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Progressive and prosperous communities know it takes a holistic approach — creating a skilled workforce through education, nurturing entrepreneurs, providing state-of-the-art infrastructure and enhancing the quality of life in communities — to truly succeed at economic development. But what about arts as an economic development tool?
The Savannah Philharmonic, the fastest growing cultural arts organization in our city, is in an elite group of orchestras in the country that are financially successful and stable — approximately 30 percent of U.S. orchestras are operating in the black. In just five short years, the organization has built a loyal subscriber network of more than 400 people, doubled earned income and tripled contributed income. And last year, during fiscal year 2014, the Savannah Philharmonic and its audience spent nearly $2 million locally according to the Arts and Economic Prosperity Calendar.
“With most orchestras across the country facing financial challenges, I’m proud that the Savannah Philharmonic has experienced consistent growth over the last five years posting annual surpluses,” said David Pratt, executive director. “Savannah can really take pride in its hometown orchestra and chorus.”
Part of the Philharmonic’s success is due to its multifaceted approach to financial viability within the arts. There are a number of paths orchestras can take to arrive at a stronger operating platform: performance revenue, non-performance income, and reduced performance expenses.
“None of these paths alone is sufficient and in fact, single solutions are futile,” Pratt said. “Even if every seat were filled, the vast majority of U.S. symphony orchestras still would face significant performance deficits.”
According to Pratt, the key to success is engagement across all aspects of the business and, most importantly, revenue streams.
“The music being performed must be a balance between music local audiences want to hear along with music that challenges highly trained professional musicians and exposes audiences to new music experiences,” he said. “Each community is different so the balance will depend on local tastes.”
Pratt also noted that if orchestras are to survive in the 21st century, they must be perceived as a community asset, especially by the philanthropic community.
“It’s not just about classical music being performed on stage each month; it’s about providing a range of entertainment, educational and outreach experiences that engage different sectors of the community in a variety of venues such as schools, cafes, hospitals, community centers and parks,” he explained. “That being said, I also believe it is vitally important that firm business principles are applied in running the organization. It’s critical to deliver annual surpluses and maintain a healthy balance sheet. We all want to be around for a very long time!”
In addition to its cultural and economic development components, the Savannah Philharmonic has a robust community outreach program. The organization is an integral part of the Integrative Medicine Program at The Anderson Cancer Institute at Memorial Hospital in Savannah, providing musicians to play for patients and staff, at the Children’s Hospital at Memorial, performing a children’s version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute monthly, and at the Nancy N. and J.C. Lewis Cancer Center, where musicians play twice a month. The orchestra and chorus also have an effective educational program, bringing students to rehearsals and providing master classes to talented young musicians in the area by visiting soloists.
“At the end of our fifth year, we are reflecting on what we have built from the ground up, and are pleased with what we have achieved,” said Pratt. “The Philharmonic — and the creative class we attract — are a boon for the city’s economic development efforts.”
Research has proven the value of the arts goes beyond direct economic impact. In a three-year study for Gallup and the Knight Foundation, 43,000 residents in 26 communities interviewed by researchers cited the key reasons for loving their cities: entertainment and social offerings, how welcoming the city is and its aesthetics — in other words, the arts and culture.
“Programs and institutions like the Savannah Philharmonic improve the quality of life in Savannah which in turn provides the Savannah Economic Development Authority a stronger message as we market Savannah to the world,” said Trip Tollison, president and CEO of the Savannah Economic Development Authority.