News and analysis
June 09, 2014

Marijuana Event Brings Money and Attention to Colo. Symphony

Karl Gehring/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Musician Kolio Plachkov practices on his french horn before the Colorado Symphony Classicaly Cannabis fundraising event. The entire brass quintet wore green ties.

Marijuana is providing a fundraising high for the Colorado Symphony, which has raised tens of thousands of dollars and lots of attention by offering what appears to be the first attempt to lure donors with a pot-smoking opportunity.

The orchestra last month hosted the first of three fundraising concerts to take place this summer, dubbed “Classically Cannabis: the High Note Series.” Supporters are invited to bring their own marijuana to enjoy at the event. Private consumption of pot has been legal in the state since January.

“In today’s world, people are tired of going to the same old rubber-chicken events,” says Jerome Kern, chief executive of the Colorado Symphony.

The May concert took place at a private art gallery near downtown Denver and attracted about 300 people. Each attendee was asked to donate $75 to attend the event, where they were entertained by an ensemble of brass musicians.

The symphony has scheduled similar events for July and August. In addition, a marijuana-friendly concert is scheduled for September at an outdoor amphitheater that seats 10,000.

The Colorado Symphony expects to raise $150,000 after expenses from the events, Mr. Kern says. That is not nearly as much as the symphony raises at its biggest event, the Symphony Ball, which produced about $1.1- million after expenses this year, he says.

A Controversial Idea

The marijuana-infused concerts have caused controversy in Denver. When the symphony first began to sell tickets, city officials said that it risked violating city and state laws.

While use of the drug is legal, restrictions remain on the public consumption of marijuana in places including parks and restaurants. City officials demanded that the symphony cancel the concerts and promised to exercise all options, including withholding special-event permits.

In response, organizers shifted gears. The symphony refunded the tickets that had been sold for the May event and reconceived the series as private, invitation-only affairs to ensure they remained within the boundaries of the law.

A note on the symphony website points out that nobody under 21 was allowed to attend and referred ticket buyers to a state website that outlines health risks and reminds people that it is illegal in Colorado to drive while under the influence of marijuana.

The standoff over Classically Cannabis generated blockbuster publicity. The symphony gained 1,500 Twitter followers and was a trending topic on Facebook as word of its pot-friendliness exploded, according to Laura Bond, the symphony’s director of community and media relations.

Mr. Kern describes the buzz as largely positive. After receiving angry messages from some symphony patrons, nearly everyone is now supportive, including the city, he says. He was interviewed by the BBC and by classical radio stations in New York and San Francisco.  

“One Saturday morning, there were stories about Classically Cannabis in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Denver Post, which probably hadn’t happened in the history of the orchestra,” Mr. Kern says.

And the attention has carried over into other symphony projects, specifically, a new educational program called Very Young Composers that has received national media coverage, Mr. Kern says.

Not a Trend

It’s not just the invitation to enjoy pot at a concert that could make the symphony a target for criticism as the events continue. The events were sponsored by marijuana retailers and a marijuana soil company. But Mr. Kern says he and his colleagues didn’t spend too much time worrying because the marijuana industry is now legal in the state.

“It is growing very, very rapidly," Mr. Kern says. "It wants to get engaged in the community, and like all performing-arts organizations you don’t turn money down.”

Nonetheless, fundraising experts predict it will be a long time until events like the one in Colorado become a trend.

“Although the politics of marijuana are changing, it is still a bit of controversial touchstone,” says Michael Nilsen, spokesman for the Association of Fundraising Professionals. “What may work in Colorado and for a symphony orchestra simply wouldn’t work for a symphony orchestra in Texas or in many other states at this point.”

Gary L. Good, senior executive for special campaigns at the Pacific Symphony in Orange County, Calif., says the pot events could prove a strong way to attract potential donors, especially among young people—a challenge for many symphonies and other performing-arts groups.

“I think this music and this repertoire is transgenerational,” Mr. Good says. “It is an important and essential part of our society and really what makes a whole person. So if the Colorado Symphony has found another way to introduce that to a new audience, then, yes, more power to them.”

Send an e-mail to Megan O'Neil.