Facing the Music: Donations Feed Most Music Organizations in Chicago

Violinist Elizabeth Brausa Brathwaite, pianist Kuang-Hao Huang and cellist Patti Garvey are members of Picosa, a Chicago quintet focused on classical and contemporary chamber music.
Story and photos by Ann Meyer

The tip jar most street musicians plant with a few bucks to encourage donations is a fact of life for even the best musical performers in Chicago.

Chicago can boast one of the world best orchestras and a summer fest that draws 100,000 music lovers, but hitting it big as a musician in the city of broad shoulders is a rarity.

Donations largely fund the music scene here. Without generous gifts, institutions like the Chicago Symphony OrchestraLyric Opera and Chicago Philharmonic might close their doors. But only a few performers are paid salaries, and average wages for musicians are below most other metropolitan areas, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. To a large extent, Chicago music scene is a tale of the have and the have-not .

Raising Funds

Chicago wealthy contribute tens of millions of dollars each year to music nonprofits that range from community organizations to the Lyric Opera and Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which have annual operating budgets of about $70 million. There are an embarrassment of riches here, said Evanston flutist Caroline Pittman, who performs with the Park Ridge Civic Orchestra.

Playing bucket drums in front of the Art Institute of Chicago in October were Marcus Jones (far left), Joy Shawn (second from left), Dantrell Johnson (second from right) and “Waldo” (far right), who didn t disclose his last name. The drummers have been playing together for 10 years.

Chicagoans and visitors to the city also give a few bucks to the drummers who entertain passersby in front of the Art Institute of Chicago on weekends. But the money isn t the drummers only motivation. This is what I enjoy doing every day, says Marcus Jones, a bucket drummer from Englewood who also works at Walmart. We be doing this for 10 years, he said. It like a routine thing. Everybody gets a turn to play. Then we play together. We make our own drum beat. We make our own music.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association reported $25.2 million in support for its 2016-2017 concert season. The pot included $17.1 million from individuals, over $3.3 million in corporate support, and more than $1.8 million in foundation and government grants. Bank of America gave the single largest gift, of $1 million or more, according to the association annual report, while the symphony  received at least 15 individual gifts of $150,000 or more. Big individual donors included Helen Zell, wife of Sam Zell, the real estate entrepreneur. In November 2015, Helen Zell became the first woman ever to lead the CSO Association as board chair, Crain Chicago Business reported.

The Lyric Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra attract big donors. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association reported $25.2 million in support for its 2016-2017 concert season, while the Lyric raised $37.8 million in gifts, grants and contributions in the year ended June 30, 2016, down from $54.2 the prior year, according to its 2015 IRS form 990.

Full-Time Work Scarce

While the Chicago Symphony Orchestra pays its musicians salaries that rank among the highest in the nation, most of Chicago smaller orchestras pay stipends of a few thousand dollars and many are voluntary endeavors. Overall, Chicago ranks below other major cities in the nation for the number of employed musicians it supports, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Many music organizations don t offer employment contracts to performers so most are freelancers who parcel together performances and teaching stints.  There are so many musicians, and there are not enough orchestras to support them full time, so most of us are earning part-time earnings, piecing together part-time work, Pittman says.

Caroline Pittman teaches flute in Evanston and performs with the Park Ridge Symphony.

Performance musicians in the greater Chicago area earn about $25.50 an hour on average, while music directors and composers earn about $23 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those hourly wages are less than the average of $60 for marketing managers, $56 for public relations and fundraising managers, $33 for commercial and industrial designers and $30 for editors and writers. But performance wages tend to be considerably lower than teaching fees, which can climb to $85 or more per hour depending on the teacher experience and the location they serve.

Wages typically are the largest expense category for most music performance organizations, which rely on fundraising to support the administrative staff and the musicians. In return for the support they receive, the organizations give back to the Chicago community through free concerts and educational programs.

I do know every institution is struggling, Pittman said. The Lyric [Opera] could sell out every single seat and they would still need fundraising. They cannot break even just by selling out.

The Lyric Opera spends about $70 million a year to operate the organization and offer performances, and it relies on donations to supplement ticket sales, according to the organization’s financial reports. The suburban orchestra where Pittman plays has reduced the number of performances due to funding cuts, she said.

Many groups don t attempt to support the freelance musicians who perform for them. Professionals with advanced degrees and years of experience have to hustle to earn a living as a musician here. You have to get out and get to know people. After you ve done your practice “ and you have to keep practicing “ you have to play for free for people to get hired for money later on, said Pittman, who teaches flute at the Musical Offering in Evanston, where private lessons range in price from $39 for a half-hour lesson to about $80 for an hour lesson.

Creating Community

From taverns and concert halls to hospitals, music warms the city. Freelance cellist Allegra Montanari started Sharing Notes in 2012 to provide a way for musicians to share their music with hospital patients. It people being there for people, Montanari said. She said she recently performed at a memorial service in Englewood for a patient after the family heard her play in the hospital. She loved Broadway, so I played some hymns with them on cello. They all started singing and harmonizing. They were desperately in need of some uplifting. They were music lovers, Montanari said.

The next week I got a call from the woman godchild. She said the woman had passed and one of the last requests was for you to play at her funeral. I played the same song we played at her bedside ¦.Being there at her casket “ being part of it “ that what it so much about ¦.To me that is the power of music.

Today, a group of about 40 volunteer musicians perform in Chicago-area hospitals through Sharing Notes. It been pretty incredible to see how music creates community, Montanari said. There always a lot of happiness that someone is here for them. With the little kids, sometimes for the babies, their heart rates go down. We actually help calm them, she said.

The organization raises about $58,000 from Roosevelt University, corporate foundation grants, events, hospital partners and donations from individuals.

The Power of Music

Money typically isn t the reason people become musicians. Most say they play or write music for the love of it. They perform to share their work with others. Just getting asked to play on a big stage is an accomplishment for many contemporary musicians. Thankfully, Chicago is home to 1,785 music and dance venues, including many night clubs and bars that welcome new performers.

For music lovers who just want to hear some tunes without spending a hundred dollars or more for a big name performer, venues like Hideout, at 1354 W. Wabansia Ave., FitzGeralds in Berwyn, or Space in Evanston provide the setting and lure patrons with tickets from $5 to $40. Compared to $150 or more for concert tickets at United Center or Allstate Arena, the small venues are an affordable way to hear music from up-and-coming artists.

The musicians who comprise Picosa, a contemporary-classical quintet, provide audiences with a chance to hear chamber music written by newer composers, such as Augusta Read Thomas and Peter Schickele, perhaps best known for P.D.Q. Bach. A season ticket for Picosa performances costs from $30 to $75.

“I think the arts in general are important. If you don’t have that, what’s the point of existing?” said violinist Elizabeth Brausa Brathwaite. Picosa performs in small auditoriums, where concert-goers can actually see them play. Our goals  is ¦to get people to relax and enjoy a chamber concert in a more intimate setting. It a different experience when you are close to the performers, said Brathwaite, a freelance musician who also has performed with the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra, the Elgin Symphony, the Joffrey BalletChicago Sinfonietta, and Fulcrum Point.

Music brings people together, she said. It has always done that and it always will. We just have to make sure it stays vibrant.