Symphonies need to establish relevance to communities, consultant says at meeting of BSO financial work group

A work group charged with fixing the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra‘s financial problems heard a message Wednesday that was as blunt as it was seemingly paradoxical:

Focusing exclusively on survival, arts consultant John McCann said, is a recipe for failure, even for an organization with problems as dire as the BSO’s.


Expecting donors “to support the BSO because it’s always been there — even because it makes world-class music — is insufficient as [an argument] for investing,” McCann said.

To justify donor and governmental support, orchestras nationwide are discovering instead that they must demonstrate their relevance by helping to solve the issues facing the communities in which they are located.


The BSO task force was created this spring by the Maryland General Assembly to devise recommendations for stanching the $16 million in losses incurred by the symphony during the past decade, which have left it with little cash or reserves. An audit released in July concluded that the organization might lack the financial resources to remain in business for another year.

The task force is expected to present a plan to the legislature for restoring the BSO to financial solvency by Feb. 24, 2020.

The first goal of the task force, McCann said, should be to “devise an aspiration for how this organization will shape the future of this city and this state.”

McCann is president of Partners in Performance, a North Carolina-based consulting firm. Former clients include the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which McCann helped turn around after financial problems culminated in a six-month strike beginning in the fall of 2010. Since the strike ended, the Detroit symphony has grown — and balanced — its budget every year.

Some Baltimore task force members wondered how the Detroit Symphony could spare the energy required to reinvent itself while fending off the wolf at the door.

”It feels like there was a moment where they felt as financially fragile in Detroit as we feel here,” said Peter Kjome, the BSO’s president and CEO. “Yet they were still able to come together with all the key stakeholders and develop that compelling vision rooted in enriching the lives of the people in their community. What helped them to do that?”

Though Wednesday’s session was technically the task force’s second meeting, it was the first since the BSO and its musicians’ union signed a one-year contract last month that ended the bitter work stoppage and returned the musicians to the stage.

“Communities will invest in something that has meaning and relevance to them. If the public perceives, ‘this is of value to me,’ the public will pay for it. It’s a reinforcing loop. Every time you create new pathways for value, you also create new channels for investment.”

—  Arts consultant John McCann

Kasemeyer asked McCann to explain how focusing on envisioning the BSO of the future would help solve the organization’s immediate financial needs.


”Communities will invest in something that has meaning and relevance to them,“ McCann said. “If the public perceives, ‘this is of value to me,’ the public will pay for it. It’s a reinforcing loop. Every time you create new pathways for value, you also create new channels for investment.

”Over time, you end up with balanced budgets," he continued, "because you’re bringing a whole new donor class to the table. It’s not enough to rely on people who believe in the magnificence of classical music. You also need people who believe in the impact you’re having community by community.”

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Chris Bartlett, chairman of the Baltimore Symphony Endowment Trust, told the work group that new sources of funding must be found because his organization can no longer provide financial support beyond the 5.75 percent drawn annually for the BSO.

“The endowment trust is fully supportive of the BSO,” he added. “We want nothing more than for the BSO to succeed. But we cannot be viewed as an ATM that’s used to cover a business model that isn’t working.”

Sarah Beckwith, the BSO’s chief financial officer, presented slides tracking the orchestra’s financial performance over the past 30 years.

Taken as a whole, the slides showed few radical changes. For example, the number of musicians employed by the orchestra has dwindled from 98 to 76 since the 1980s. But, the portion of the budget spent on musicians’ salaries has remained constant at about 40 percent.


Other measures — administrative expenses, the cost of putting on concerts — have changed little, Beckwith said.

She thinks the solution will be building the BSO’s endowment — at $72 million, it’s low compared with that of its peers — which also would increase the annual draw.

”That is a big part of what we need to do to move forward,” she said.