all together have really shaped up to be a wonderful event with tremendous community support.”
The support includes help from other arts entities like The Rep and Wildwood Park for the Arts.
The virtual format also comes with a hidden advantage: unlimited seating. Melissa notes that “attendees” who were already laid low by poor health pre-pandemic don’t have to travel, and the event is drawing ticket buyers from New York City, Oklahoma and Texas.
“It is unlimited geography,” Melissa says. “I have several family members and friends who will be attending the Opus Ball for the first time from their homes.”
Through Zoom, people will be able to enjoy the performances, learn about the ASO and its mission, take in a mixology demonstration featuring the Opus 36 — a gin-based cocktail that stays with the original, 1920s-1930s vibe — and close out the night with a virtual jazz party.
The virtual event is an extension of the ASO’s overall adaptation to pandemic life. Littlejohn says the symphony is delaying its search for a music director as well as its Pops series while working up virtual programming to engage the community and children.
“We have moved from selling concerts to thinking about how we can truly serve the most people possible,” Littlejohn said in a statement. “We have introduced Bedtime with Bach, weekly behind-the-scenes rehearsals and weekly virtual concerts by our string quartets. Our first thought now is how can we serve the most people possible during this pandemic? How can we bring peace, joy, harmony to others?”
A good party can help. If the Opus Ball is shaping up to be a smashing, albeit remote, success, it is rooted in 2008, when all hands came on deck to make sure the show goes on.
“That culture of investment among the board, the musicians, the leadership," Melissa says, "it's really the thing that is generating the success of us this year, as challenging as it has been.”
Opus 36 Musical Spectacular
Saturday, Nov. 7, 6 p.m.