The Charleston Symphony Orchestra managed to eke out a 75th anniversary season following its most difficult period in recent history. The organization endured a financially fueled shutdown last spring and the death of Music Director David Stahl in October, and an intensive report on the future of orchestral music in Charleston suggested drastic changes to ensure its survival. Now the CSO is gearing up for its 76th season with a new administrative staff, an energized board, and fresh ideas for the future. Daniel Beckley was hired as executive director in December, and a month later John H. Warren III took over as board president. The administrative staff is rounded out by Director of Development Alana Morrall and Director of Marketing Nicole Ward, both of whom joined the team earlier this month.
"It's interesting because there's 75 years of history here, and things have been so tumultuous the last couple of years due to a number of factors — the economy, a lot of staff turnover, musician negotiations, and so on," says Morrall, the CSO's first full-time development director in recent history. "We're busy turning the organization around and proving to the community that we're here and positioned for success, but it really feels like we're starting up again."
Morrall and Ward are in charge of the all-important funding side of the CSO — an issue that has been at the root of the organization's recent problems. Morrall will focus on fundraising, while Ward is tasked with attracting audiences through marketing.
Morrall spent the last six years working her way up the ladder at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She oversaw institutional and individual giving, raising an average of $2 million annually in contributed revenue and increasing the BSO's overall membership base by 40 percent. Under her direction, the organization generated a record-breaking number of contributions last season.
Morrall plans to use her previous experience to attract more financial backers to the CSO and to avoid donor fatigue, which has been a major issue in the past. She also wants to create a stronger connection between patrons and musicians. Another useful resource is the board of directors, she says, which now includes many new members. The CSO is working to implement a new board structure that will encourage its members to use their social and business connections. "Board engagement and support will be a critical effort in moving forward, especially, so it's visible to the community that we have a dedicated and committed group of board members behind us," she says.
Morrall cites the BSO as a strong example for orchestras in the 21st century. Boasting a staff and budget many times the size of the CSO, the BSO offers a full schedule ranging from classic arrangements from Tchaikovsky and Dvorák to Cirque de la Symphonie, a hybrid circus and symphony performance. "Their artistic programming is really innovative," she says. "People feel like it's their orchestra, and I think the music director is a really big part of that." Maestra Marin Alsop, who joined the BSO in 2007, has been credited with reinvigorating the orchestra following its own financial struggles earlier in the decade by leading community outreach efforts, securing grants, rallying the musicians, and encouraging a return to the recording business.
On the marketing side of things, Nicole Ward says she'll draw from her experience with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, which she says has dealt with some of the same challenges as the CSO in recent years, including budget cuts, restructuring, and a declining subscriber base.
"Many orchestras face the reality that they can no longer succeed using the same tools they once did," Ward says. "Forward thinking can no longer focus on survival — instead it's got to be on sustainability. To reach audiences, new approaches must be taken and creative thinking has to happen outside of the concert hall as well as within it. The fact that you can nurture your established patrons and bring new folks into the fold, all while implementing artistically sound and even innovative programs to garner further support, has been proven in Memphis. Here at the Charleston Symphony, we're using very much the same approach."
She says the MSO used a model that essentially encouraged the staff, musicians, and board to work together as a team. They launched their Opus One series in 2009, an un-conducted series set in alternative venues that was led by musicians and supported by staff and board members. Ward says that collaboration helped build solidarity within the organization, and she's working on a similar plan for the CSO, as well as ways to increase attendance, like mailings, more consistent branding, a stronger electronic media presence, and community partnerships. They're also working on a new acquisitions campaign that will give a discount of up to 50 percent off for first-time subscribers. The hope is that those discounted newbies will become regular subscribers and, one day, donors. "We've already seen record numbers coming in for new subscribers for the 2011-12 season and that's really exciting," Ward says. In fact, they've had more subscribers in the last three weeks than the last three years combined, according to Morrall.
"With the amount of culture and history that this city has, with Spoleto and all of the other arts organizations, I think it's really important to have this quality of an orchestra to be that foundation," Morrall says. "It's also extremely critical that as one of Charleston's key cultural treasures, that the CSO is able to maintain its reputation of providing the community with our core group of world-class musicians. The orchestra is now uniquely positioned to be successful, and we're really hoping the community will react well. And I think they will."