Minnesota’s earliest arts organization and one of the oldest in the United States, the Schubert Club has survived two World Wars, the 1918 flu pandemic, the Depression and the recent recession. Artistic and Executive Director Barry Kempton is confident it will also survive COVID-19.
Founded in 1882, shortly after Minneapolis switched on its first electric lights, the Schubert Club has brought a glittering parade of classical artists to St. Paul: Arthur Rubinstein, Isaac Stern, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Leontyne Price, Mstislav Rostropovich, Beverly Sills, Vladimir Horowitz, Jessye Norman, Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Cecilia Bartoli, Reneé Fleming, Lang Lang, Joyce DiDonato, the Juilliard String Quartet, the Eroica Trio, Daniil Trifonov and many more.
Its mission is stated in simple terms: “to promote the art of music – particularly recital music, through performance, education and museum programs – and to maintain a high standard of excellence.” Its calm, steady presence belies the many hours of music Kempton and his small staff are responsible for each year, and the work it takes to pull it all together.
Each year, the Schubert Club presents 55-60 concerts across several series: its flagship International Artist Series, Accordo (the acclaimed string ensemble), Music in the Park, Schubert Club Mix and Courtroom Concerts. It has a fascinating museum in the Landmark Center with historic keyboards and documents. Some 15,000 people attend Schubert Club concerts each year; 8,000 visit the museum.
It has an active educational program with many moving parts including the Bruce Carlson Student Scholarship Competition, the Theoroi Arts Ambassadors Program for young professionals, and Project CHEER at the Hallie Q. Brown/Martin Luther King Center.
On March 13, like most arts organizations in Minnesota, the Schubert Club canceled or postponed several upcoming performances and events, including a highly anticipated concert series by the internationally renowned Danish String Quartet. Everyone left their offices in the Landmark Center to work from home.
We spoke with Kempton by phone on Tuesday morning. This interview has been edited and condensed.
MinnPost: How do you go about shutting down a season with many different artists coming here from other places?
Barry Kempton: The decision was made for us that public gatherings were no longer advisable. It required us to reach out to all the artists or their managers and let them know that we would have to cancel or postpone performances. We have committed to rebooking all of the artists, some next season and some in 2021-22.
One that has been quite a bit of work is the Danish String Quartet. They were to come in May and perform all of the Beethoven String Quartets over six concerts, because it’s Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year. I’m excited to say that we will soon announce new dates in the fall for that project. They really want to do it, and I particularly wanted this to happen during calendar year 2020. We have 240 people who are signed up to go to all six concerts. Momentum and excitement were building.
For most of the artists we’ve had to postpone or cancel, we are in the process of reaching out to them and offering goodwill payments, honoraria, which we hope will help tide things over during these very quiet months for individual artists. Our board is keen for us to do what we can.
MP: Are you still holding on to your staff?
BK: Yes, yes! We have committed to keep everyone on. It’s an easy commitment in the sense that everyone is busy. There’s a lot of work to be done. We’re still planning for next year, and we’re exploring various online things to do. We’ve been putting archival recordings online, trying to have a virtual concert in place of each of the evening concerts that were to be happening. [On Monday night] we had an Accordo recording, because Accordo was supposed to be playing at Westminster Hall.
MP: How many people tuned in?
BK: I looked [on Tuesday morning] and 150 have listened on YouTube so far. That’s close to 50 percent of the audience that would have been there. The recording stays up and available for a week. We’ll see by then how many people have actually listened to it.
This has been a way for us to reach out and stay connected to audience members. Many of them have let me know, and let colleagues in the office know, that they are sad the concerts aren’t going ahead. They understand, but they are sad. It’s been a way for us to say, “Even if we can’t all gather in one room, here’s something we can do together.”
MP: Ticket sales are about a quarter of your annual revenue. Where are you looking for support? What avenues are you exploring?
BK: In canceling concerts, we have been reaching out to ticket buyers and offering them a refund. Also the option to bank what they’ve paid for tickets to use next season. Also the possibility of turning back their tickets and making them into donations. People are doing all three.
About 50 percent of our income is from contributions. They come from individuals, government, foundations, a little bit from corporate as well. Many of the foundations have been in touch to be very supportive to us and I assume other nonprofits in terms of postponing application dates and reassuring us that even if programs haven’t been able to go ahead, money can be reapplied to other programs in the future.
It’s all a big moving target at the moment, and it’s hard to say what the actual impact is, but I am confident that we will go forward into next season. Whether we end the year with a surplus or a deficit is really hard to say right now, but if it is a deficit, it’s one the organization will be able to handle and deal with. The important thing for us right now is to keep focused on what we’re planning to do next year and into the future and try to make smart plans.
MP: I’m hearing you feeling pretty confident about the future. What are your greatest concerns at this particular moment?
BK: I am confident that Schubert Club will survive these challenging times, and that we will be presenting concerts, have a museum, and doing music education programing a long time into the future. What’s occupying me is trying to figure out what is essential. What are the core pieces of programing that we want to commit to and make sure they are strong? How do we make smart choices around maybe setting aside certain additional kinds of projects? Some extra receptions we might have had? We can say, “Let’s be smart and not program them next year, and maybe they’ll come back in future years.”
I don’t have all the answers yet, but that’s what occupying me. It’s not about survival or nonsurvival. It’s about making smart choices to come out of this as a strong organization.
MP: Will the COVID-19 crisis change the Schubert Club?
BK: I hope not. I think it’s hard to say definitively at this stage because we really don’t know how long this will go on. But we’re a fortunate organization to have history and great support in the community and some financial stability.
I consider it my job to make sure it doesn’t change the organization fundamentally. I have a fabulous board, and I’ve really had my heart warmed by all the audience members who have been encouraging and supportive. I know that there’s an important role for Schubert Club going forward in terms of providing live music and being one of the major music organizations in this community. That’s as good a reason as any to make sure we continue to do what Schubert Club has a strong reputation for doing.
MP: What do you need most from your supporters right now?
BK: We want them to be back next season! And buy tickets. And participate in the events we are able to put on. I think the main thing we want from patrons is just to keep participating, whether it’s remotely, as we have to do now, or when we’re back presenting concerts and joining us for those.