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Task force seeks $15M in public and private funds for BSO over next six years, proposes 52-week performing season

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra plans to increase fundraising and perform on a 52-week schedule.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra plans to increase fundraising and perform on a 52-week schedule.(Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

A state task force called Monday for securing at least $15 million in additional public and private funds during the next six years to restore the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to fiscal health.

Recommendations of the task force, created last spring to examine ways to staunch the BSO’s losses, include obtaining an extra $5.5 million through 2026 from the state government, which last year promised and later withdrew emergency funding of $1.6 million. The BSO also will attempt to increase gifts from private donors by $10 to $15 million over the next three years.

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The extra cash would be used to create new programs designed to increase the orchestra’s presence statewide and to provide for a 52-week performing season, which has been a demand of — and flashpoint for — the musicians union.

The report, titled “Recommendations for Cost Containment, Audience Development and Future Sustainability of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra,” will be sent Tuesday to the Maryland General Assembly and Gov. Larry Hogan.

The report was created by a work group convened last spring by legislators that was charged with devising solutions to the financial problems that had caused the symphony to experience deficits during each of the past 11 years. The BSO’s dire financial straits culminated last summer in a 14-week lockout of the musicians union.

As a result, the season started two weeks late — and the ramifications of that delay continue to be felt. Subscriptions and ticket sales were sluggish in the fall of 2019, the report said. Though both picked up in December and January, "it is not expected that the BSO will be able to close this ticket revenue variance completely,” the report said.

Nonetheless, Jane Marvine, a task force member, said Monday she feels more optimistic about the BSO’s future than she has in years.

“This is a very encouraging moment for us,” said Marvine, who was a member of the bargaining team for the musicians during last year’s contentious contract negotiations. "This isn’t just a bunch of words on paper. There’s been a new spirit of inclusion and respect, a new way of working together. If we pull together, anything is possible.”

Highlights of the 54-page report of recommendations include:

  • Creation of a “rainy day” fund of $10 million to $15 million raised from individual donors over the next three years. The money would be used in part to bridge a budget gap until Sept. 1, 2025, when the BSO is projected to begin turning a small profit. Peter Kjome, the BSO’s president and CEO, said the symphony already is well on its way toward acquiring the minimum threshold of $10 million. The orchestra has raised $8.25 million since early December, he said, including $1.25 million designated for the endowment.
  • Widen the pool of donors because the BSO has become overly dependent on a small group of loyal and deep-pocketed philanthropists. It recommends soliciting midlevel gifts of $3,000 to $10,000 and larger gifts of $10,000 to $100,000.
  • Seek $5.5 million in additional state bridge funding through 2026 that is designed to tide the organization over while new programs have time to become established and begin producing revenues.

The increased aid would begin at $1.5 million for the state’s fiscal year beginning July 1, 2022, and decrease by $200,000 annually. The BSO would receive a final bridge appropriation of $700,000 for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2026.

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Del. Maggie McIntosh said she will be a lead sponsor of a bill proposing the additional funding that likely will be introduced this week. Task force members said co-sponsors for the legislation include Democratic Del. Adrienne A. Jones, the Speaker of the House, and Democratic state senators Nancy King and Bill Ferguson, that chamber’s president.

“They are on the right path," said McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Appropriations Committee. "They apparently have attracted a lot of attention and people who are concerned, and they are working well as a group now — both management and musicians — to get to the right place.”

Ferguson said lawmakers have a lot of competing priorities for funding this session but that he would try to make the BSO money fit into spending plans.

“I’m an enormous supporter of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra," he said. "They do amazing work. We have big questions around education and public safety. I’m hopeful we can find a way to make it work.”

If recent history is any indication, procuring that $5.5 million could be a tough sell — even with the legislature’s support.

Last spring, the General Assembly allocated $3.2 million in emergency bridge funding over two years, but Hogan refused in July to release the first year’s installment — and recently removed the second year’s $1.6 million allocation from his proposed 2020-21 budget.

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BSO officials are scheduled to appear in Annapolis this week in an attempt to persuade legislators to override the governor and restore next year’s funds. And then they’re going to ask for $5.5 million more.

A spokesman for Hogan said only that the governor will carefully review any grant proposals made on the BSO’s behalf.

“Over the last five years, the BSO has received $9.5 million in state funding, more than any other arts organization in the state," wrote Hogan’s communications director, Michael Ricci, in an email.

"It is encouraging to see the organization take steps to become more self-sustaining. We will review the work group’s report, and the governor will consider any legislation that comes to his desk.”

The musicians appear to have prevailed on perhaps the most contentious issue from last year — the length of the performing season. Kjome said that a 2018 proposal by the BSO’s board of directors to trim the season from 52 weeks to 40 weeks has been dropped and will not be revived during contract negotiations expected to begin next month.

A year-round season of performances will be necessary, the report said, if the BSO expands its presence statewide by mounting concerts more frequently in venues from Columbia to Frederick to the Eastern Shore.

While many details of the turnaround plan were released Monday, others remain to be determined. The plan hinges in part on lining up blockbuster artistic programming that will excite potential audiences.

Specifics are expected to be included in the 2020-21 season announcement, scheduled for early March. One possibility: coordinating with Morgan State University to mount performances using BSO musicians and the acclaimed choirs from the area’s historically black colleges and universities.

In addition, the development of some potential revenue streams will require loosening existing work rules and will hinge on successful completion of contract negotiations with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Players Committee. Kjome said bargaining talks will begin in March.

The multiyear plan is geared more toward increasing revenues than it is toward cutting costs. Work group members said that’s largely because increases in worker productivity for orchestras are inherently limited, so symphonies can’t use the same belt-tightening measures common to other industries.

A consultant who examined the organization’s finances concluded that cuts alone won’t solve the BSO’s financial woes. The task force’s report cited the consultant’s finding that “operating improvements could modestly improve, but do not fully solve, the BSO’s longterm financial outlook.”

Nonetheless, the plan includes some proposed reductions in expenses. For example, musicians and BSO staff have agreed to shoulder a larger share of health insurance premiums than they have in the past.

“Achieving sustainability is going to take time and discipline,” Kjome said. “We’re going to have to carefully manage our costs. I would say that over time as earned and contributed revenues increase, over time we will be able to get to a balanced budget."

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Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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