Tough times for the BSO

Our view: Baltimore needs to support its world-class orchestra

October 22, 2012

A report last week that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is anticipating a deficit of $750,000 or more for the fiscal year that began in September is a reminder that the effects of the 2008 recession are still reverberating through the state's nonprofit arts community. The BSO, like arts groups across the state, was hit hard by the economic downturn, which triggered a drop in ticket sales, private and corporate contributions and state and local government grants. Despite having managed to balance its budget over the past several years by slashing staff, freezing hiring and cutting back in ways large and small, the orchestra still isn't out of the woods yet.

Only two years ago, the BSO was forced to cut musicians' pay and benefits by 17 percent to balance the books, and that was after performers had already agreed to forgo raises totaling about $1 million in 2009. To meet the current crisis, the symphony will furlough administrative staff for a week in December and substitute a less-costly series of performances for a previously scheduled program. But there's no assurance those measures will be enough to keep it in the black this year, raising the possibility that even deeper cuts may eventually be required.

As one of fewer than 20 cities nationwide to host a world-class orchestra that performs throughout the year, Baltimore has benefited greatly from the presence of the BSO. Coupled with the Peabody Conservatory, where many symphony musicians teach, it has made the city a name to be reckoned with in the classical music world that draws both superstar performers and music students from around the globe. In 2016, the BSO will celebrate its centennial as the only major American symphony orchestra to be founded as a part of municipal government.

Yet the orchestra's intimate connection to Baltimore government and Maryland's corporate community has also added to its vulnerability when the economy takes a nose dive. Over the last five years, municipal, state and private funding for the symphony has dropped by $1.6 million even as ticket sales and subscriptions have increased. The BSO's Music Center at Strathmore in Montgomery County, for example, has generated $3 million in new revenue since it opened in 2005, but the county government's contribution to the center has fallen 33 percent due to the recession, canceling out much of those gains. Over the same period, corporate contributions have fallen by half.

One can readily sympathize with the frustration of orchestra administrators and musicians who have worked so hard to see the symphony through this rough patch. The pressure on budgets has been unrelenting as the economy continues to struggle, and depending on whom you talk to, the orchestra's problems may well become the new normal for the foreseeable future. That's why symphony administrators must start planning now for all eventualities.

At this point, there's no thought of shortening the season or further cutting back on the orchestra's roster of players. But at some point, the BSO may be forced to look at those possibilities as it seeks to adapt to the new post-recession realities and make the best use of limited resources. Orchestras around the country are experiencing similar challenges. Recently, the Indianapolis Symphony announced a 30 percent pay cut for musicians and a shortened concert season; changes are also afoot at the Minneapolis Symphony and the St. Paul Chamber orchestra.

The BSO plans to make strengthening its endowment, currently valued at about $48 million, a major goal of its centennial fundraising drive. A larger endowment would give it a hedge against future cuts in programs and staff, but it clearly has its work cut for it in seeking to attract new donors at all levels at a time when there are no guarantees the revenue sources it once enjoyed are coming back. Despite the artistic brilliance the orchestra continues to display under the inspired leadership of music director Marin Alsop, these are hard facts that make balancing the books extremely tough for nonprofits, and all arts groups are feeling it.

The BSO has contributed immeasurably to Baltimore for nearly 100 years. Now is the time for the community to contribute whatever is necessary to make sure it can do so for 100 more.

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