The Last to Know
Cutbacks at the Ann Arbor Symphony
"It was the furthest thing from my mind," says former Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra development director Guy Barast.
While most local arts organizations were singing the blues to the Ann Arbor News late last year, Barast sounded a brighter note. Others spoke of 10 and even 20 percent deficits, but Barast said the crisis had simply "caused us to rethink things a little bit." The symphony, he said, could compensate by "programming repertoire that is in the public domain more" to save on royalties.
Two days after the story appeared, Barast learned that balancing the budget would take more than tweaking the programming: "I came into the office and discovered I was being laid off indefinitely."
"The irony of all of this is that the music has never been better," says Barast's former boss, AASO executive director Mary Steffek Blaske. Until last fall, its finances had likewise never been better-with an annual budget of $1 million, the symphony had ended every season in the black for fourteen years.
But in September, Steffek Blaske says, the recession "finally started hitting us. There were drops in subscriptions and single tickets for the first three concerts." And just like that, the symphony was looking at a projected deficit of $100,000.
In addition to Barast's layoff, senior staff and music director Arie Lipsky took pay cuts, and musicians agreed to forgo a scheduled pay increase-a painful concession from players already paid less than musicians in comparable orchestras in Flint and Toledo.
Steffek Blaske herself has taken over fund-raising. "It's what I started doing here, and I love doing it," she says in a hoarse voice that testifies to long hours spent talking up the symphony's importance to education and to the quality of civic life. A bloody but unbowed optimist, Steffek Blaske hopes that "five years from now, we'll all be saying 'Can you believe what we've lived through?'"
Guy Barast finds it harder to be optimistic. He says he's "got good leads, thanks to friends on the symphony board," but so far, the resumes and applications he's sent out have generated little response.
"When I heard Jenny G [Governor Granholm] is talking about eliminating funding for the arts," Barast says, "it's hard to think the bad times are going to end anytime soon."
[Originally published in March, 2009.]