See more of the story

Thanks partly to an uptick in donations, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra ended fiscal year 2019 with a small surplus — about $143,000 — that it's saving for tougher times.

The new report, touted Wednesday at the nonprofit's annual meeting, shows that the SPCO balanced its $10.8 million budget for the fiscal year that ended June 30. That compares with about $10 million last year, a bump of about 8%.

Donations from individuals hit a high: to $2.9 million, up 2.7%.

"Last year we shared our music with more people than ever before," said Jon Limbacher, the SPCO's managing director and president. "At the same time, we had a strong year financially. Along with that, we were able to continue to offer some of the most affordable prices in all of classical music."

The chamber orchestra is known for its low ticket prices; half go for $15 or less. That's partly thanks to two programs: With a Netflix-style membership, people can pay just $9 a month to attend unlimited concerts. And, since 2016, children and college students get in for free.

The report followed last week's announcement that the SPCO's bigger counterpart, the Minnesota Orchestra, recorded an operating deficit in fiscal 2019 — $8.8 million, the largest in its history — after mostly positive results following its 2012-14 lockout. The SPCO has steadied its finances since its own labor dispute and lockout, balancing its budget in recent years and building a "rainy day" fund. This year's surplus brings that fund's total to more than $616,000.

Like other Minnesota arts organizations, the SPCO has been grappling with shifts in funding from corporate foundations. In May, it announced that it had been notified by several funders, including the Target Foundation and 3M, that changes to grant programs would result in the loss of $230,000 to $300,000 annually. To make up that difference, the nonprofit eliminated three positions and cut loose its Liquid Music series (whose creator, Kate Nordstrum, has since taken a post with the Great Northern festival).

The loss of foundation funding — and the resulting cuts — will show up in next year's fiscal results. Despite that challenge, Limbacher is optimistic.

"I've never been more bullish on classical music," he said by phone Wednesday before the annual meeting.

More and more, the SPCO is relying on donations, rather than tickets, to make its bottom line.

About 19.8% of the nonprofit's income in 2019 was "earned," a category that includes ticket sales, down from 22.4% last year. About 62.8% of its income came from contributions from people, companies and foundations, up slightly. The other piece of the pie — $1.9 million this year — comes from the SPCO's endowment.

Attendance dropped slightly: About 109,000 people attended 147 concerts, compared with 115,000 last year and 116,000 in fiscal 2017, which was a record.

But the number of households that saw at least one show — "unique households" in nonprofit parlance — hit a record. The SPCO counted about 13,424 households, an increase of 51 from last year.

"To me, this is the most important number in classical music," Limbacher said. "We feel great about where attendance is."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 • @ByJenna