It’s hard to believe that just a few months ago, as we sat in a finance committee meeting, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra board treasurer told us that if we didn’t get an advance from the Endowment Trust the BSO might have to cease operations in January. Since then, we have engaged Michael Kaiser to help write a five-year strategic plan that puts the art and the Orchestra first. He is a remarkable agent for change within the organization and in the greater community. In the space of six weeks, the BSO was able to produce the plan and raise an amazing amount of money. The goal was to raise $6 million by the end of the season. This amount would cover the shortfall the BSO was projecting for this year, as well as forestall the use of next season’s ticket money to balance the current year’s budget. An astonishing and productive flurry of activity ensued, and we not only raised the $6 million needed, we far exceeded that goal—at this point we are closing in on $10 million. The most significant thing about the effort is that the lead donors were not the usual givers.
At the same time the BSO was working with Michael Kaiser, we were engaged in discussions with the state of Maryland as part of the workgroup that was established by the John C. Merrill Act, passed by the Maryland General Assembly last year (Note: See “Newslets” in the June 2019 issue). This bill provided for $3.2 million in bridge funding as well as a workgroup that was empaneled to analyze improvements necessary to ensure the future viability of the BSO. The workgroup, composed of musicians, staff, and board members, and headed by a former state senator, has been meeting since last August. We had a deadline of February 24 to produce a final report, which we met, thanks to much of the work that was contained in the strategic plan that Kaiser helped us produce. This report, entitled “Recommendations for Cost Containment, Audience Development and Future Sustainability of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra,” was submitted to the Maryland General Assembly on February 25. Both this report and Kaiser’s strategic plan contain aspirational goals for increased contributed income while developing a vibrant artistic profile for the BSO that reexamines how the BSO can better serve the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland. Also included in the report are a series of recommendations to improve community engagement and education, the patron experience, board development, and the use of technology. There is a final recommendation for five more years of bridge funding from the state of Maryland to help the BSO put many of the proposals into practice.
One of the most important aspects of the plan is the recommendation that the orchestra maintain the 52-week structure that has been under threat. The over-arching themes that Kaiser advocates are that success is dependent on putting the art first, and that generating enthusiasm for the artistic product of the organization is the number one factor in driving contributed and earned income. This is obviously good news for the musicians and not really a revelation to us at all, but it has certainly effected a substantial change of attitude from the staff, board, and donor community.
The other element that has had a big effect on the organization is the advent of a Vision Committee. This committee came out of the one-year memorandum of understanding we negotiated in September. Similar to the state-mandated workgroup, the vision committee is composed of musicians, staff, and board members, and also features the addition of community members. This committee, which will be a standing committee of the board, has examined every aspect of the BSO and provided a valuable opportunity for the musicians to be integrally involved in the decision-making processes of the organization. A lot of the enthusiasm that is being generated around the BSO is due to the fact that it is clear that all the stakeholders at the BSO are now rowing in the same direction. There is a marked difference in the appeal of an organization that seems to be working together rather than being at war with itself. When I reflect on the antagonism during last summer’s 14-week-long lockout, the contrast is remarkable. There is no doubt that the current climate of peace and collaboration has brought with it a stunning reversal of fortune for the BSO. For the first time in a long time, I can truly describe our future as hopeful.
Note: the author is ICSOM delegate for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.