Vancouver Symphony faces down tough economy

Executive director works to keep music playing

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter

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photoCarly McDowell, the executive director of the Vancouver Symphony, finishes speaking to the group before a rehearsal at Skyview High School. Since the symphony laid off its development director, she’s doing that job too, and is responsible for fundraising during tough financial times.

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photoDr. Salvador Brotons leads the Vancouver Symphony in a rehearsal at Skyview High School on Sept. 30.

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That the Vancouver Symphony is staging its second concert of the season this weekend is an achievement. Earlier this year it looked like the organization was in danger of folding altogether.

It had to launch an aggressive fundraising campaign and slash its budget by about 25 percent to keep the music playing.

“It’s definitely tough times,” said Carly McDowell, the symphony’s executive director. “Arts and culture seem to be the first things that go in a bad economy.”

If you go

• What: Vancouver Symphony plays Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos with guest soloists Yukiko Akagi and Alex Alguacil.

• When: 7 p.m. today.

• Where: Skyview High School’s concert hall, 1300 N.W. 139th St., Vancouver.

• Cost: $42 for reserved seats, $29 for general admission, $24 for seniors and $9 for students.

• Information: 360-735-7278 or symphony's website.

McDowell was hired as the marketing director in April, the same month the symphony canceled concerts and launched a “Save the Music” fundraising campaign. In July, she was promoted to executive director. Because the development director had been laid off, she’s doing that job too — all for 20 percent less pay than the last executive director, who made about $70,000 a year.

The symphony’s challenges were clear by the end of its fiscal year in June 2009, when its expenses of nearly $700,000 exceeded revenue by 33 percent. To balance the books, the nonprofit laid off a half-time administrative assistant and a full-time development director. Its office staff now consists of the equivalent of three full-time employees. The symphony also reduced the number of concerts in the season from six to five. This year’s budget is $535,000.

“We’ve cut everything we possibly can,” McDowell said.

Making money

Ticket sales held steady even as the economy collapsed. About 700 people hold tickets for the symphony’s 32nd season. But ticket sales cover only 20 percent of the symphony’s budget, which must pay 65 musicians for each performance. Donations and grants in the past covered the lion’s share of the budget — 80 percent.

The symphony’s “Save the Music” campaign earlier this year raised $23,000, and brought the organization back from a financial precipice. But the worries aren’t over.

The symphony will exhaust two big grants this year — $40,000 from the Paul G. Allen Foundation and $135,000 from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. McDowell said the symphony has shifted into an aggressive grant-writing mode, tapping the skills of board members.

McDowell continues to solicit donations from companies. She’s the first to acknowledge that things are not business as usual for them anymore. Sponsors that at one time might have given $10,000 now are only able to offer perhaps $2,000 — or nothing at all. Individuals and companies that still have money to give tend to focus their dollars on organizations that serve families hard hit by job losses and high unemployment.

But McDowell continues to make her pitch.

“The symphony is a another very worthy legacy nonprofit in the community,” she said. “We all need music in our lives.”

She’s trying to make sponsorship more meaningful — and useful — for companies. “It’s gone beyond logo placement,” she said. “It’s really about building a long-term relationship. How do they get the biggest bang for their buck? What can we that helps them meet their marketing strategies?”

At a concert earlier this year, for example, audience members received Burgerville paper bags that they blew up and popped at a crescendo. The patrons were encouraged to eat at Burgerville before or after the concert, with part of the proceeds going to the symphony.

Growing and learning

In the longer term, the symphony will have to build its audience to stay afloat. Its current audience is loyal, but it’s also aging. Half of ticket holders are older than 55. McDowell hopes to reach out to successful young professionals.

She’s drawing from her marketing background. She has run her own company, McDowell Communications. She also worked for a number of non-profit organizations, including the Children’s Hospital Guild Association in Seattle and Animal Aid Inc. in Portland.

“My goal is that we keep our doors open and come out on the other side,” McDowell said. “We’re going to grow, we’re going to learn, we’re going to survive this bad economy and we’re going to be stronger for it.”