Time to give Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra some real public support

“It seems to us there must be something wrong with the business model,” said Michael W. Grebe, president and executive officer of The Bradley Foundation, when he explained to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel why the Foundation is concerned about the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s “large operating deficits” over the last few years, and some MSO donors are apparently seeking changes.

The Bradley Foundation is, indeed, a generous donor to the Symphony and other arts organizations in the Milwaukee area, giving $325,000 to the Symphony in 2012 and $7 million total over time. But the MSO had $17.7 million in expenses last year, and currently needs another $5 million rather quickly to keep on making their excellent music. As for state support, the Wisconsin Arts Board provided MSO with a grand total of $17, 500 in 2012 and ticket sales cover only about 30% of the annual operating costs.

What’s wrong with this business model?

It relies too much on the whims of the wealthy (or “angel donors”) and charitable giving,  a sure-fire way to have art reduced to what a relative few are willing to pay for or some corporate ideal of bottom-line value. The United Performing Arts funding amounted to more than $2 million this year for MSO, not bad but not nearly enough. If art were to be judged solely on its popularity and money-making ability, much of what we call the performing arts would not exist.

But what’s wrong with a business model that says if people want it, they will pay for it? Why should taxpayers (which is where I’m going, aren’t I?) pony up for such elitist stuff as classical music when there are more pressing, dire issues (like a new basketball arena) that need addressing? I won’t get into which cultural event (classical music or professional basketball) is more of a public service. I will say only that Wisconsin ranks 47th in state funding for the arts, and Gov. Walker has cut the Wisconsin Arts Board support by more than half from 2011 to 2012, $2.4 million to $1.1 million. Minnesota, as Mike Ivey of the Capital Times reports, is now number 1 is state arts funding. (Ironically, the Minnesota Orchestra has been locked out over salary and other issues.)

Minnesota now collects sales tax for support of the arts. Wisconsin, obviously, does little in terms of state funding and could do far more. Arts Wisconsin is trying to drum up more state funding for the arts. In the meantime, hopefully some Scrooge-like miracle will occur and some angel donors, rich and not, will step up to support the MSO, now forced to cut a number of musicians.

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