I’ve said since my very first post on this blog that I intend to judge everything by a single standard: true excellence. I’ve encouraged people to shoot for excellence because of its motivational power. Or, at least, if you choose a lower target, be sure that you are doing so explicitly, with a full awareness of the choice that is being made.
If there is anything in the cities I cover in this blog that truly reaches world class status, it is the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the handful of the best anywhere in the world. It is clearly a huge asset to the city, a point of civic pride, and something that really puts Cleveland on the map. When you think of Cleveland, what comes first to mind is the river catching on fire and the orchestra. For people overseas, the Cleveland Orchestra is probably the only thing they know about the city. I am very pleased to own re-issues of old George Szell recordings with the orchestra, which are of excellent quality at extremely reasonable prices.
This month’s Cleveland Magazine carries a disturbing article about the state of the Cleveland Orchestra. The facts aren’t pretty. The orchestra is running a deficit of nearly $6 million per year. (Contrast that with the Louisville Orchestra, whose entire budget is only $7 million per year). It has been running these deficits for years, covering them from special donations and by dipping into its underpowered $123 million endowment. The orchestra had considered a plan a couple of years ago to forfeit its world class status, downgrading to a regional orchestra. A group of local leaders stepped up and agreed to write checks to keep the things steady while they tried to figure out a long term plan to balance the books. This has included trying to make tours break even instead of lose money, and implementing residencies in other cities. This has the affect of making the Cleveland Orchestra less of a local institution, but there may not be any other choice.
There aren’t any obvious solutions to Cleveland’s problems. The finanacial picture for orchestras across the country is pretty grim. Cleveland is supporting a world class orchestra from a much smaller civic base than Chicago or Boston, to say nothing of the lavishly state sponsored orchestras of Europe. Cleveland is already above average in per capita attendance and donations. The only thing that strikes me as a weak spot is its endowment, which sounds large, but probably isn’t relative to the budget.
The root of this is likely the economic decline of the Cleveland region itself. A recent article noted that Ohio bled jobs from 2000 to 2005, and the Cleveland area was particularly hard it, losing 102,000 jobs and also suffering declines in the number of business establishments. I said my blog focused on aspirational cities, those looking to take the leap to the next level. But clearly Cleveland is a declining city, and its decline threatens precious national treasures like the Cleveland Orchestra. Ultimately saving the orchestra requires saving the city. That is going to prove to be a tough task.