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A Problem Of Survival

July 07, 1985|DANIEL CARIAGA

On the eve of its 18th season, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, for nearly two decades an ensemble used to steady growth, faces for the first time the problem of survival.

After years of ostensible prosperity, the orchestra is now in the red more than $180,000. The LACO management and board of directors are now deciding how much of the orchestra's projected 1985-86 season it can reasonably expect to salvage.

"One of the things we must do," says board president Ron Rosen, "is look at the worst that can happen." In separate interviews, both the Chamber Orchestra's executive director, Robert Elias, and president Rosen told The Times that "the orchestra could fold."

Naturally, both also promise they will not let that happen. Toward that end, the orchestra's board of directors has launched a search for grants and contributions, aiming to eradicate the deficit by Aug. 1.

What happened?

"Operating on a deficit is a way of life in the arts," explains Rosen, seated in his tastefully decorated, beehive-busy, 19th-floor law offices in Century City. "The Chamber Orchestra, like all other such organizations, is in the business of losing money.

"But, of course, we have to maintain the balance between artistic excellence and fiscal responsibility. Expanding at the modest rate of 20% a year, as we did between 1983-84 and 1984-85, doesn't seem like a lot--unless you find yourself short."

Operating in 1984-85 on a budget of $1.4 million, L.A. Chamber Orchestra supports a full-time administrative staff of seven people. As the resident chamber orchestra at Ambassador Auditorium, it performs several concert series there, as well as series at UCLA and in Santa Barbara, Santa Ana, Claremont, and in San Diego County. Its repertory ranges from the exclusively Baroque (in one series at Ambassador) to contemporary and brand-new works.

At the chamber orchestra's comfortable offices in the Ambassador International Cultural Foundation annex in Pasadena, executive director Elias and the orchestra's part-time development counsel, Mary K Bailey, admit that, as Elias calls it, the "shortfall" of some $120,000 for the season just past was the result of "a confluence of unfortunate events."

These events, Elias outlines, included "some problems on the board," and "some problems in communications."

"A major part of this deficit is a $60,000 carryover from the 1983-84 season," Elias says. "Also, the lack of a major benefit on behalf of the orchestra in 1984--an event which could have raised between $50,000 and $60,000--is another reason for the shortfall.

"Finally, if there is a culprit, it may have been the board, when they created an overly ambitious budget for 1984-85. That budget, as it turned out, called for a 93% increase in contributed income.

"That wasn't realistic."

Bailey agrees, and says the shortfall had been predicted as early as August, 1984, five months after she became a consultant to the orchestra, and two months before Elias was hired.

"The figure remained constant throughout the season," Elias acknowledges. "Frankly, I was so busy putting out fires and meeting our payroll, it was a problem I never addressed directly. Now, with the help of our board of directors, we are all addressing it."

He outlines two basic attacks on the problem.

"First, we have made, and are making, numerous grant proposals to major foundations and corporations for one-time special grants. Some of these foundations and corporations are old friends, some are first-time contacts.

"Second, there is a concerted effort on the part of board members for each one to bring in new, individual contributors. Again, these may be old, new or returning contributors.

"In the case of reaching corporations, we are depending on our board members to gain for us entree to those organizations."

Since its beginning, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra has presented a prosperous front, but Rosen says the orchestra "has always scrambled financially.

"Going back over our history, I see that at one point our deficit was even larger than this one. But also, going back only two years, I find that, at the end of the tenure of (board president) David Ingalls in 1982-83, we had a surplus of $70,000."

Rosen admits the present financial crisis is serious and that, indeed, the orchestra could go out of business if the deficit is not erased.

"But," he adds, "that option is unacceptable.

Also unacceptable, he states unequivocally, is the rumored cutback of the 36-member orchestra to the size of a string octet.

"Cut back to a tiny ensemble? That never was an option. We are commited to continue to support this orchestra at its present size in the repertory appropriate to that size. Cutting down, we would lose the interest of our subscribers."

The basic problem, according to Rosen, is that "excellence, the musical excellence this orchestra has introduced into this community, costs a lot of money.

"And we, the board, have

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