Despite COVID-19, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra reports $74K surplus for 2020

Melissa M. Munoz

A pandemic couldn’t stop the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra from balancing its budget. The orchestra recorded a surplus of $74,000 on operating expenses of $9.7 million for fiscal year 2020, which ended June 30, three months after COVID-19 abruptly cut short the season. Both revenue and expenses fell about 11% […]

A pandemic couldn’t stop the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra from balancing its budget.

The orchestra recorded a surplus of $74,000 on operating expenses of $9.7 million for fiscal year 2020, which ended June 30, three months after COVID-19 abruptly cut short the season. Both revenue and expenses fell about 11% from the year before.

The financial results, touted Wednesday at the nonprofit’s annual meeting, capture the beginning — but not the brunt — of the pandemic, which has battered performing arts organizations. The SPCO has wiped months of in-person concerts from its calendar, postponed highly-anticipated premieres and recently halted its livestreamed performances, as well.

The small surplus will feed a “rainy day” fund the SPCO has been building in recent years, bringing it to $762,000.

“We’re weathering the storm,” said Jon Limbacher, managing director and president. “We are cautiously optimistic that we can get through this” while protecting the organization’s financial health.

“However, we still believe that we have two, three hard years ahead of us.”

At this point, SPCO leaders don’t expect to tap the rainy day fund in fiscal 2021, Limbacher said. That’s partly because this year, the organization will use the $1.2 million in funding it got via the Paycheck Protection Program, meant to preserve jobs during the pandemic.

The SPCO froze hiring and shaved other expenses in fiscal 2020, to make up for losses in ticket sales and corporate support, Limbacher said. But it has continued paying musicians while classical organizations across the country have slashed salaries and instituted furloughs.

“I am just amazed that we are still being paid our full salary,” said violinist Daria Adams. “It’s unbelievable. I’m humbled.”

That has allowed the organization to retain its musicians during an era of uncertainty, said Adams, who joined the SPCO in 1987.

“I have friends in other orchestras who are looking at different career choices,” she said. “And in our orchestra, we’ve had … new members who have just bought houses.”

It helps that the SPCO is small and doesn’t own its own hall, making it more nimble, said Adams, who is on the board’s finance committee. Leaders are open with musicians about the nonprofit’s finances, she noted, a dramatic switch from 2012-14 and its painful, protracted contract lockout.

The SPCO has balanced its budget every year since 2012, when it reported a deficit of nearly $900,000.

The Minnesota Orchestra plans to release its year-end results in January. Last year at this time, it reported a record-breaking deficit of $8.8 million. In a September interview, CEO Michelle Miller Burns said she expected the nonprofit “surely will end with a deficit” for fiscal 2020 as well.

Before the pandemic, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra was performing at the Ordway in St. Paul, as well as less-expected venues, including the Turf Club. It had been set to take the stage at New York’s Lincoln Center in May, concluding its Great Performers Series, but that show was nixed.

With months of concerts canceled or postponed, just 14.7% of revenue was “earned,” a category that includes ticket sales, down from 19.8% last year and 22.4% the year before that.

As a result, donations carried a bigger burden in balancing the budget. But those contributions — from people, companies and foundations — were down, too, to $6.5 million compared with $6.9 million the year before.

During a time of “profound need,” it’s not surprising that corporate philanthropy shifted toward other priorities, Limbacher said. Contributions from businesses and foundations fell $225,000 to $684,000.

“What has been heartening is how individuals have stepped up,” he said. Some 88% of people who had purchased ongoing, monthly passes to attend unlimited concerts continued their monthly payments even after the SPCO canceled the rest of the season.

Contributions accounted for 66.2% of total revenue, up from 62.8% the year before.

The last piece came from the orchestra’s endowment. Although it drew $1.9 million, about the same as last year, that number represented a bigger slice of the pie.

Despite scotched concerts, more people watched the chamber orchestra perform in fiscal 2020. Counting digital concerts, the organization reached its largest audience — 287,000 attendees.

The SPCO began livestreaming performances in 2017. In recent months, it has created new broadcasts of past concerts, interspersed with videos of SPCO musicians performing at home and with family members.

When the SPCO launched its online library, “we could not have imagined that one day, the concert library would become our only means … to share music with our community,” said Kyu-Young Kim, artistic director and principal violin, in a statement.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 • @ByJenna

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