Under Schaefer plan, BSO to enjoy sweet sound of lower deficit

February 03, 1992|By Linell Smith

While Maryland arts organizations are worrying about dwindling levels of state support, they are also wondering why the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra should qualify for an extra $1 million.

Many arts organizations say a special $1 million grant to the BSO that is part of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's new proposed budget serves as a jarring reminder of the days when the state's largest arts organizations would individually stalk legislators for the biggest chunks of money.

As part of his $12.6 billion spending plan, Governor Schaefer has proposed the BSO receive an extra million to reduce its budget deficit. That amount would be on top of the nearly $1 million the orchestra is expected to receive through the Maryland State Arts Council as its annual allotment.

Besides the BSO grant, the proposed arts budget would give the arts council approximately $5.2 million to distribute among roughly 140 qualified arts groups in the state. Because more arts groups are seeking money, the council's level of support for annual operating costs has dropped from a high of 9.69 percent in fiscal 1991 to an estimated 7.2 percent this fiscal year.

The orchestra, which is the largest cultural arts organization in the state, already receives more state aid than any other arts institution. Last year it received the final installment of a special six-year, $10 million grant to erase its budget deficits. It sought the new money when it discovered it would be unable to balance the books for its current and upcoming seasons, according to orchestra officials. The budget for the 1991-1992 season is $15.9 million.

"I have the greatest respect for the symphony. However, I think this is a cheeky move and, quite frankly, a selfish move in a year where all arts groups are struggling to survive," said Michael Bailey, director of the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis.

"My board of directors has made me toe the line in order to balance the budget. I've had to make some extraordinarily difficult decisions this year and I don't think it's fair in these tough economic times that the symphony gets a deficit reduction grant."

In December 1990, the BSO withdrew its request for a special grant of $250,000 to help fund a European tour -- later canceled -- because the orchestra's management felt it was inappropriate to ask for more money when the state was considering layoffs and cutting social services.

"Giving up a European tour hurts, but we can recover from that," said John Gidwitz, executive director of the BSO. "If we were forced to take the next steps -- we're talking about reducing the size of the orchestra, about an orchestra which could no longer make recordings or bring in the finest guest artists -- we think that would create a downward spiral which could lead to a loss of attendance. And that quite possibly our best musicians and conductors might leave.

"This could easily lead to dismantling the kind of orchestra we've built. We feel a need to express to people what is at stake and to ask for the funding it will take to keep a great orchestra intact."

The BSO is widely acknowledged as the state's foremost cultural ambassador, providing business and trade opportunities for state delegations during its various overseas tours.

"We have really been very, very, very generous to the symphony . . ." said Sen. Julian L. Lapides, D-Baltimore, a member of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee who expressed mixed feelings about the grant.

"I question the wisdom of placing an additional grant in this year's budget. . . . It's easy to be generous when times are going well, but we've given up state employee pay raises and, if necessary, the symphony is going to have to be as tough fiscally as the state has been with itself.

"If there are tax increases in addition to the transportation tax, I think an effort will be made to keep it in."

Many in the arts community say the grant threatens their hard-earned unity.

Before the Maryland State Arts Council devised an equitable system of funding the state's arts organizations five years ago, the largest institutions would lobby the legislature separately -- a situation which led to haphazard and uneven funding. In some years the BSO, the Walters Art Gallery, the Baltimore Museum of Art, Center Stage and the Baltimore Opera Company received as much as 65 percent of the state's budget for arts organizations.

For the first time in 1990, the council distributed money more evenly throughout Maryland by a communal effort to increase funds for small and mid-sized arts organizations. Arts groups joined together to push for a goal that benefited all: Persuading the state to fund 10 percent of the annual operating costs of all qualified arts organizations.

"The arts community's star was rising because everyone had joined hands and was pushing it up," says Eliot Pfanstiehl, executive director of Strathmore Hall Arts Center in Montgomery County and former chairman of the arts council.

"To see one of the biggest stars in the constellation essentially going its own way has long-term, cataclysmic implications to arts funding in Maryland because it sends one clear message: If you're big and have political clout, no one else matters. That's the bottom line. These guys are breaking ranks."

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