Classics live by Angela Birdsell


In the post-pandemic world, the data shows that performing arts organizations, along with being “first- and hardest-hit,” are also the slowest to recover. This is especially true in the three Prairie Provinces, according to Nanos and Business for the Arts research. For the WSO, operating as we currently are with 62% of pre-pandemic sales revenues, this represents over $1.5 million in lost revenue in the 2022-23 season. Like many other arts organizations, this loss was covered by reserves established by the Federal COVID wage and rent subsidies. Yet free concerts and lower-priced tickets are “selling like hotcakes”, meaning Manitobans remain hungry for the live performing arts. We haven’t necessarily lost 38% of our patrons, but the loss is skewed towards higher-priced tickets – historically purchased by older or long-standing audience members. In March 2022, a WSO audience survey showed that 32% of respondents were 75+ years of age. Many are not returning because they simply cannot.

The WSO team continues to work tirelessly to attract new patrons, lobby government for a longer COVID-recovery runway, and increase our fundraising efforts. We’re thrilled that this year individual donations are up from last year in dollars and number of donations. We have a strong and dedicated Board. We are also focusing our efforts on reducing and managing costs as best we can on an already shoestring budget.

We receive enthusiastic feedback for our community concerts, outreach programs, Night at the Movies, Classics and Live at the WSO concerts that together, reach people of all ages, who are new to the WSO and from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Many are coming to the Centennial Concert Hall for the first time, seeing people who look like them, getting their photo taken on our red carpet, and enjoying the concert experience. We know the face of Winnipeg is changing; we see it in our audiences! We are also inspired by efforts of community cultural emissaries such as Paul Ong who help us reach Chinese and Filipino communities. Next year, our Symphony in the City series will include a partnership with the Punjabi community in a concert conducted by Armand Singh Burke. The WSO’s recent Sultans of String: Walking Through the Fire concert was a beautiful and important collaboration with Indigenous artists from across the country.

We are also overjoyed that with support from a long-time and dedicated WSO donor, we will be able to launch a three-concert Sunday Classics series next season to welcome audiences on a Sunday afternoon. We hope this will be good news for patrons who are no longer able or willing to come downtown in the evening. Stay tuned!

The Volunteer Committee (formerly known as Women’s Committee) supports the WSO through its Music Stand marketplace, which currently brings in $10-13,000 annually. This amount is offset in part by storage fees and technical services that the WSO pays to the Manitoba Centennial Centre Corporation (MCCC). Activities of the Music Stand were also in the past, supported by WSO marketing and financial departments. The WSO raises over $2 million per year from generous patrons, with very limited staffing. We must be sure that we invest our resources in ways that ensure every dollar and hour of staff time yields optimal returns, and this includes in our engagement with volunteers.

As the WSO emerged from the pandemic, we recognized that to build new audiences for the future, we must increase the visibility of the WSO, our upcoming concerts, and some of our guest artist groups at the Concert Hall. To ensure high brand recognition for WSO and our programming, we reached a new arrangement with the Volunteer Committee. This was to determine specific concerts (such as the Classics) where tables will be front and centre and others for which it made more sense for a slightly reduced Music Stand (from five tables to four), placed to the right of the entrance but still highly visible. For example, when the WSO holds a subscription or donation drive, we need to be front and centre. For our Star Wars in Concert movies, part of the experience will include a major front lobby installation. In such situations (and with varying demographics), it does not make sense to have the Music Stand seeking the engagement it will not likely attain. Should a marketplace targeted at people who look like my age demographic be at a Rap/Break Dancing concert? Or should we strive to ensure that younger people coming to the Concert Hall for the first time feel welcome, see people who look like them, be excited by the experience, and leave with lasting impressions that bring them back?

We recognize that the Music Stand is a beloved tradition for many Volunteer Committee members, a time of fellowship and socializing, and an opportunity to enjoy the concert. We also respect the stated independence of the Volunteer Committee to execute its activities and wish it continued success as it exercises its autonomy in ways that also work for the WSO.

In short, this is a nuanced, and to many, as we’ve heard, an overdue development. Our front-of-house experiences must carry a strong WSO brand and present us as welcoming to many different people and varying demographics. This includes those who represent our loyal and traditional audiences and others who are new to the WSO. For an organization that produces over 70 events per year, we are many WSOs and must strive to attract and retain our many demographics.

Thank you to every WSO supporter!

Angela Birdsell is the Executive Director of the WSO.

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