Arts, Culture, and Humanities

Memphis Symphony Orchestra

Quick Facts

Memphis, TN


The Memphis Symphony Orchestra exists to enrich the lives of our diverse community through exceptional music and dynamic programs.

Ruling Year


Principal Officer

Mr. Peter Abell

Main Address

610 Goodman Street Newport Hall, University of Memphis

Memphis, TN 38111 USA


symphony; orchestra; musicians; conductor; music; concerts; performances; education; music education; MSO; orchestral





Cause Area (NTEE Code)

Music (A68)

Arts Education/Schools (A25)

orming Arts (Aer)

IRS Filing Requirement

This organization is required to file an IRS Form 990 or 990-EZ.

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Programs + Results

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Our programs

What are the organization's current programs, how do they measure success, and who do the programs serve?

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization




Where we workNew!

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Charting Impact

Five powerful questions that require reflection about what really matters - results.

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

What is the organization aiming to accomplish?

What are the organization's key strategies for making this happen?

What are the organization's capabilities for doing this?

How will they know if they are making progress?

What have and haven't they accomplished so far?

MSO exists to enrich the lives of the diverse Memphis community through exceptional music and dynamic programs. As the Mid-South’s leading professional orchestra, MSO uses its authentic assets and resources to enrich, educate and inspire Memphians of all ages, bringing vibrancy and cultural health to neighborhoods throughout the community. With MSO still in its first year of residency at the University of Memphis, long term strategic planning has been put on hold until after specific details of the partnership are finalized. In priority order, these are MSO’s current, board-directed goals for the next two years.   1) Plan three key areas of partnership outlined in the MSO/University of Memphis agreement.   2) Build a strong and diverse Board of Directors.   3) Meet or exceed FY18 and FY19 revenue goals.   4) Raise $15m capital to establish a MSO endowment.   5) Reduce MSO’s systemic deficit.   6) Complete MSO long-term strategic planning. Above and beyond the outcomes of programmatic initiatives, these goals ultimately imply fiscal health and stability for MSO, one of Memphis’ essential cultural institutions. This means musicians will have the steady income and benefits needed to continue making Memphis their home.   While partnership between a major orchestra and a major University of Memphis is unprecedented, both MSO and the University are confident that sharing resources will result in a wide range of community benefits. Not only will the orchestra have the opportunity to regain firm financial footing, but the artistic quality of University music programs will potentially explode, inviting music students from across the nation to imagine Memphis as their alma mater. Again, historically Memphis is one of America’s great music cities, and the union of its largest and most engaged music institutions can only mean new opportunities are on the horizon.

In late 2016 MSO relocated to the University of Memphis campus, which provided significant financial relief from costly overhead. MSO’s presence is helping to reset public perception of the University’s music programs and provide musicians with new service opportunities.   In the absence of a formal plan, MSO leadership is strategically pursuing multiple outcomes:   1) Plan and finalize terms of the MSO/University of Memphis partnership. Under a task force jointly appointed by Gayle Rose and David Rudd, planning for three different aspects of the MSO/University partnership is currently underway: Create a new music ecosystem on campus; Design the Scheidt School’s new performing arts center; and Plan a joint MSO/University institute for community leadership and change through the arts.   2) MSO seeks to diversify and strengthen its Board. This effort is facilitated by a rubric for developing wider and higher-capacity representation that was designed by the MSO Nominating Committee.   3) MSO must meet or exceed FY18 revenue goals. In August 2017, Peter Abell was appointed CEO and is now leading this effort with Gayle Rose, Board Chair.   4) MSO is currently developing the case and phases of a $15m capital campaign.   5) Reducing the systemic deficit that has been a reality since the 1990s begins with significantly lower overhead thanks to MSO relocation to the University campus. MSO will also increase earned revenue from a re-imagined Pops series and new contract services; grow annual fund contributions; and, in time, realize interest income from a healthy endowment.   6) MSO strategic planning will resume once MSO has finalized the working aspects of the MSO/University partnership. The original committee, including a cross constituency of board, staff, musicians and community stakeholder will reconvene.

is an entrepreneurial organization that has re-invented itself over the last
decade. In contrast with other orchestras across the country which struggle to
prove community value, MSO management and labor has worked intentionally to
redefine itself within a traditional industry. Each year MSO’s collective
bargaining agreement has become a more flexible instrument that allows MSO
players to mobilize into a creative Memphis workforce that artistically engages
a widening cross-section of the community. This work has brought national
recognition and funding through large grants like ArtPlace, and the
orchestra field continues to watch MSO strategically work to increase business
efficiencies, build community access, and emerge as a sustainable model for
other American orchestras. In every way, MSO is an example of Memphis
innovation, highly capable of adapting to new trends, opportunities and
challenges.Now, through partnership with the University of Memphis, MSO assumes new, value added, capabilities. As the Scheidt School of Music grows, MSO musicians will have opportunities to mentor, coach, conduct clinics, present masterclasses, etc. A community music school with MSO faculty is another likely outcome, creating cradle to career music learning opportunities. This work will help those MSO musicians who need teaching income remain in Memphis. Once the new performance hall is built, the wider community will visit the campus for an exciting variety of musical programs presented by MSO, the University and others. The partnership also intends to create a joint institute construct that creatively responds to critical community needs with integrated solutions and opportunities representing the arts, business, education and government.

1) Plan three key areas of partnership outlined in the MSO/University of Memphis agreement: Complete present plans to MSO Board/University Governors during May 2018.   2) Build a strong and diverse Board of Directors: By 06/2018, establish membership at or above 24 elected directors, with targeted representation and emphasis on donor capacity (6 Key Sponsors, 6 Major Donors, 4 for Legacy Programs, 4 for Diversity Programs, 4 for Education Programs, 50% Male, 50% Female)   3) Meet or exceed FY18 revenue goals: Monthly / quarterly / annual actual to budget comparisons   4) Raise $15m capital to establish a MSO endowment: Planning currently underway   5) Reduce MSO’s systemic deficit: Monthly / quarterly / annual actual to budget comparisons   6) Complete MSO long-term strategic planning

To better connect with and serve the Memphis community, in 2005 MSO established a system of partnerships that supported non-traditional musician engagement. At times the work was contentious –professional orchestra musicians are hired through blind auditions to perform great music in concert settings, and community service, as envisioned by MSO, had no union precedent. New CBA language was added in 2007, and each contract thereafter brought greater accessibility. By 2013, the majority of MSO players had been mobilized into a creative Memphis workforce, engaging a wide cross-section of the community, and creating a new kind of American orchestra. Each partner in the MSO network identified how the orchestra could help fulfill an aspect of that organization’s mission. This approach exploded MSO capacity and scope, allowing individual musicians to serve in ways that were personally meaningful. It also helped MSO avoid service duplications and missteps that happen when an organization works outside its area of expertise. MSO relied on its partners to recruit participants, provide space, internally facilitate operations, assess mission alignment, and measure impact. In hindsight, relying so closely on partners to evaluate impact was a seriously flawed system. Except in rare situations, MSO struggled to understand and communicate specific outcomes of the work. Still, MSO’s community engagement thrived with seed grants and change was effected in the hearts and minds of musicians. Most MSO artists began to see themselves as agents of service – a progressive attitude in a traditional field. Unfortunately, outside of seed grants for experimentation, MSO was in financial decline, and in 2014 the organization experienced a crisis that threatened its existence. In 2015 operations were scaled to minimum levels in an effort to match supply with demand, and community engagement was largely suspended. In early 2015, leadership used the work lull to rethink the organization’s education offerings. It was also a low point for the Shelby County School District, which was experiencing alarming student attrition from takeovers and competing districts. Quickly, MSO and SCS recommitted to their long standing partnership and convened an engaged group of educators, musicians, staff and board members to design a plan that channels decades of learning and drives student success. The MSO Music Education Pathway, a 5-year plan launched in 2015-16, uses existing and new musical programming to support student achievement and competencies. Initially the work concentrates services at the elementary level. MSO is now engaging elementary school communities with quality music experiences that enhance academic performance and lead to enrollment in middle school music programs. To facilitate the work, MSO musicians ratified a multi-year CBA in 2015, agreeing to a new job description that expands the definition of orchestra services to include community engagement. With this change, unprecedented in the field, MSO community engagement services are now equivalent in every way to rehearsal and performances services under the traditionally negotiated structure. Going forward it will be the task of MSO leadership to resume and sustain the journey of community engagement that changed the profile of the organization and redefined what it means to be an orchestra musician. Fortunately, partnership with the University of Memphis and a musician diversity fellowship opportunity are opening new doors for MSO to continue progress toward organizational health and great community impact.

External Reviews

Affiliations & Memberships

League of American Orchestras

Alliance for NonProfit Excellence


Memphis Symphony Orchestra

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  • Forms 990 for 2017, 2017 and 2016
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The people, governance practices, and partners that make the organization tick.

Need more info?

FREE: Gain immediate access to the following:

  • Address, phone, website and contact information
  • Forms 990 for 2017, 2017 and 2016
A Pro report is also available for this organization for $125.
Click here to see what's included.

Board Leadership Practices

GuideStar worked with BoardSource, the national leader in nonprofit board leadership and governance, to create this section, which enables organizations and donors to transparently share information about essential board leadership practices.

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization


Does the board conduct a formal orientation for new board members and require all board members to sign a written agreement regarding their roles, responsibilities, and expectations?



Has the board conducted a formal, written assessment of the chief executive within the past year?

Not Applicable


Have the board and senior staff reviewed the conflict-of-interest policy and completed and signed disclosure statements in the past year?



Does the board ensure an inclusive board member recruitment process that results in diversity of thought and leadership?



Has the board conducted a formal, written self-assessment of its performance within the past three years?

Not Applicable