Utah Symphony & Opera deficit smaller than projected

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Posted: 4:25 PM- The Utah Symphony & Opera said Friday that it is exceeding expectations for financial recovery and could balance its budget by the end of next season.

At US&O's annual meeting, CEO Anne Ewers said the budget shortfall for the 2005-06 fiscal year - which ended in August - was $182,032. That's $233,121 less than the $415,000 shortfall for last season originally projected in its 2005 restabilization plan and much lower than the $1.8 million it had the year after the Utah Symphony and Utah Opera merged in 2002.

Shortfalls are covered by its cash reserve fund, Ewers said.

This news puts US&O on track to meet its goal of balancing the budget by the end of the 2006-07 season.

Before the merger, the Utah Symphony, with about a $12 millon budget, had experienced deficits but had a couple of years of small surpluses. Utah Opera, with a budget of about $5 million a year, was operating in the black, with projected annual surpluses of $390,000 through 2006.

As at other arts organizations in America, a weak economy, plunging stock market and decreased ticket sales after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks led to financial trouble. Seeking to cut costs - and to boost the combined organizations' prominence to attract top performers and help raise funds from national donors - the orchestra and opera company joined forces.

Things didn't exactly go as planned. Symphony and opera officials estimated a $400,000 surplus for the first year after the merger. But as the economy took its time rebounding, some donors and patrons, especially opera lovers, were peeved enough by the merger to close their wallets. That combination led to operating deficits of $1.8 million and $1.6 million in the 2002 and 2003 fiscal years.

In 2005, US&O instituted a financial stabilization plan that cut administrative budgets. Board members were asked to donate $10,000 each to the organization. The Deer Valley Music Festival, which a consultant said two years ago was teetering on the brink of financial collapse, is more solvent. "It's terrific to see not only the board's full embrace of our festival, but the community's as well," Ewers said. "The 2006 Deer Valley Music Festival contributed $1.9 million to the bottom line of Utah Symphony & Opera - the festival is doing exactly what we had hoped." And Ewers pounded the pavement, asking disgruntled former fans to reconsider. Patrons have respnded with a 20 percent increase in monetary support.

"We've done a lot of sitting down with people, one on one, talking through people's concerns," she said. "Sometimes we agree, and sometimes we'll agree to disagree." Ewers acknowledges it's been a tough battle to win those donors and patrons back - and some of them never will return.

But overall, she calls the past few years a big success. Ticket sales are up, as are donations. The cash reserve fund is plumping again after a few years of being drained to pay deficits. "Many people say if it had not been for the merger, one or more of the organizations would have declared bankruptcy," Ewers said.

"We have done an awful lot in the last two years. The board has become much more engaged," said Patricia A. Richards, the board's chairwoman.

The reorganization plan was partly a result of complaints from musicians upset about budget shortfalls. The orchestra seems happier.

"It's a lot more positive. It has really changed in the last two years," said Lynnette Stewart, a violinist and spokeswoman for the musicians' orchestra committee. The new plan "was crucial, and to their credit, they did it, they accepted it, and they made it happen." With music director Keith Lockhart's announced departure after the 2008-09 season, US&O is launching a search to replace him - a process Ewers promises will be inclusive. "It is very important to have the total participation of the orchestra and the board, and certainly the community, in making this decision," she said.