Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

Nashville Symphony Near Bankruptcy, Concert Hall in Foreclosure

Update 6/24/2013: The Nashville Symphony reached a deal with Bank of America to avoid foreclosure. Full coverage of the Nashville Symphony financial saga is available on this special web page at the Nashville Tennessean.

Nashville has been on a roll in recent years, with a rapidly growing population (including a rapidly expanding immigrant base), robust job growth (#1 among large cities in 2012 on a percentage basis), and lots of positive national press. I’ve been visiting about once a year in recent years and have always had a good time and been very impressed with the ambition level and positive change and growth.

But one symbol of the coming of age of Nashville, the nearly new Schermerhorn Center, home to the Nashville Symphony, is now an emblem of trouble, though perhaps less for the city than for classical music in general.

In short, the building is in foreclosure. Bank of America, which received more government bailout money than any other bank, is threatening to seize and auction the building for cash on June 28th. The Symphony’s auditor has given it a going concern warning, and bankruptcy is looking likely.

This would appear to be a strange turn of events for a town and a symphony on the rise. The Nashville Symphony was nominated for a slew of Grammy awards, at least one of which they won. Just last year the symphony’s president was talking about “a golden age of classical music” in the city. The Schermerhorn Center was a symbol of both the orchestra’s and the city’s ambitions to be taken seriously.

But there were warning signs from the beginning. A planned major endowment never materialized. With only $9.2 million in the endowment, the Nashville Symphony is effectively a pay as you go organization. Other orchestras can get up to a third of their budget from large endowments. The symphony also apparently borrowed a significant sum of money to build the structure and did not pre-fund it with donations. As noted by the University of Chicago report “Set in Stone,” cities across America pumped vast sums into cultural facilities in the last decade. Many of these are struggling in a post-crash world.

Also, as I’ve noted before, classical music is troubled, and the symphony orchestra is the most difficult type of classical music organization to reinvent because of its lack of multimedia experience a la opera, and its high costs. If orchestras struggle even in boomtowns like Nashville, that augurs poorly for their success elsewhere.

Also, it appears that outside of truly top tier cities like New York and Chicago, the symphony is no longer considered a must-have civic marker. At least not to the extent that local elites are willing to part with their own money to fund them. As we’ve gone to an ultra-casual world, and theories on urban success like creative class move explicitly away from traditional high culture, orchestras seem increasingly expendable. Cities want to keep one around to avoid looking bad, but they aren’t willing to ante up for true excellence.

In any case, this is one to watch, especially considering how great Nashville as been doing otherwise.

Here is more complete coverage from the Nashville Tennessean:

Nashville Symphony at risk of being silenced
It’s time to start freaking out about the symphony situation
Nashville Symphony faces a future of unknowns

More on Nashville from the Urbanophile:
Is Nashville the Next Boomtown of the New South?
Nashville Rolls On
Impressions of Nashville
Pedestrian Deaths, Nashville Style

Topics: Arts and Culture
Cities: Nashville

5 Responses to “Nashville Symphony Near Bankruptcy, Concert Hall in Foreclosure”

  1. Matthew Hall says:

    Nashville has a symphony…..? I had no idea. Why don’t they become a pops orchestra and work with all the country musicians? That seems like a no-brainer to me.

  2. By most metrics, Nashville earns its “Music City” reputation from country and popular/indie rock music (or alt country?) much more than classical, but obviously it seems like a wise decision for any city of its size to diversify. Considering that cities as small as Tupelo, MS have their own symphony (now the North Mississippi Symphony apparently–http://nmsymphony.com/), it should come as no surprise that a city the size of Nashville would have one of its own, let alone one mostly staffed by professional musicians.

    But Nashville’s primary selling points within the music industry are the wonderfully low transaction costs compared to its coastal counterparts (New York and LA), where the cheap housing has in turn attracted even snobby Brooklynites to a part of the country that they otherwise could scarcely locate on a map. Low cost may be the coup de grâce for the Nashville Symphony, since you rightfully pointed out that local elites are simply unwilling these days to shell out the salaries that well-educated classical musicians have rightfully come to expect for their hard work, despite the fact that living costs are so much lower than the coasts. Even a city as large as Philadelphia–historically home to one of the Big Five–has faced terrible insolvency in recent years. By that same token, a city as wedded to classical music as Vienna still depends on colossal subsidies to keep its opera houses churning out the chestnuts.

    Matthew Hall may be on the right track. It makes me wonder if Music City should just celebrate and continue to cultivate the stuff that flourishes there already: country, contemporary Christian, and rootsy rock, among other things. While it’d be hard to say the Nashville scene occurred completely organically, I suspect Jack White didn’t request a subsidy to locate there. These days he obviously doesn’t need it, and yet I can’t help but think he’d yield a greater ROI. After all, he’s dedicated huge amounts of money to help refurbish old theater buildings in his hometown of Detroit, a city much more starved of investment than Nashville.

  3. Jonah says:

    Let’s put our East of the Mississippi bias aside for a moment and also mention that some symphonies are booming – http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/arts/dudamel?page=full 😉

  4. Civis Romanus Sum says:

    “outside of truly top tier cities like New York and Chicago, the symphony is no longer considered a must-have civic marker”

    Which, in the large historical scheme of things, is neither a surprise nor a disaster. Full-time municipal orchestras are a creation of a certain type of middle-class industrial society that arose in the 19th century. When Mozart and Beethoven were creating one orchestral work after another, there were no such orchestras.

    As society changes, the way music is experienced also changes. I can foresee the death of permanent orchestras outside a few big cities, and their replacement by more ad-hoc or flexible ensembles. Which will not necessarily be a bad thing for the music.

  5. Paul Lindemeyer says:

    Folks concerned about the state of classical music really should read Greg Sandow’s blog: artsjournal.com/sandow/ This is a topic that’s becoming like the weather: a lot of discussion and damn few ideas for change. Sandow, his readers and contributors are a welcome exception.

    For myself I’ll just say that priority #1 for urban music and theatre powers-that-be is brick and mortar facilities, not funding local companies or ensembles. It’s unfortunate, but the instinct is to impress those who never listen or watch what goes on inside. The unspoken rule is that only New York artists impress those people. So art becomes a New York specialty, like pastrami.

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