BSO receives $1 million challenge

Meyerhoff family grant to match contributions

November 29, 2006|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,sun music critic

A $1 million challenge grant offers the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra an opportunity to add twice that amount to its operating budget.

The dollar-for-dollar grant, announced yesterday, comes from the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds, a group of family foundations known for cultural and educational philanthropy in the Baltimore region, as well as in Israel.

BSO officials believe this is the first unrestricted challenge grant in the orchestra's 91-year history.

The Meyerhoff grant will match any new gift of $5,000 or more. Contributors in the $2,500 to $4,999 category who double their donation in the current fiscal year will have their gifts matched as well.

"The family felt that it was important to signal to the community that we feel the orchestra is finally on the right path," said Terry Meyerhoff Rubinstein, executive vice president of the Family Charitable Funds.

That path has involved major financial and administrative developments since the BSO made international news last year by appointing Marin Alsop as music director, effective in 2007. She will be the first woman to take the helm of a top-level American orchestra.

In March, after years of unbalanced budgets left an accumulated deficit approaching $16 million, the BSO's board of directors set aside $27.5 million of a $90 million endowment to eliminate the debt and provide a cushion for the current season.

The financial rescue was preceded by an administrative shakeup. James Glicker, whose previous career had been outside the orchestral world, resigned after 18 months as president and chief executive officer in January. He was replaced by interim president W. Gar Richlin.

In June, board chairman Philip English stepped down after a single, three-year term and was succeeded by Michael Bronfein. Then, in September, Paul Meecham, an experienced orchestra administrator, was hired as BSO president and CEO.

"The situation feels dramatically better than it did six months ago," Bronfein said. "I feel there is a renewed confidence in the organization. We are certainly not out of the woods, but there has clearly been substantial progress. And the Meyerhoff gift is a testament to the progress."

Rubinstein characterized the challenge grant as "a testament to the work that Gar did," as well as an expression of "confidence in Michael, Paul Meecham and the whole organization - the direction it is taking."

She also praised Alsop: "She brings a new sense of energy and involvement in the community."

For her part, music director designate Alsop called the grant "a wonderful way to express support and belief in an institution. It gets everybody excited in positive ways," she said. "What happens with a grant like this is that it translates to every single donor the possibility of doubling their gift."

The BSO has an annual operating budget of about $25 million. About 45 percent of that figure is expected to be raised by ticket sales and other earned revenue, the remainder by contributed income (including donations and government grants).

The orchestra will be given until the end of the 2007-2008 season to match the Meyerhoff grant. A just-appointed interim vice president for development will aid in the effort (a permanent hire for that position is a top priority for Meecham).

"We'll be working extra hard [to match the grant] as quickly as possible," Meecham said. "I think the prospects are very good. There is a lot of potential support we haven't tapped into in recent years. And the new board leadership is completely committed to raising the fundraising bar."

Jane Marvine, head of the BSO players' committee, called the challenge grant "a truly amazing gesture."

"The musicians are very, very grateful for the leadership, commitment and generosity the Meyerhoff family has given to the Baltimore Symphony," Marvine said. "They have been taking the lead for a long time, and they're stepping forward again. I think the grant is truly going to rekindle community support."

That's Rubinstein's hope as well. "As an organization we haven't made a good case to the community why it's important to have an orchestra," she said. "I think this will help tell our story in a much stronger way."

A former BSO board member who now serves on an independent board of trustees charged with managing the orchestra's endowment, Rubinstein said the BSO "can't depend on the same few families" to make substantial gifts to the organization.

"We have to increase annual giving - that's no secret," said Rubinstein, whose father's philanthropy is memorialized in the BSO's primary home, the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Members of the Meyerhoff family have also endowed the music director chair and several first-chair positions in the BSO.

"We also need to broaden our annual support," she said. "I would like to see more subscribers become donors, and I'd like to see more six-figure donors."

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