Over the past decade the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has emerged as one of this country's premier music-making establishments. It has a world-class conductor in music director David Zinman, three international recording contracts with major classical music record labels, a 13-concert radio broadcast series on the American Public Radio Network and greatly expanded educational and community outreach programs.
All this excellence has come at a price. The BSO derives only about half the operating revenues it needs from annual ticket sales. The rest must be made up from individual and corporate gifts, foundation grants and public funds. About 7 percent of the BSO's $15.9 million budget will come from state and local government this year.
Now, however, the orchestra has come under fire from other arts groups because Gov. William Donald Schaefer's budget gives the BSO an extra $1 million to reduce its budget deficit. That 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.
Critics say the extra money should go to the State Arts Council, which would divide it equally among some 140 other arts organizations qualified to receive state funding. To single out the orchestra for special favor, critics charge, is to return to an era when a few big institutions could use their clout to monopolize the lion's share of state funding, leaving smaller local arts groups to starve.
There are two things wrong with that argument. First, it assumes the BSO has backed off its long commitment to support the arts as a whole in Maryland. In fact, the orchestra's management remains a leader in efforts to raise the share of state funding for qualified arts groups from its current 7.2 percent to 10 percent.
More to the point, while all the arts contribute substantially to the quality of life for Maryland residents, not all are equal artistically or institutionally. The BSO is the largest cultural organization in the state. Its performances, broadcasts and recordings have won world renown for its artistic integrity and innovative programming. As an organization, it simply cannot be compared to a small regional theater or local crafts fair.
The BSO already has made Herculean efforts to trim expenses. Over the last two years it has cut $1.2 million in administrative costs and canceled a much-anticipated European tour to save money. Its management has reduced spending in every area except those directly affecting the quality of the product. Proof of their success lies in the fact that today the symphony is poised to join the country's elite orchestras, all of which have budgets at least 50 percent larger than the BSO's.
Governor Schaefer recognized these accomplishments when he proposed extra funding for the BSO. In hard times, arts groups are among the first to suffer. The hurt is real, certainly, but punishing the BSO won't heal the pain.