Going Baroque

Musicians and management of the Houston Symphony battle over a budget that won’t stay in the black

"They're always looking to the same group of people, who maybe feel they've given all the money they can afford to give," she says. "They've boxed themselves into a situation where they've had the same people for so long they don't have a lot of sources of new capital." She'd like to see an effort to recruit younger members, and to draw from different occupations, including physicians and consultants.

In a letter to executive director Kennedy, former board member and longtime symphony supporter Katherine Taylor Mize criticized the current board members for essentially throwing up their hands and saying that "as protectors of the symphony orchestra, they simply cannot cope with the hard issues of raising the money needed to support an institution so critically important to the well-being of our community."

A former development department employee, who asked not to be identified, says the symphony works hard to raise funds but is forced to battle other top arts organizations for a limited amount of donations.

Wu worries that veteran musicians will leave Houston for more financially stable orchestras.
Daniel Kramer
Wu worries that veteran musicians will leave Houston for more financially stable orchestras.
Former symphony director Gideon Toeplitz says Houston gives less support to the arts than to other philanthropic endeavors.
Photo courtesy of Gideon Toeplitz
Former symphony director Gideon Toeplitz says Houston gives less support to the arts than to other philanthropic endeavors.

"I can't say the development office was the most smoothly run organization there ever was," he says. "There was always a lot of turnover, I think because of the pressure. I think one of the things you have to be aware of is, in Houston, we're not in the same league as cultural consumers."

Former executive director Gideon Toeplitz agrees. While Houston has always been generous to charity programs like hospitals and education, he says, "my experience in Houston is that performing arts is not at the top of the list."

But past arts support in Houston would seem to challenge that theory. In addition to the MFAH's remarkable recent capital campaign, the $100 million Hobby Center for the Performing Arts was built almost entirely with private money (with the Hobby family making the lead gift). And the Wortham Theater Center was funded completely by the private sector at the height of the 1980s oil bust.

While the argument could be made that it's easier to raise money when you're building something, the Alley's Paul Tetreault thinks the spirit of giving to all arts programs is strong. "When you get to some of the smaller organizations, those may have a complaint; Houston has a way of supporting the biggies," he says. "But to say that people here don't support the arts -- I don't know how they can say that."

Laura Bodenheimer, executive director of development at Houston Grand Opera and former director of corporate foundations and government grants at the symphony, agrees. Houstonians should not be heralded as leaders or blamed as slackers when it comes to giving to the arts.

"Houston pretty much fits the national pattern" of arts giving, says Bodenheimer, estimating that the arts take in slightly less than 10 percent of the philanthropic dollars available.

And while recent surveys have ranked Texas dead last in per-capita arts spending, the City of Houston itself has shown notable support for the fine arts in recent years. In 1998 Mayor Lee Brown lifted a $5 million cap on public funding for the arts, generated by the hotel occupancy tax. According to María Muñoz-Blanco, executive director of the Cultural Arts Council of Houston/Harris County, the tax currently generates about $7 million to $8 million for the arts.

The city also houses the symphony, which rents out office space at Jones Hall and leases the performance hall on a per-event basis. While musicians have long complained about the less-than-modern acoustics of the 35-year-old building, the venue is a good deal for the arts group: It rents at nonprofit rates, and the city pays for expenses like the $3 million in renovations scheduled to take place this summer.

"Houston is fairly young in the scheme of things," says Muñoz-Blanco, who recently arrived at the council from a similar position in Atlanta and claims Houston has a national reputation for public arts funding. "When you look at it, Houston has been able to develop some pretty significant arts organizations. It's very impressive from afar, and even from within."


When the musicians' contract expired in October, the society proposed slashing the base annual salary of a symphony musician from $74,100 to $65,500. (Symphony spokesperson Art Kent says administrative staff costs were reduced by 11.5 percent.) One society suggestion that was eventually rescinded would have reduced the symphony's schedule from 52 to 45 weeks a year -- effectively turning the fourth-largest city's orchestra into a part-time organization. They also proposed increasing the amount players pay for health insurance and changing certain "work rules" they've fought for over the years. For example, musicians who are not being used in certain pieces could be asked to bring in income by playing elsewhere, perhaps even at weddings. These demands, say Kirk, are unprecedented in the symphony world.

Former board member Mize says that expecting the musicians to carry the brunt of the deficit is wrong.

The board "knew six years ago that this negotiation was going to come up," she says. "Obviously they've had some sort of problem."

It is true, however, that Houston Symphony musicians are some of the best-paid artists in town. The Alley Theatre may pay a handful of senior resident company members around $55,000 for a season of about 50 weeks, says Tetreault. And the most current public tax documents available from Houston Ballet show that the highest-paid dancer made $71,701, still a few thousand less than the cheapest symphony musician.

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