What Lessons Can be Learned From the L.A. Philharmonic’s Financial Success?

American orchestras are confronting declining attendance, labor unrest, budget shortfalls, bankruptcy in the case of the Philadelphia Orchestra, even closures as with the Honolulu, Syracuse, and Albuquerque symphonies.

But the Los Angeles Philharmonic is thriving as never before, with a savvy president, Deborah Borda, and a stream of deep-pocked fundersrecently, for example, it landed a $20 million gift from tech investor David Bohnett. What's the lesson here for other music organizations, and arts nonprofits writ large?

Let's start with Borda's remarkable track record. Since taking the reins in 2000, she shepherded the opening of Disney Hall, the Frank Gehry brushed metal masterpiece, nearly quintupled the orchestra’s endowment to $222 million, and now has the luxury of working with the biggest budget of any U.S. symphony orchestra. 

Along the way, Borda took on some devilish challenges. One of the biggest issues with the decline of the public’s engagement in orchestras is the aging demographics of concert attendees. According to one study, the average age of Chicago Symphony Orchestra patrons is now over 52. One step Borda took to increase the L.A. Phil’s youth appeal was to hire Gustavo Dudamel, then 28 years old, as its music director after just two guest conducting appearances, one at the Hollywood Bowl, the other at Disney.

Patrons found the maestro to be electrifying, like a jolt of espresso in the sometimes stuffy atmosphere of classical performances. Born in Venezuela, Dudamel honed his conducting skills as music director of the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar, his country’s national youth orchestra. Borda is now cultivating a younger classical music audience with the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA), which offer free, extracurricular instrumental instruction to children in disadvantaged areas throughout Southern California.

The middle-aged Borda found a kindred spirit in the youthful conductor, launching the Dudamel Fellowship, which offers young conductors the opportunity to refine their skills by working directly with Dudamel. Borda initiated the Philharmonic Digital Initiatives team, which has produced orchestra applications, videos, and games for mobile devices. She drafted Brian Lauritzen of KUSC-FM, the city’s classical station, to offer ticket holders preconcert lectures about the upcoming performances. More than a third of the LA Phil’s revenue comes from the Hollywood Bowl, which the orchestra leases from L.A. County. Borda has opened the venue to more commercial acts, some of which have performed with the orchestra. An upcoming concert pairs Smoky Robinson with the orchestra, helping to make classical music cool again. Cultivating the next generation of patrons is essential for any 21st century arts organization.

Meanwhile, Borda worked to amp up fundraising by the philharmonic’s board. The directors do more than contribute their time as community involvement. The 52 members are a conclave of the city’s elite, paying $60,000 in annual dues just to participate. But Borda also hits them up for more, including participation in fundraisers and giving additional donations.

Take the example of David Bohnett and his journey to becoming a $20 million donor. Bohnett first came in as a modest contributor and classical music lover. Then, jazzed up by the opening of Disney Hall, he increased his giving. Then he was invited to join the board. Then he served for five years as chair of the board. And then he made that giant pledgeto establish the David C. Bohnett Presidential Fund for Discovery and Innovation, and the David C. Bohnett Presidential Chair, which endowed the position of president and CEO of the L.A. Phil in perpetuity so that the orchestra would always be able to hire a leader of the caliber of Borda. According to the language of the endowment, Bohnett's gift was "made in honor of Deborah Borda's continuing accomplishments with the Los Angeles Philharmonic."

One thing that drew Bohnett in at such a high level was Borda's commitment to advancing social equity as part of the LA Phil's mission, reaching out to underserved communities with music programs. That appealed to Bohnett, a progressive funder, and underscores how arts organizations can pull in new major donors by expanding their missions in ways that run counter to the perception that these groups mainly cater to an elite audience. 

A final lesson: Orchestras have declined at a time when the amount of money to be tapped for philanthropy has soared, especially with new fortunes made in tech and finance. Borda has been skilled at connecting with the new rich and cultivating them. Of course, it helps that she's in Los Angeles, with one of the highest concentrations of wealthy people in the country. 

Willie Sutton famously said that he cracked safes "because that's where the money is." Today, any leader of an arts organization needs to be thinking in the same way, mastering the new geography of wealth created by a second Gilded Age. 

Related - On Second Thought, I Love the Philharmonic: How David Bohnett Became an Arts Philanthropist