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State legislature to restore $1.6 million in bridge funding for BSO; symphony gets a clean bill of health from auditors

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra appears to have won an early skirmish in its battle to receive an additional $7.1 million in state funding that it says will be necessary to return Maryland’s largest cultural organization to long-term fiscal solvency.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, indicated Thursday that both the Maryland House of Delegates and state Senate have agreed to restore $1.6 million that Gov. Larry Hogan had removed from next year’s budget.

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“In both the Senate and the House there’s going to be $1.6 million for the BSO,” McIntosh said during a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee, which she chairs.

That comment was made during a hearing in Annapolis on a bill that could provide $5.5 million more in funding for the symphony through the fiscal year ending June 30, 2026.

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A delegation from the symphony pleaded the organization’s case before the House Appropriations and Senate Budget and Taxation committees. The BSO representatives hope to convince legislators that the multiyear plan adopted last month by the board of directors is the equivalent of what BSO president and CEO Peter Kjome characterized as “a road map for success.”

Symphony administrators and musicians portrayed an organization in a very different situation financially than it was last year, when a budget shortfall resulted in a summerlong lockout of the musicians from Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. An audit released in July concluded that the cash-strapped BSO might lack the resources it needed to stay in business for another year.

Kjome said a follow-up audit earlier this winter removed the warning that the symphony might not “be a going concern." He said the audit gave the organization a clean bill of health.

He attributed that development to the symphony’s recent fundraising success. In December, the BSO launched a campaign to raise $10 million to $15 million in private gifts as a “rainy day” fund. The money is intended to make up for projected deficits the organization expects to incur during the next several years while new revenue sources are developed.

In just three months, the BSO has raised $9 million for that rainy day fund plus an additional $1.25 million to bolster the endowment, according to consultant Michael Kaiser, founder of the DeVos Institute for Arts Management.

“While it’s true that I’ve been involved in a number of successful turnarounds or cultural organizations,” Kaiser said, “it’s not always true that communities always respond so rapidly and with such astonishing support to the plans we’ve developed.”

Symphony officials were so buoyed by the promised gifts that they seemed to weather even bad news with relative equanimity. The BSO announced Thursday that it has canceled all concerts and other public events through March 21 in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are committed to the safety of our patrons, musicians and staff, and we believe that it is our responsibility to make this difficult decision at this time,” Kjome said in a news release. "Of course, as recent history has shown us, the BSO has navigated challenging times thanks to the collective support and strength of our community. "

During Thursday’s hearings, legislators questioned aspects of the BSO’s multiyear plan. Del. Jeff Ghrist, a Republican from Caroline County, asked whether the BSO had raised ticket prices or cut salaries.

“There have been adjustments to ticket prices and we’ve taken aggressive steps to reduce costs,” Kjome said. “But extensive analysis has revealed that we’re not going to solve our financial problems through earned revenue. We have been learning that you cannot just cut your way to success.”

Even some legislators that might hesitate to vote for the funding bill seemed to consider the symphony an important cultural asset.

“I have been fortunate many times to attend the Baltimore Symphony,” Nino Mangione, a Republican from Baltimore County, said. “This is one of those situations like Pimlico. Even if I vote no, I’ll still be happy if you guys succeed.”

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The committees are expected to vote later this month on whether to recommend the BSO funding bills to the full House and Senate.

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