BSO, joining growing list of orchestras in debt, anticipates a deficit this year

June 12, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is joining a growing chorus of American orchestras sounding a sour financial note.

The BSO expects to run a deficit of about $800,000 this year, according to executive director John Gidwitz. That would be the orchestra's first shortfall since 1986, when it embarked on an acclaimed $40-million endowment campaign that, with the help of a six-year, $10-million state grant, was designed to prevent it from going in the red.

Much of the BSO's deficit, which represents about 5 percent of the BSO's annual $17 million operating budget, is the result of reductions in anticipated government support, Mr. Gidwitz said yesterday.

His disclosure of the BSO's financial condition, made in response to a reporter's questions, coincided with the release in Washington of a much-anticipated report by the American Symphony Orchestra League about the precarious position of orchestras in the United States.

Thomas Wolf, the arts consultant who led the team that prepared the ASOL report, said at a news conference that last year the annual shortfall incurred by American orchestras totaled $23 million, an eightfold increase from 1971.

The biggest factors were costs -- $700 million last year compared with $87 million two decades ago -- and falling government support, which has decreased almost 5 percent in recent years, he said.

The BSO expected $2.5 million in government support this year, but instead received only $1.9 million, Mr. Gidwitz said, with particularly sharp drops in support from both the state and Baltimore County.

In addition, expenses went up much more than the BSO anticipated. "While our [ticket] sales are up -- 17 percent -- the cost of generating those sales cost $200,000 more than we had projected," Mr. Gidwitz said. "What all of this proves is that we're a member of the [orchestral] species.

Last year the BSO closed a $200,000 shortfall in its 1990-'91 operating fund with a major mail campaign, and Mr. Gidwitz warned then that the orchestra faced "even greater challenges" in the current year.

But, Mr. Gidwitz said yesterday, "We don't expect to run a similar campaign this year." Instead, he said the orchestra would make unspecified cuts in expenses and will try to raise the level of annual fund-raising 60 percent over the next two years -- from $2.5 million to $4 million. He also said the orchestra would lobby to restore cuts in government funding.

Mr. Gidwitz said that the BSO is making every effort to see that this year's expected shortfall does not compromise the artistic quality of the orchestra, but added that "if we can't bring the income up, it [the deficit] will have an effect." He declined to comment on how the deficit might affect negotiations between management and the players over a new contract to replace the current pact that expires in September.

While the BSO is joining the growing ranks of orchestras with deficits, it can take some solace in the fact it has no accumulated deficit. Orchestras such as the Detroit Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Cincinnati Symphony report such deficits in the $5-million- $8-million range.

And, at yesterday's opening of the annual ASOL convention, the BSO was repeatedly cited as an orchestra from whose example -- in league president Catherine French's words -- "we should ask ourselves what we can learn."

The ASOL report cited several areas in which orchestras must change their practices to survive, and Ms. French mentioned the BSO's leadership in attracting large metropolitan minority populations to the concert hall and enlivening the classical music experience through its Casual Concerts.

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