With an eye toward launching its 2015-16 season this weekend with a positive message, the Minnesota Orchestra announced Thursday that it balanced its budget for fiscal 2015.
It was an unusual step to share unaudited results — normally, figures aren’t announced until the December annual meeting — but the orchestra has surfed on a spate of good news since ending a 16-month lockout during which several national observers suggested the orchestra was all but finished. That includes a historic trip to Cuba in May, new contracts for players and music director Osmo Vänskä, and a return to recording.
“There have been a lot of questions about the Minnesota Orchestra being able to do all these things — programming, the Cuba trip, rebuild artistically — but can we balance the budget?” said CEO and President Kevin Smith. “The reason we wanted to announce is that we hope this builds confidence in the community and in the organization.”
The orchestra opens its season Friday and Saturday with concerts featuring Vänskä and Broadway singer Audra McDonald.
The orchestra spent $30.6 million in the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, which makes it the largest performing arts organization in Minnesota. Fundraising accounted for $14.8 million in revenue. Earned revenue was $8.1 million and $7.7 million was drawn from investments.
Last year the organization had reported a deficit of $650,000 for a lockout-shortened season. Revenue was just $20.8 million as musicians returned to work in February 2014.
Expenses for fiscal 2015 were actually higher than the board of directors had anticipated last December. The trip to Cuba added roughly $1.5 million to the budget, but was offset by a contribution from Marilyn Carlson Nelson, the former chairwoman of Carlson Companies, and her husband, Glen Nelson.
“When all was said and done, Cuba was positive from a financial point of view,” Smith said. “The contribution covered direct costs of the trip and also the cost of what would have been normally a week of orchestra time.”
In addition, Smith said, anticipated expenses were nearly $800,000 lower, mostly in general overhead.
Significant challenges lie ahead. The earned revenue figure is down 25 percent from 2009’s peak of $10.9 million. Ticket revenue in fiscal 2015 was $6.8 million, which still lags earlier years.
When Orchestra Hall was shuttered for a reconstruction project in 2012, about 30 percent of season subscribers did not renew their tickets. That grew during the 16-month lockout, which ended with musicians taking a 15 percent cut in wages.
“We started last year 34 percent lower in subscribers and we were able to bring back 13 percent,” Smith said. “We’re showing solid momentum as we go into this season.”
More heartening is the trend in donations from individuals, which were up nearly 30 percent, to 7,105. “Support is coming from donors at all giving levels and from all sectors, including government, individuals, event patrons, foundations and corporations,” said Smith, who noted that 47 corporate gifts were received, up by 10 from fiscal 2014.
Orchestra attendance remains consistent, with about 250,000 tickets sold, or 83 percent of capacity.
The orchestra also decided to pay off $9.5 million in debt. As a consequence, total invested assets declined to $147 million, from $164 million in 2014.
The $7.7 million draw from the orchestra’s investments — essentially, a nest egg that generates income while providing an emergency cushion if needed — amounts to 5 percent of total invested assets, Smith said, which is the standard for nonprofit arts organizations.
Several years ago, the board had made double-digit percentage withdrawals to balance budgets. The board, however, curbed the withdrawals and reported record deficits ($3 million and $6 million) in 2011 and 2012 — in advance of contract talks.
“Drawing no more than 5 percent of our assets sets a standard we’ll adhere to, and it builds confidence,” Smith said.