As he spoke to a state work group tasked with fixing the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s finances, Michael Kaiser frequently prefaced his remarks with, “You’re not going to like this..." or “What I’m about to say will make everyone mad at me.” But he said the urgency of the situation demanded bluntness.
Kaiser, who has been described as a “turnaround king” for troubled arts groups, offered provocative advice that appears to contradict strategies BSO administrators have recently trumpeted.
Nonetheless, Even Kaiser’s most contrarian suggestions are likely to be considered seriously by the task force, which warmly applauded his remarks. The group has a deadline of late February to draw up a plan for restoring the BSO to fiscal health.
“Tuesday’s meeting was really important,” said Brian Prechtl, chairman of the Baltimore Symphony Musicians Players Committee. “I thought Michael’s insights were transformative.” ”
Kaiser, currently chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, has helped get such high-profile organizations as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the American Ballet Theatre and the United Kingdom’s Royal Opera House find their financial footing. He also was president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts from 2001 through 2014.
The BSO is roughly three-quarters of the way towards meeting its $65 million goal for its Resounding Campaign, according to the symphony’s website. The campaign has been seeking to raise $50 million for the endowment, $10 million for OrchKids and other educational programs, and $5 million to support its annual fund.
Meanwhile, the organization has been running deficits that have averaged $1.6 million annually for the past decade.
“I don’t think you’re in a position right now to have a big campaign to raise the endowment,” Kaiser told the task force.
“Right now, you can’t even balance your budget. I love endowments, but I don’t believe in big endowment campaigns until you’re doing so well you can afford to divert your attention away from your annual fundraising campaign."
Stop worrying (for now) about increasing the size of your audience.
“When you’re in a mess, you can’t worry about what percent of your hall you’re filling.” Kaiser said. "Selling out the house isn’t going to get you to survival. Selling an extra $50 seat is not going to change your future.
“What I would focus on instead is securing mid-level gifts. I would try to build a large cadre of $5,000, $10,000 and $25,000 donors. That will give you the seed money to get going.”
These remarks suggest that the organization’s top leaders might want to fine-tune their public messages. Barry Rosen, chairman of the BSO Board of Directors and Peter Kjome, the BSO’s president and CEO, have recently used media appearances to urge their audience to attend more concerts.
Hold off on trying to diversify your audience.
“I want to make sure you’re addressing the problems in the order in which fixing them will help you,” Kaiser said.
"Building your donor base has to come before building your audience — not forever, but for the first year. Donors give you larger amounts of money than ticket buyers.
“I believe in developing programming to attract younger audiences and a more diverse audience, but you have to do it consistently. You have to be committed to it.”
For instance, Kaiser said that in 1993, New York’s Joffrey Ballet made a splash when it commissioned “Billboards,” a ballet set to the music of Prince.
“'Billboards' was the hottest thing in ballet for that year,” Kaiser said.
“But at the end of the following year, the Joffrey was millions of dollars in debt. All that Prince stuff attracted a whole new audience, but, that programming wasn’t sustained. Some of the same people who attend a concert of music by Prince will also attend a concert of music by Brahms. But a lot won’t.”
Vision is not a group activity.
The BSO should designate an individual to put together an innovative plan for the BSO’s future. As Kaiser put it: “You need a visionary five-year plan, and you need it fast.”
The BSO currently has two councils charged with envisioning a viable future for the organization — the work group created last spring by the Maryland General Assembly, and the Vision Committee, a new branch of the symphony’s board of directors.
“I do not believe in board retreats," Kaiser said. “I believe we make a mistake by trying to engage everyone equally in developing a quality plan. Good plans are not written by committees. Good plans are vetted by committees.
“If the plan is working, you’ll know within about six weeks. You’ll start to feel the anticipation in the air. Then, you’ll start to see that excitement reflected in your numbers.”
Before all else, invest in making new art and invest in marketing.
Marketing at the BSO has been sporadic in recent years.
In 2016, the BSO eliminated six positions and outsourced marketing. But by the following summer, the organizationhad hired Linda Moxley as vice president of marketing and communications.
“When an organization hits a financial bump, the two things they try to save on right away are the two things that keep people excited and engaged — great art and great marketing," Kaiser said.
“I’m not talking about programmatic marketing, which is getting people to buy tickets. I’m talking about institutional marketing, which involves building a family of 200 to 300 supporters around the organization. How do we get more people, particularly donors, to say that the BSO is such a vital and important organization that they want to be part of that family?”