2 min read July 2022 — The Nashville Symphony “inspires, entertains, educates and serves through musical performance, innovation, collaboration and inclusion.” In an interview with Invest:, President and CEO Alan Valentine spoke about the massive challenges in recent years including a flood in Nashville that caused $40 million dollars in damages to their building, which was then exacerbated by numerous logistical issues caused by the COVID pandemic. He stated, “We are blessed with a world class orchestra, but the challenge that we face is with re-building our audience.”
How have you adjusted to challenges of the last few years?
I have been here 24 years, and during that time, we have experienced many very successful periods, but we have also faced a number of significant challenges. We have a long and distinguished history, and this year, in fact, the orchestra celebrated its 75th anniversary. One of our biggest milestones in that history was the building and opening in 2006 of our beloved Schermerhorn Symphony Center, which the Wall Street Journal hailed as “an architectural and acoustical gem and one of the most successful concert halls built in a century.”
When the markets collapsed in late 2008, and the Great Recession began, the capital structure on our building became quite stressed. At the time, we still had nearly $100 million of bond debt on our building, our investment portfolio supporting that debt got hammered, and the credit markets were frozen. Then, before we could recover from the recession, there was an enormous flood here in Nashville in 2010 which caused $40 million dollars in damage to our building. This was all before we had even reached the fifth anniversary since our opening. Though these challenges were all stacked on top of each other, we successfully navigated them by maximizing the revenue-earning potential of our venue, while at the same time staying laser-focused on our mission and ensuring that our institution adapted to meet the needs of our community. We released best-selling and award-winning recordings; we launched a groundbreaking education initiative, Accelerando, that has earned national attention; and we delivered programming that attracted diverse audiences and centered our art form – classical music – in unique and forward-thinking ways.
All of these efforts led to a period of stability and continued growth – including record-breaking tickets sales – between 2013 and the start of the pandemic in March of 2020. While the challenges of the pandemic were a little different than our earlier challenges in some fundamental ways, our past experiences came in handy. They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and that certainly rang true for us in that moment. Just as with our previous challenges, we were once again forced to reimagine our institution and reinvent ourselves and our team.
The performing arts, music and entertainment sectors in Nashville came to a halt when the pandemic hit our community in March 2020, so we could not do what we were built to do. That month we organized a meeting with leaders from the other major venues in town such as the Predators, the Titans, TPAC, the Ryman and the Opry, and together, we reached the conclusion that we all needed to close our doors. At the time, many people thought it would only be for a couple of weeks. I was skeptical about that idea due to our experiences in the past, and for our part, we had to make some tough decisions while seeking every opportunity to keep our institution active, engaged and focused on the future. We applied for a CARES Act PPP loan, and on April 15, 2020, we received one of the first loans in Nashville for a little over $2.8 million. This allowed us to keep the orchestra fully employed through June. We then had to make the incredibly difficult decision to furlough the entire orchestra including the conductors, along with all but 20 of the staff. We furloughed 132 full-time people at that time, and the shutdown idled all of our 300-plus part-time workers, though we did agree to keep everyone’s health insurance intact throughout the furloughs, paying for 100% of the premiums for our furloughed employees and their families.
What have been the most prominent signs of recovery for the Nashville Symphony?
Recovery was initially a slow process, and we continue to make progress, but looking back, we can see just how far we’ve come since March 2020. Prior to the pandemic, we had an operating budget of $28 million and derived two-thirds of our revenues from tickets, fees, concessions and building rentals. Six months into the furlough, we began bringing our employees back, starting with the musicians, just as their enhanced unemployment ran out. This was in January of 2021, and we did it under a stipend arrangement, or reduced salary. We had a plan to get back into operation even before the pandemic ended. At the start of the pandemic, we hosted a lot of online events, but that was never going to produce the financial results to make it viable to continue, though those efforts did keep us connected to the public. In the spring of 2021, we began doing a few concert events in the hall with our musicians on this stipend arrangement, while we negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement with our musicians and the American Federation of Musicians-Local 257. In September of 2021, we launched our first concert season since the pandemic started.
It has been a very challenging and interesting journey, but I have to express a tremendous amount of gratitude to the community – especially to our Board and donors – for their unwavering support during the pandemic, which resulted in record fundraising success. I would also be remiss in not expressing our gratitude to our local, state and federal government officials, for the things that were done along the way to make sure the Symphony and the arts remained as healthy as possible through this period, including for the incredibly important financial support provided through various COVID relief programs. It will take us a while to rebuild our ticket sales to resemble the pre-pandemic numbers, but thanks to the hard work and collaboration of our musicians and staff, we were able to navigate all of these issues and continue our 2021-22 concert season with only a few cancellations.
What changes have you experienced in the arts and culture sector in Nashville over the last 12 months?
The sector is very strong, but we are all a bit nervous about building back our revenues and attendance. The recent infusion of COVID relief cash will help, but we have a lot of work to do. Nashville is Music City and its economy is built on creativity and innovation, and creative industries such as music, art and culture are the hallmark – the calling card – of our city. Studies show that Nashville has the second-largest arts and culture economy in the country. We are blessed with a world-class orchestra, but the challenge that we face is with the re-building of our institution and our audience, as we are seeing that people’s habits have changed over the past two years. In those challenges we see opportunities.
We are committed to building an institution that is more reflective of the community that it serves, and building an organization that is more diverse, equitable, inclusive and welcoming – one that captures a wider cross-section of the people who live and work in our community and our region. We began a concerted effort to do this work around 2015, and my view is that it is both the right thing to do, and a sound business decision. The arts should serve everyone and bring all parts of our community together. As we learn from our challenges and embrace the opportunities ahead, I am very optimistic about our future and am confident that we will continue to flourish well into the future, making great music for Nashville and the Middle Tennessee region, while bringing national and international attention to our community through our innovative programming and distinctive identity.
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