MSO fights to survive as donations pick up

Following an emergency call for donations in December by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, which gravely needs $5 million to keep operating, Milwaukee businesses and residents rapidly responded with a collective $1 million in cash and pledges.

The $1 million included a one-time $250,000 grant from the United Performing Arts Fund, according to Mark Niehaus, president and executive director of the MSO.

The $5 million needed immediately to keep the orchestra onstage largely stems from a $2 million deficit the organization suffered during fiscal year 2013.

The other $3 million needed will ensure that the orchestra can balance its budget this year.

The MSO has long been plagued by financial struggles, largely due to four primary challenges: scheduling conflicts at its home venue, cuts in philanthropic funding, employee pensions, and a lack of investment income.

In a desperate attempt to help keep its operations afloat, the MSO recently announced a restructuring plan it aims to enact during the coming season. The plan includes trimming its orchestra and administrative staffs, renegotiating employee benefits packages and securing more performance slots at its home, the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, through a noncontiguous schedule.

Thanks to the changes, the MSO has a projected cost savings of $2 million for the coming season.

The adjustments, which are the most dramatic of any the MSO has made in its history, have also been implemented in response to fatigued donors, who are eager for the organization to run on a more sustainable business model.

According to the MSO’s website, corporate donors to the organization include A.O. Smith Corp., Allen Edmonds Shoe Corp., Assurant Health, BMO Harris Bank, Baird Private Asset Management, Briggs & Stratton Corp., Chase Bank, Hal Leonard Corp., Johnson Controls Foundation, the M&I Foundation, Marcus Hotels & Resorts, Michael Best & Friedrich, MillerCoors, Potawatomi Bingo Casino’s Miracle on Canal Street, Rockwell Automation Inc., Sensient Technologies Inc., Target, The Capital Grille, The Marcus Corp., Travel Wisconsin, U.S. Bancorp Foundation, UPAF, Wells Fargo and Z2 Marketing.

Niehaus has not released the drop dead date for the $5 million fundraising initiative, partially because it’s a moving target, he said.

But he is clear that the MSO must meet the $5 million mark soon for the show to go on.

“We can’t just raise some of this and then kick the can down the road and come back to the community in April, May or June and say, ‘Well, now we need you again,'” Niehaus said.

Should the orchestra fail to raise all necessary funds, restarting the organization from the ground up will cost significantly more than continuing to operate it in a trimmed capacity.

“A controlled descent is much cheaper than a crash landing,” Niehaus said.

Niehaus said he can’t envision Milwaukee without a symphony orchestra, which he refers to as the “cornerstone” of the city’s performing arts community.

“I cannot imagine that this town is going to let this thing go down,” he said.

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