The Philadelphia Orchestra is for sale. Not literally, of course. But as surely as if a sign were hanging outside the Kimmel Center, the orchestra's future belongs to those stakeholders willing to pay for it.

Listeners could seize ownership collectively. If last season's empty seats had been filled, the orchestra would have earned about $3 million more - not enough by itself to erase the $8 million operating deficit, but when you factor in the accepted equation that it's the fan actually attending concerts who turns philanthropic, the missing listener registers as a much more deleterious factor than a mere empty seat.

The board missed a chance to avert this crisis long ago. Had leaders of the 1980s and '90s (many of whom are still calling the shots) put time and energy into raising an adequate endowment along with a new concert hall, the orchestra likely would not be running a deficit today.

Musicians themselves could take ownership - literally. Some orchestras are self-governing. If players have all the answers, as some claim they do, why shouldn't they argue that the staff be cut to near-zero while they take over ticketing, fund-raising, marketing, and tour logistics?

That's unlikely. But this is an unprecedented, put-everything-on-the-table moment. After decades of costs exceeding income, the orchestra has now decided that only profound change will bring a fix. In the coming months, a committee will fashion a new strategic plan covering everything from what the ensemble plays, to where, for whom, and how often.

As the strategic plan and labor talks overlap, musicians undoubtedly will press the board to donate more. The board will repeat its demand that musicians be paid less.

And the public? After more or less constant bad news since 1996, the general listenership seems to be suffering from crisis fatigue. If there is panic and despair at the specter of one of the world's great orchestras shrinking, possibly beyond recognition, I haven't detected it.

As an exercise in lowering expectations, recent revelations have succeeded wildly. The leadership has made it clear with numbers, charts and graphs - and with the threat of ignominy inherent in bankruptcy - that things can't go on the way they have.

There's no reason to think they're bluffing. Even if, as some musicians posit, these alarming statistics are being amassed to reverse rising labor costs and cushy work rules, there's a painful reality that players would be fools to ignore: Peering past the footlights night after night last season, they must have noticed that a third of Verizon Hall was empty.

The bad economy? No, the long-term trend is indisputable. The orchestra played for 242,000 ticket buyers in the main 1997-98 subscription season. In 2009-10 that number sank to 169,000 - a drop of nearly one-third.

The salient question, as the strategic planning process proceeds: Is the orchestra preparing to fight for a better future or simply acclimating everyone to current levels of audience and donor support as the new normal?

In other words, will the strategic plan be simply a tool for lowering ambition?

Fears on both sides are real. Musicians rightly want to guard against this becoming a regional orchestra. Board members blanch at having to pony up more every year to keep a first-tier international orchestra going.

But I'd wager that no one who has given big bucks has done so believing the Philadelphia Orchestra's future lies in its becoming a less virtuosic form of itself. It can no more eke out a viable future by lowering quality and ambition than it could by reconfiguring itself as a garage band.

That doesn't mean things can't change, and it doesn't mean they shouldn't.

While both sides debate details of a new labor deal and strategic plan, there are larger moral imperatives at play. We, the current generation of orchestra stewards, have a responsibility to continue to curate an incredibly rare commodity: a great ensemble.

When the strategic plan is revealed early in 2011, it should be rejected outright if it comes with a whiff that a less-great orchestra is a possible outcome. If players begin to flee, the city's business and cultural leaders must rise up with the same alarm and energy that met Thomas Jefferson University when it threatened to ship off Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic.

Philadelphia Orchestra lovers in Tokyo and London deserve quality; at the same time, the orchestra needs to "reconnect with Philadelphia," as board chairman Richard B. Worley repeats, seeking a larger, as-yet-unknown audience in schools, parks, neighborhood concerts.

The future lies in the orchestra being all things to all people - or at least a larger thing to a larger group of people than has been the case in the past few decades.

Despite frequent stumbles, the organization has actually been incredibly creative in matters of reach and presentation. It developed "Access" concerts for curious but inexperienced listeners. It was the first major orchestra to do a live "cybercast" - in 1997, no less. Successful neighborhood concerts now have a 10-year record of intimate embrace. What the orchestra has lacked is a sustained commitment to, and innovative packaging of, these ideas.

A newly synthesized mix of venues, programming, and approaches can mean not only a larger audience, but also artistic growth for players. The symphony orchestra is an instrument with a great deal more flexibility than one might have surmised from recent activities here.

Think of everything this orchestra doesn't do. It has generally ignored opera - one of the deepest, most evolved stashes of orchestral riches - either in the pit or in concert-opera form. It rarely touches on film scores, a repertoire that, when imaginatively conceived, presents all kinds of creative presentation potential for sound and image. And it only scrapes the surface of the light-classics category, the conventional entry point for novices, which is being exploited neither by it nor by its pops arm, Peter Nero and the Philly Pops.

Some musicians might see repertoire diversification as stooping. But artistic compromise does not come when the orchestra delves into nontraditional repertoire. Instead, artistic rot sets in when the podium leadership is unsympathetic to that repertoire, and when players perform in less than fully committed form. Yes, it happens.

Just as critical as what's played is where. Downtown audiences have dwindled, compelling the orchestra to explore new opportunities in Colorado, China, Palm Beach, and, closer to home, Longwood Gardens. It hasn't escaped the notice of orchestra leaders that along with enthusiastic audiences, these locales could hold splendid fund-raising opportunities. A lot of Palm Beachers are really snowbirding Philadelphians; many Longwood patrons once had a relationship with the orchestra and/or the city; and the orchestra's China connections are real and long-term, starting in 1973.

Wouldn't it be cruel farce if we saw a retreat, even a partial one, from Verizon Hall not quite a decade after the orchestra's 80-year pursuit of a new hall came to fruition?

Developing new venues and repertoire demands wise artistic and administrative leadership, and the jury is very much out on whether such counsel is in place. The orchestra's new music-director designate, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, is universally liked and grateful for the job, but he's never been in charge of a great orchestra and it's not clear whether he is tough enough to stand up for the highest artistic standards in terms of repertoire, ensemble, or personnel.

There's not a lot in the background of new president Allison B. Vulgamore to suggest the presence of a sage on the scale needed now. She was trained as a singer and never played in an orchestra. Her previous job was leading the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which, although a decent ensemble, has never been considered top-tier.

Vulgamore likes to sign her e-mails "Yours in Music." The slogan will ring as canned reverence unless and until she can tell us which music she's talking about, whom it belongs to, and what a viable future sounds like.

Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at pdobrin@phillynews.com or 215-854-5611. Read his blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/artswatch.