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Can Sacramento Ever Become Brooklyn? (And Would It Want To…)

Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera

April 9, 2015

A view from the pit of the Sacramento Philharmonic.“Salute to New Industry” is a six-minute video about Sacramento business prospects. It’s a main-street, chest thumper with earnest heads bleating on about square feet and how investment from home and abroad is pouring in, how food technologies from UC Davis will feed regional prosperity, and how the presence of Seamans, Apple, and Raging Waters portend the emerald city to come. There’s also a nod to the Kings, who have been less than lackluster on the basketball court in recent years, but terrific business booty. And, finally, there’s a hat off to the city’s new professional soccer team, the Sacramento Republic; although oddly, the team’s name is not mentioned.

This video was produced in March 2014 by the Sacramento Area Commerce & Trade Organization (SACTO) and is all to say that Sacramento has the “malls and balls” to be a city like Cleveland or Minneapolis, even Atlanta, and at the same time, it has the white-picket charm of Winesburg, Ohio.

But what’s missing? Nowhere in the hallelujah is there any mention of the arts, not even the Crocker Museum of Art, with its new Teel Family Pavilion. The Crocker is undeniably one of the notable museums in Northern California. And no mention of the Mondavi Center in Davis, which is arguably the region’s real center of cultural gravity. And certainly nothing about the California Musical Theater, the Chamber Music Society of Sacramento, the ballet or the Sacramento Theater Company — or even the Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera, “the alliance,” which admittedly is down at the moment for professional introspection and awaiting a new business model, or a new spirit.

The broad question remains: Will the arts in Sacramento ever find their proper place in the community, and will they ever be seen, and developed, as the economic engines they are in other cities? That’s the odd takeaway from this video: The business community in Sacramento doesn’t seem to see the economic benefits — much less the significance — of culture, which, you could argue, is a reflection of the city’s inherent disinterest.

II

The director of the SACTO video is Ed Goldman, a business columnist, communications consultant, author, speaker, comedian, arts advocate, and, by reputation, a generous donor. Ironically, Goldman is a two-time, former member of the old Sacramento Symphony board. He was a member in 2004-05 and served again briefly as a communications consult in 2007. Both times he says he left the organization after personality conflicts with the executive directors. Asked about the video’s neglect of the arts, Goldman replied that the content was not his call and suggested reaching SACTO.

Barbara Hayes is the president and CEO of SACTO. Asked about the content, she explained that the video was meant to accompany a luncheon for members only, and suggested that leaving the arts unmentioned was merely an oversight. “The arts,” she wrote in an email, “like the sports teams, neighborhoods, school districts, and outside recreation in the region, all combine to tell the story of the quality of life here in the Sacramento Region. We use all the assets we have – including the arts – to tell that story.”

Goldman’s view of business links to the arts is that Sacramento is not yet “a vibrant, corporate town” and doesn’t have the kind of business foundation — a critical mass of corporate headquarters, for example — that might sustain a symphony, or an opera. Asked whether the Philharmonic / Opera Alliance boards in recent years had been perhaps “out of touch,” Goldman replied in an email,

Absolutely. With so many technological options available — such as showing a Philharmonic concert on a big screen so that a cello solo can be seen in closeup, for example — classical music can be made relevant and entertaining for new generations. But those things cost money — and while a handful of contributors have been wonderfully generous, notably the Raley-Teel family, operas are usually expensive to present unless you go the minimalist route, and that can have iffy results: Your traditional crowd will be disappointed at the lack of grandeur and your new audiences will wonder why those people wearing black and standing against a white scrim are yelling at each other. Opera tends to demand large-scale production because its music, stories, and emotions are on a large scale. Otello isn't just having "issues" and Tosca isn't just about commitment phobia. 

“Opera tends to demand large-scale production because its music, stories, and emotions are on a large scale. Otello isn't just having "issues" and Tosca isn't just about commitment phobia.” - Ed Goldman

III

The Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra, originally the Sacramento Symphony, was launched in 1948 and sailed along quietly for nearly 40 years, until 1986 when it ran into a 10-year storm of deficits, bankruptcies and administrative failures. In 1996, despite a $300,000 city bailout, the bankruptcy was fatal, and as many as 5,000 subscribers lost their money. The next year the symphony was recast as the Sacramento Philharmonic and led by that odd pimpernel, Zvonimir Hacko, who had come to Sacramento in 1995 and quickly established a history of failed orchestras.

Once described as “a cross between Toscanini and Stalin,” Hacko stayed for 18 months and by all accounts mismanaged both the artistic and the business sides of the orchestra. Cellist Rejean Anderson was once quoted as saying that Hacko was “a terrible conductor; the worst I’ve ever played under.” Other musicians claimed he couldn’t read an orchestral score and sometimes would go on beating time long after the orchestra had stopped.

In addition, at the end of his tenure, the board found that some $45,000 in payroll taxes had not been paid. And then there was the charge that Hacko and his former executive director, Deborah Case, had taken $42,000 worth of office equipment from the Sacramento Chamber Orchestra to use in the new Philharmonic. Eventually, a grand jury was convened but did not issue an indictment on any of the charges. In among the unverified histories is an anecdote suggesting that the district attorney’s office did not press for an indictment in order to protect the symphony’s “name.”

As an aside, since leaving the Sacramento Philharmonic, Maestro Hacko has been a guest conductor in cities and towns across central Europe, including his native Croatia. He is artistic director of the Austrian Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Martinu Festival in Linz. He also lists himself as music director of the Oregon Music Festival; although no one at the festival will confirm that. Hacko, himself, responded to several emails, but would not answer any questions on the record. Nor would he address his participation in the Oregon Music Festival.

When Hacko left the Sacramento Philharmonic in 1999, the financial situation was so dire that the orchestra was scrapped, but then recommissioned the same year. And so began a period of market studies and financial rebuilding, and gradually the orchestra found its sea legs. For a time, roughly between 2002 and 2007, the orchestra flourished. But then the great recession arrived. In July 2013, in a last ditch effort to save the enterprise, it was allied with the Sacramento Opera to form The Sacramento Region Performing Arts Alliance.

But now that in turn has foundered and the Sacramento Philharmonic Foundation, which oversees the endowment for the Philharmonic, has been forced almost to its knees — hence the reason that, for the first time in 17 years, there were no concerts this fall and it’s unlikely there will be any this spring. Nevertheless, last fall the foundation received a bequest of $387,462 from J. Davis Ramsey, a U.S. Forest Service worker, and a long-time local philanthropist. His attachment to music included once having written a symphony.

Laurie Nelson, who heads the Alliance board, recently estimated that as of the end of November, 2014, the Alliance, as opposed to the Philharmonic Foundation, has around $260,000 in the bank, not including “a number of very generous pledges that are not yet on our books.”

The Alliance includes a staff of just two, a CFO and a director of education and outreach. A third member of the staff, Ken Raskin, the head of operations, died of an apparent suicide in late November. Beyond a breathtaking personal tragedy, Raskin, 53, was the only one in the Alliance who could implement a collective bargaining agreement, as well as orchestrate contracts, payroll, reservations, manage the library, and in general, direct opera production. Moreover, the orchestra has recently hired three consultants to design a new business model. It was thought Raskin would be a key player in helping implement aspects of that model.

IV

The consultancy has been nicknamed T3, which is actually an abbreviation for “the turn-around team.” The three consultants include Paul Hogle, executive director of the Detroit Symphony; Bob Swaney, a fundraising and marketing expert: and John McCann, whose expertise is in organizational leadership and strategy development. The three — working under separate contracts but though one fiduciary agent — have been gathering information to prepare a business model to be presented in late spring. The consultants have spoken to many of the major players in Sacramento.

And what is the initiative? According to one person familiar with the effort, though unwilling to speak for attribution, the goal is not to re-configure something that hasn’t worked before, or to come up with a scaled-down version of a big city arts organization. The goal is to create a holistic enterprise joining musicians, administrators, and consultants, along with neighborhood leaders and corporate players; altogether, a critical mass of people throughout the community who want this to succeed and then are committed to making it happen.

As this person said, imagine Sacramento as “the Brooklyn of the West,” which suggests a city in the shadows of a cultural capital that establishes it own cultural signature and identity, and one day feels on a par. He added, “I don’t think people in Brooklyn feel that the Brooklyn Academy of Music is all that junior to Lincoln Center.” [I]magine Sacramento as “the Brooklyn of the West,” which suggests a city in the shadows of a cultural capital that establishes it own cultural signature and identity, and one day feels on a par.

IV

One of the criticisms made of Sacramento Philharmonic management is that during this transition, period subscribers have been left out of the loop. As one long-time member of the symphony put it, “The old symphony had 6,000 subscribers; the alliance has 2,500, combined. And they haven’t received any explanation of what’s going on. No letter, nothing. We’re all racing against the clock to save this, but some basic steps are not being taken.”

Asked about the state of affairs, the new Philharmonic board chair, Laurie Nelson, replied in an email: “I can tell you with absolute certainty that we have not taken any money from subscribers for shows this season and thus remain ‘in the black’ from donations as we carry out this in-depth review and ‘re-creation,’ if you will.”

Meanwhile, the Professional Musicians of Central California, AFM #12, have met with members of T3 and await “the plan.”

“We’ve been patient to this point,” says Larry Gardner, the union president, “because we think this is the fastest way to get back on stage. The alternative is to start all over again. But then you’d be asking people for money for an organization with no history. It’s an option that’s been tried in other places, and we may have to consider that down the line. But the symphony has come out of the ashes before, and that’s hopeful; although everybody keeps talking about how once before the symphony got a bailout from the city and then closed its doors. Do I trust them? For the time being we’re going down that path, but it doesn’t mean we’ll stay on that path.”

In sum, said Gardner, “I feel cautiously optimistic.”

V

Jane Hill is an arts management guru and troubleshooter for hire. She advises nonprofit arts boards on the ways and means of success and has a reputation for her straightforward, no-holds-barred advice. She lives in Eureka. From 2002 to 2007, she was the executive director of the Sacramento Orchestra, which was still recovering from the Hacko era. Regarding his departure, she was quoted as saying at the time, “They may have cut out the cancer, but the patient is an inflatable doll.”

In a recent interview, asked how the symphony could have been so drawn in by Maestro Hacko, Hill replied, “He put on a good performance as a music director, although not musically, certainly. But I suppose he got as far as he did because we as Americans still have a national lack of self-esteem that convinces us that people with foreign names and accents are artistically more gifted than we are.”

When Hill took over the symphony in August 2002, the organization was on an upswing. “There was not much debt left (from the Hacko years), but there was a lot of uncertainty about how to move forward, and specifically how to reclaim a credible reputation. But then, over the next five years, we did a pretty fine job of building the orchestra and establishing financial health.”

Hill nearly doubled the orchestra’s budget, began a process to commission new works, and reached out to local arts and educational organizations.

“What I see now makes me very sad. I just hope that a high-priced consultant will tell the board exactly what to do and, more importantly, I hope they do it.” “What I see now makes me very sad. I just hope that a high-priced consultant will tell the board exactly what to do and, more importantly, I hope they do it.” - Jane HIll

Her sense is that the symphony’s uneven history is partly bad luck, partly bad management, partly the fact that nonprofits in general weren’t prepared for the calamity in 2008, and partly the nature of Sacramento, itself. “If you’re the capital of the state you ought to have an orchestra of the highest quality and people ought to be able to discern the difference between a small community orchestra and a real metropolitan orchestra. The problem is that if people can’t discern quality, obviously they won’t support it.”

“The thing about Sacramento is there is a lively neighborhood life, and each neighborhood has a genuine sense of community, but I don’t think the city as a whole has a clear identity — if only because the politicians who might show leadership go home on the weekends. It’s strange because even with all the business success the city has had, somehow that has not culminated in a sense of wanting quality, cultural things.”

Crocker Art Museum is the exception, perhaps because it’s a building and, as Hill puts it, “there’s stuff in it and it doesn’t come and go. It’s solid and identified. If we could get a community as a whole to have that feeling about more ephemeral things, like the theater companies and music organizations, then…”

VI

When Hill arrived in Sacramento her most serious challenge came from the local musicians’ union. “I went to my first contract negotiation with the union two weeks after I got there. I knew nothing and I realized I couldn’t fake it, so I sat down and said, ‘I’m an old hand at arts management but I’m new to orchestras, please don’t let me do anything stupid.’ They looked at me with astonishment, until I gave them five years of financials. ‘If there’s information not here,’ I told them, ‘please let me know and I’ll get it.’ I’ve always believed in transparency. I’m not going to operate on an us-versus-them model. After all, what should be secret about the Sacramento Philharmonic budget? If you read the nonprofit laws, this kind of organization is supposed to be transparent. The marketing, the fundraising, how much income is derived from tickets and contributions … It’s all supposed to be public information. My advice to boards is always, ‘take your 990 and put it on your website’.”

Hill’s other advice to boards is to get over the inherent dislike most people have of asking for money and not to forget that what you’re doing is offering someone an opportunity to invest in an important community resource. “In that sense, you’re doing them a favor. So we have to get out of our beggar-in-hand view of ourselves. The bottom line is, if we don’t believe that what we’re doing is important then why should anyone else believe that? And I don’t mean in the sense that it’s going to make you a better human being, or more knowledgeable about the classics, or more impressive to friends. None of that.”

Hill, who gives seminars on just this aspect of board membership once asked a woman at a workshop how she had decided to become a major donor. “Well,” the woman replied, “I was just thinking one day, ‘I have the means, I could do this,’ and then it was like my heart opened.”

“When you heart opens,” says Hill, “your purse will follow.”

For Hill, this is the heart of the matter in Sacramento: There’s no cultural leadership, but also no culture of nonprofit leadership, just not enough people on boards throughout the community to articulate the importance of classical music and make hearts and pocketbooks open.

“Our goal must be to find the time and place and the wherewithal to keep this wonderful music alive. That’s our job, however we do it and for whatever number we can gather together. And maybe in places that don’t always meet our aesthetic standards. But that’s our job, to keep it alive, so we won’t be the last generation to understand why this is so special. The trick is to light passion under those who have merely a sense of duty. My message to board members is always, ‘If you’re here solely from a sense of duty, go away.' ”

VII

Hill added a postscript, which was that years ago she took the Erhard Seminars Training (est) at the prodding of her ex-husband. Est was the personal transformation course founded by that strangely compelling yet unknowable personality, Werner Erhard. They were offered from late 1971 to late 1984. Hill came away from training entranced by the theatrical nature of “getting it” but not much else. However, there was one revelation that stayed with her, the notion that understanding est was actually the booby prize.

“It's much the same with many nonprofit boards,” she said. “It’s less the knowledge of what needs to be done, and more the courage and commitment to do it.”

Mark MacNamara, a writer and journalist based in Asheville, North Carolina, has written for such publications as NautilusSalonThe Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair. From time to time, his pieces in San Francisco Classical Voice also appear in ArtsJournal.com.  Noteworthy examples include a piece about Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast; a profile of sound composer Pamela Z and an essay on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. MacNamara recently won several awards in the 2018 Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards presented by the San Francisco Press Club.  His website is macnamband.com.