Arts as a Business: the Boise Philharmonic

Sharon Fisher//August 7, 2019

Arts as a Business: the Boise Philharmonic

Sharon Fisher//August 7, 2019

The Boise Philharmonic is one of the oldest arts organizations in Idaho. Photo courtesy of the Boise Philharmonic

This is the first in a four-part series on the economic impact of local arts groups.

Probably the oldest arts organization in Idaho – and one of the longest-running arts organizations in the U.S. – is the Boise Philharmonic, which started as the Boise Orchestra in 1886 and is working to make itself more appealing to contemporary audiences.

As the officially incorporated nonprofit Boise Philharmonic Association, it’s about to celebrate its 60th anniversary.

The Philharmonic’s budget for next year is about $2.1 million, including artistic labor, production expenses, marketing, patron services and ticketing, development, fundraising events, education and administration, according to Hollis Welsh, executive director. The lion’s share – just shy of $1 million – goes to labor, including the music director and more than 80 contracted musicians, as well as guest conductors and artists, she said. Adding in administrative salaries brings the total spent on staffing to about 60% of the total budget.

Among them are 14 salaried musicians, paid year-round and guaranteed a certain number of “services,” a 2 ½-hour block of time, typically either a rehearsal or a performance.

“The salaried positions were created several years ago as a way to encourage musicians from out-of-town to consider moving to Boise as a destination,” Welsh said. They also typically perform in the organization’s smaller ensembles.

The remainder are hired based on need. “We have fewer performances than a theater company with a four-week run, but we’re paying 80-plus musicians for a single performance,” Welsh said. “That dynamic really changes things.”

A standard concert typically has four rehearsals, two with just the orchestra and two with the guest artists, typically followed by two performances.

The Philharmonic’s musicians recently unionized, but that hasn’t caused a big change, Welsh said. “We’re in the middle of negotiations to update our collective bargaining agreement with them about changes we want to see,” she said. “It’s been a very amicable process, by and large. Small changes will make it easier for everyone in the organization.”

Orchestras tend to have less turnover than some other performing arts, Welsh said, with some staff staying on for decades.

Eric Garcia, music director of the Boise Philharmonic. Photo courtesy of the Boise Philharmonic

Like many other arts organizations, the Philharmonic is working to attract younger audiences. “We did a great deal of growth on the season we just wrapped,” Welsh said. “We updated to be contemporary, bright and inviting, to be attractive to the new people moving into town. Part of our goal is to appeal to a broader, younger, more diversified audience.”

That includes reaching beyond the Treasure Valley. For example, this year for the first time the organization streamed some of its concerts to schools that couldn’t attend in person, such as in North Idaho, as well as appearing on Boise State Public Radio.

Another part is considering a new, dedicated performance space. “It’s a conversation all four arts organizations have had in one way or another,” Welsh said.

The Morrison Center holds 1,900 people and some Boise Philharmonic concerts reach 1,850, though the average is about 1,700. In the Brandt Center at Nampa’s Northwest Nazarene University, concerts average 500 people, Welsh said. The organization continues to introduce new events to help attract new members, such as its recent pops series.

“That did move our earned revenue up,” Welsh said.

While the Morrison is a good size for the Philharmonic, a multiuse space would serve varying needs, she said. “What’s missing is a 1,000- to 1,200-seat space,” she said. “It’s the sweet spot for a lot of performances.”

Counting attendees at all performances, about 50,000 people a season – some of whom may attend more than one concert – attend Boise Philharmonic events, Welsh said. These days, performances don’t typically sell out.

“There was a time when Boise Philharmonic sold out through subscriptions, and you couldn’t get a single ticket,” she said. “But that was before a lot of other options showed up.”

The Philharmonic makes its money through earned revenue – ticket sales, contract work, dues and so on, which amounts to about 45% – and contributed revenue, which includes grants, fundraising events, sponsorship revenue, general fundraising and interest.

“It’s fairly steady,” Welsh said. “You’ll probably find that’s a pretty standard split.”