The board of the Napa Valley Symphony Association voted Thursday night to “suspend all operations and to explore the wisdom of dissolving,” according to chairman Michael Enfield.
“I expect a decision within the month,” he said, adding, “there’s too much that’s unknown. We don’t have all the answers. I’m not sure we even have all the questions.
“We were dealing with the unforeseeable and the unforeseen.”
“I think they made the only decision they could make,” said Richard Aldag, who was laid off as executive director Tuesday, along with the three other symphony staff members. “We couldn’t continue to incur expenses with no revenue.”
Enfield, who joined the symphony board last May, cited three items that combined to create insurmountable financial problems for the 79-year-old symphony:
• the drying up of support for the arts during the recession that began in 2008;
• the death last year of the symphony’s chief donor, Donald Carr,
• the December closing of the Lincoln Theater where the symphony performed.
Whether this adds up to the death of the symphony is uncertain, Enfield said. Survival “would require an immediate source of funding that is not in evidence,” he said.
“We’re in uncharted waters,” he said. “But we’re mindful of our primary obligations to musicians and our employees.”
Enfield said he was unsure if the notices the four symphony employees received on Tuesday “were layoffs or teminations.”
“Every arts organization in the U.S. and probably the world is suffering because of the economy,” Enfield said, adding that the recession, in turn, has hurt the ability of the average person to support the arts.
Until this winter, the effects of the economic downturn on the symphony “had been blunted by the almost unimaginable generosity of Don and Lonne Carr,” Enfield said.
The Carrs, who moved to the valley after retirement, were major supporters of the renovation of the Lincoln Theater at the Veterans Home of California in Yountville so it could become a state-of-the-art home for the Napa Valley Symphony. The $22 million project was completed in 2005.
Aldag became executive director of the symphony in 2006 as the symphony was trying to recover from an earlier fiscal crisis, when money from the endowment had been used for operating expenses.
“We did fine for the first year,” Aldag said. “In 2007, we had to ask for help … I remember meeting Lonne Carr at the library and she gave me a check for $70,000,” he said.
After the recession hit in 2008, Aldag said, the symphony became dependent on the Carrs for support.
“Between 2008 and 2011, their support was in the six figures for the symphony and the Lincoln Theater,” Aldag said, estimating it was close to $750,000 a year. “They were carrying the symphony,” he said. “They gave an average of $328,000 a year to the symphony and more to the Lincoln Theater.”
Two years ago, Aldag recalled, a member of the board asked him, “What are you going to do if Don Carr is in a car accident?”
“I said, ‘I don’t know,’” Aldag said. The board had discussed “trying to wean themselves from Carr’s support,” he said.
Enfield said the board was mapping out a plan to become more financially independent, which included introducing a Mozart Festival in 2012. “We ran out of time,” he said.
On Aug. 26, Don Carr was killed in an automobile crash, and Lonne Carr was severely injured. With the Carr estate tied up, Aldag said, the support from the Carrs ended. At the time of his death, Carr had given the symphony $238,000, he said, but the 2011-12 season had not yet begun.
The first financial problems hit in September, Aldag said. “Maybe we should have canceled the season,” he added, “but we thought we could manage.”
In December, the Lincoln Theater closed, and the Friends of Lincoln Theater, with an estimated $200,000-$300,000 in unpaid bills filed for dissolution. The symphony, which had a scheduled holiday concert, was able to move it to the much smaller Napa Valley Opera House, which presented a new set of problems.
“The stage is too small to accommodate a full orchestra,” Enfield said, “and the seating capacity is 40 percent of the Lincoln Theater.”
Difficulties rescheduling guest conductors for available dates at the Opera House as well as unpaid musicians fees from December concerts led to the canceling of a January concert while questions remained as to whether the remaining concerts and a proposed Mozart Festival, scheduled to debut in April, would take place.
Aldag said the symphony had about 50 tenured musicians. “After the problems in 2005, we didn’t replace members who left,” he said.
The symphony does have an endowment, with assets of $1.4 million, which is administered by a separate board, and is protected by legal arrangements that kept it apart from the symphony’s operating expenses. The symphony association is in negotiations with the board of the endowment, which, with a unanimous vote, could release funds to pay what is owed the musicians and employees, Enfield said.
“This is really sad news,” said Asher Raboy who served as artist director of the symphony from 1990 to 2010. “The Napa Valley Symphony is an old and treasured institution.”
“I think it brought joy to the community — from the free performances at the River Festival in Napa to the great concerts,” Raboy said. “It its heyday, when we had money, it had great programs for kids,” including an annual concert for fifth graders.
“We were part of the community,” Raboy said. “It was part of what made Napa Napa.”