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Like many American symphonies, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (CSO) has seen some of its audience go up in smoke. “Here in Denver, the classical music audience has been flat or slightly declining for a long time,” said CEO Jerome Kern. “That impacts contributions. It’s not simply that they’re not attending concerts, they’re not contributing to support.”

So, Kern and the CSO turned to marijuana.

With recreational marijuana newly legalized in Colorado (and in Washington state), “Here was a newly legalized industry that’s growing very rapidly that came to us and said, ‘We’d like to support you,’” said Kern.

Thus was born Classically Cannabis: The High Note Series. Sponsored by can­nabis industry vendors, the series kicked off in May with the first of three invitation-only fundraisers. The rest are scheduled for this month and next month, and the series will culminate with a concert at the Red Rocks venue in September, which CSO officials estimate will raise some $200,000.

The fundraisers are to be intimate affairs. Each will accommodate about 275 people, with a minimum donation of $75. CSO ensembles will be playing during the fundraisers, and the events are BYOC (bring your own cannabis).

The concert at Red Rocks (no smoking) will feature traditional classical music, said Kern. It will have cannabis industry sponsors. Red Rocks seats roughly 10,000.

“We’ve been working on audience growth, particularly lowering the age and increasing diversity,” said Kern. “We saw the opportunity to one, raise significant amounts of funding and two, to reach into a new audience that would be different from the ordinary audience we serve.”

Symphonies around the country have struggled with declining audiences recently, said Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras in New York City. “There has been a decline in audiences for orchestras, although it has leveled somewhat,” he said. According to a survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, approximately 8.8 percent of American adults attended a classical music performance in 2012, down from 9.3 percent in 2008 and 11.6 percent in 2002.

Kern said that while the orchestra thought about any perceived social stigmas about marijuana, the decision to move forward was easy. “I don’t think you take a step like this without thinking about it,” he said. “We’re not endorsing marijuana use, we’re accepting support from the cannabis industry, which is absolutely legit, the same as alcohol. I don’t know how many states legalized medicinal marijuana; two states legalized recreational marijuana, and I don’t think any performing arts organization can turn away any legitimate supporters.” (It’s 22 states and the District of Columbia.)

Fundraisers have to be careful when asking for donations from potential donors who have consumed marijuana. These donors should be treated with the same care as donors who have imbibed alcohol.

“The AFP Code — and general common decency and sense — dictates that fundraisers should not take advantage of someone who is vulnerable to impairment, whether it be from alcohol, legal marijuana or other substances,” said Jay Love, chair of the Ethics Committee for the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP). “It’s a form of exploitation, which the Code explicitly prohibits. Given the changing politics of marijuana, it’s something fundraisers need to be aware of.”

Requests for follow-up on the ethics of fundraising for the High Note Series were not returned by a CSO spokesperson.

The CSO has struggled in recent years with declining revenue and a recent board shakeup because of budgetary and salary issues. According to its 2012 Form 990, the orchestra had a net loss of $788,069. The year before, revenue less expenses was a loss of $227,143.

“The symphony about two-and-a-half years ago saw the vast bulk of community trustees leave and take their support with them,” said Kern. He said the CSO is using the exodus as an opportunity “to reinvigorate (the orchestra) by extending the reach of the symphony, no longer positioning it as an elitist organization supported by few.”

Classically Cannabis is just one way CSO is using unconventional audience development methods. “We’ve had a Comic Con series,” said Kern, referring to the comic and graphic novel convention held the world over, including in Denver. “Next season we have what we’re calling our (Geek Package). We’ll have another Comic Con series and an Animaniacs (late-90s Warner Brothers cartoon) series. We’ve played with rock groups and folk singers. All of this is intended to get people familiar with the orchestra, and the hope is they’ll listen to traditional classical music and find it rewarding.”

According to Rosen, symphonies in cities around the country are targeting younger and more diverse audiences by modifying their programs. “Some have shorter concerts, or concerts that are priced lower to chip away at the price barrier,” he said. “Some have programs that begin at 10 p.m. and might convert into a club-like setting. There’s experimentation with the concert itself: a varied repertoire, commentary from the stage, activities before and after the concert. There’s lots and lots of different types of changes being tried to attract younger audiences.”

Kern said the orchestra’s relationships with corporate partners don’t start with an ask for support. The orchestra first reaches out to provide a service. “We go out and say, ‘how can we partner together, what can we do for you? Would you like music for your event? Are you interested in creating music with us?’,” said Kern.

The most important aspect of audience development, said Rosen, is making any new programming organic to the symphony’s community and circumstances. “There are no real cookie-cutter solutions because every community has a different demographic, different music leadership, different artistic focus,” he said. “If there’s one tip, it’s understand your community and know your audience and prospective audience and build from there, rather than replicating a project someone did somewhere else. (The CSO) made a judgment of what that community would enjoy and would appreciate. It has to be very local.”

All of these efforts are around modernizing for a changing demographic in a changing landscape. Kern said the orchestra’s survival depends on it. “If you’re not creative in today’s environment, you’re going to die. No doubt about it,” he said. “If people adhere to the old model and go back to being dependent on a small number of wealthy individuals or entities, that’s not a recipe for longevity.” NPT

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