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CSO 75th Gala Anniversary Concert – resurrection or Irish Wake

Lee Walton

For the past several years Shrimp ‘n Grits has followed the relentless death-spiral of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra (CSO) toward insolvency as it struggled with progressively smaller audiences, dwindling benefactors and one unrealistic operating budget after another. Almost mercifully, its struggle ended this past spring as the CSO Board and musicians union reached an untenable impasse over further reduced salaries, broken contractual obligations and insufficient financial resources to meet operating expenses. Now, over seven months after it ceased operations, the defunct symphony organization and a small group of its core musicians are hoping to pull-off a desperate attempt to raise the CSO from its former ashes in a grand 75th Anniversary Gala headlined as a “one-time blowout.” Anticipate as we might and hope, as we should, the demographic and financial realities that brought the CSO to its knees can no longer be ignored.

The continuing, rapid decline in donations and support for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and other local non-profit performing arts groups are stark realities of growing national trends in charity-program contributions. According to Ben Pierce, executive director of the Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program (VCE), in a Wall Street Journal article, ‘Giving’ Season Falls Short, “There’s been an unprecedented fall in philanthropic giving in the U.S.” Donations to the VCE Program fell by 900 grants totaling a $5 million reduction during the 4th Quarter of 2009 as compared to the previous year. The continuing recession, stagnant housing markets, financial instability, persistently high unemployment, lagging industrial expansion, and political uncertainty in Washington have all combined to further tighten both personal and corporate budgets, excluding many charity-program contributions in the process.

The recently defunct CSO organization simply became too top-heavy, too political, too elite, and too expensive to survive in the financial reality of Charleston’s “new normal.” Charleston is not another Atlanta, Philadelphia, Boston or other much larger, “world-class” city. The reality is that Charleston’s current City Administration can no longer afford its reach; in retrospect, neither could the now defunct CSO. Over the past few decades, many status seeking CSO board members listened intently to the unwavering “world-class” mantra reverberating from the Riley Administration. Regrettably, they did so at their peril and lost the very thing they sought to save.

Why was there such entrenched reluctance on the CSO Board to adopt a fundamentally realistic financial operating model? Many local observers believe there was deep-rooted resistance perpetuated by elitist attitudes, arrogance, political mischief, and the condescending actions of a few dominant donor-members who believed theirs were the only voices qualified to pilot the ship that ultimately foundered beneath their feet. Such condescending behavior has now created deep-seated social transgressions and lasting communication barriers that “turned off” countless former patrons who would no longer tolerate such incivility. Those serving on highly visible managing boards like the CSO are always under public scrutiny from up close and afar; their actions had consequences that are now all too evident.

Time will tell if the October 8th CSO 75th Anniversary Gala Concert is the precursor of a true resurrection or an Irish Wake. In either event, please spare the citizens of Charleston another financially mismanaged struggle toward a more painful oblivion than that recently witnessed.

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