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RPO is threatened by proposed budget cuts

In response to Gov. David Paterson’s proposed budget cuts, which include a nearly 20 percent cut in New York State Council on the Arts funding, Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra president and CEO Charles Owens and other leaders from major upstate orchestras traveled to Albany this week to testify at a joint legislative committee hearing on arts and tourism. This is an edited copy of his prepared statement:

To say that the last year and a half has been challenging for the RPO is an understatement. While the state of New York-and you, as our elected representatives-negotiate large deficits in the midst of the economic crisis, I come today to let you know that the effects of that economic turmoil go far beyond Albany and are being felt directly and drastically by organizations such as ours.

Last year, despite cost-cutting measures across the board, the RPO ended its 2009 fiscal year with a $776,000 deficit. Given the magnitude of the deficit, this year we reduced our budget by $1 million-a full 10 percent-including reductions in the salaries and benefits of our musicians and staff totaling more than a half-million dollars.

If that is not evidence enough of the challenges we face, let me tell you more about what contributed to last year’s deficit. In a typical year, 6,500 to 7,000 families contribute charitable gifts totaling approximately $2.5 million to our bottom line. Last year, in the wake of the Wall Street collapse, we lost 1,900 of our prior-year donors altogether-an astonishing 28 percent.

Our box office also took a hit as discretionary spending patterns changed from even our most loyal, longtime patrons. Beginning in January of 2009, after at least four consecutive years of steady growth in ticket sales, the RPO saw a dramatic drop in ticket purchases, further contributing to our historic deficit.

We are so grateful for the support of the New York State Council on the Arts-NYSCA. If not for their more than $250,000 in support last year, we would have faced a deficit in excess of $1 million.

Compounding the problem is the fact that this $776,000 deficit brings our organization’s total debt accumulation over the past 20 years to nearly $3 million. Right now, that debt is paralyzing the organization’s growth, and it goes without saying that we cannot sustain further cuts without considering changing our mission altogether.

And that mission truly serves our community. The Rochester Philharmonic provides free concerts to more than 20,000 schoolchildren every year. In a day and age when music programs are being cut or drastically curtailed in many schools, many of these children would not be able to experience music, or be engaged in it, without our organization’s active partnerships with school districts throughout our region.

Beyond our many programs for young people are the tens of thousands of families and seniors who experience the RPO every year, often at deeply discounted rates. Without the ability to serve these audiences, our mission would be drastically altered.

While everyone can agree that we contribute directly to the quality of life in our community, it also is important to note that arts organizations serve a critical economic role in the heart of our center cities. Numerous studies have shown that public investment in the arts yields an enormous and tangible return to state and local economies, and the RPO is proof-positive of this phenomenon: In a single season alone, it’s estimated that our total annual spending of $10 million supports more than 360 jobs in our region. And in turn, that spending and those jobs generate more than $1 million in additional revenues for state and local governments.

The patrons who come downtown to our more than 100 concerts every year spend an estimated $2.5 million on their tickets-and another $2.5 million in local cafes, restaurants and hotels. This adds true, measurable economic vitality to downtown Rochester.

In summary, the very spirit and essence of the RPO-the organization that George Eastman founded so proudly in 1922-is being threatened. Our organization-and by extension, our community-is compromised by these proposed cuts.

I ask you to make a direct investment in the spirit of optimism and hope for Rochester and cities across the state by restoring the vital funds that NYSCA and other state agencies need to support the important work of the Rochester Philharmonic and other cultural organizations Without that support, we cannot do what we do best: present music that enriches our lives, inspires our children and adds economic vitality to our center cities-at a time when the people of New York need it most.

2/26/10 (c) 2010 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.

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