Community involvement makes symphony success

Michael Holahan/Staff
Cellist Justin Reseley rehearses with the Augusta Symphony at First Baptist Church of Augusta. The symphony has managed to stay afloat while other arts groups hurt for money.

In 2001, the Savannah Symphony Orchestra closed its doors after too many years of operating in the red. In 2006, after several years operating in the red, the Augusta Ballet decided not to offer contracts to its professional company, citing financial concerns and a desire to reconsider and retool the company's mission.

These stories are not unique. Arts organizations struggle financially with great regularity and often fold under the weight of such burdens.

But not the Augusta Symphony.

For years, the symphony has managed to pull off an increasingly miraculous achievement, presenting ambitious seasons while operating in the black.

Like most arts organizations, the symphony's expenditures vastly outweigh its income. This year, symphony treasurer Hugh McCutcheon estimates that about $600,000 will come in as income -- derived mostly from ticket sales. On the other side of the ledger, he estimates that the season will cost about $1.5 million. The additional $900,000 comes from donations, grants and an extensive network of support organizations and volunteers.

There are four volunteer organizations attached to the symphony: the Augusta Symphony Guild, the Augusta Symphony League, the Friends of the Symphony and the Aiken Symphony Guild. Spread across those organizations are nearly 700 volunteers, each of whom donates time, effort or money.

"Those volunteers are a big reason the Augusta Symphony has been successful," said symphony Executive Director Sandra Self.

The private donations volunteer organizations can tap into are only part of the symphony's multitiered approach to fundraising. It also depends on grants, foundations and corporate donations. Mr. McCutcheon said the corporate donations can be difficult to come by because there are few large corporations based here willing to offer large sustaining donations.

"I went to a performance in Charlotte to see The Lion King ," Mr. McCutcheon said. "There was a sign and a notice in the program that both Wachovia and Bank of America had donated $1 million apiece that year to the arts council. That sort of thing makes things much easier, but it's something we just don't have here."

Mr. McCutcheon said what many patrons don't understand is how little ticket income actually pays for. He said an act such as Olivia Newton-John, who headlined a 2003 Pops concert, demanded an artist fee of $50,000. That does not include sound, the symphony or rental of the hall. Mr. McCutcheon said in order to have tickets pay for a show like that, they would have to average about $100.

Ms. Self said that part of what they want is an organization that not only serves the community but also is part of it. She is proud of the relationship formed with the medical community. Citing the Newton-John show, which was funded in part with a donation from University Health, she said area hospitals have become a valuable resource to the arts community and a perfect illustration of how the Augusta Symphony continues to succeed.

"That's what we do, what we have to do," she said. "We make connections -- connections and music."

Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or steven.uhles@augustachronicle.com.

BY THE NUMBERS

1954: Founding year

20: Number of 2007-08 performances

7: Core musicians on payroll

70-75: Average number of freelance musicians hired for a Masterworks performance

$1.5 million: Cost of 2007-08 season

700: Number of volunteers associated with support organizations