City Council urges state legislators to increase funding for Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Music director Marin Alsop leads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Aug. 14, 2018, at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
Music director Marin Alsop leads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Aug. 14, 2018, at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. (Kenneth K. Lam / The Baltimore Sun)

The Baltimore City Council passed a resolution Monday urging state legislators to increase funding for the world-renowned but financially strapped Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

The resolution called on legislators to restore “pre-recession funding levels” to the BSO so that it can remain a “vital cultural and artistic asset for generations to come.” It said that declines in funding since the 2008 recession “contributed to a growing and unsustainable gap” in the BSO’s operating budget and risked its “viability as a full-time, world-class symphony orchestra.”


The resolution did not specify what it meant by “pre-recession.” But Councilman Eric Costello, who introduced the resolution, said he had figures that showed state funding for the BSO stood at $2.8 million in 2007, compared with $2 million in 2018.

Accounting for inflation, $2.8 million in 2007 amounts to about $3.4 million in 2019.


State funding levels for arts institutions such as the BSO generally fluctuate each year based on a variety of factors. Including funding from local jurisdictions, the BSO said it received a total of $4.8 million in government funds in 2007, compared to $3.3 million this year.

On the surface, nothing much has changed. The players aren’t on strike, and management hasn’t locked them out.

State officials couldn’t provide official budget figures Monday for the BSO. But numbers provided to legislators in Annapolis and confirmed as “generally correct” by the BSO, showed that the 2007 funding levels cited by Costello marked a decade-long high, and that the $2.6 million in state funding the BSO received for this year was more than in any other year since 2007 and more than it received in 2006.

The council’s resolution comes on the heels of the orchestra’s first international tour in 13 years, but also after the symphony put forward a plan to scale back its schedule and cut pay for musicians in light of budgetary woes.

Costello said he simply hoped legislators in Annapolis would recognize the BSO as “an amazing amenity to our citizens in Baltimore” and invest in it as “an economic development tool to get people into the city spending money.”


He praised the BSO’s educational role with students, noted its work beyond Baltimore at the Music Center at Strathmore in Montgomery County, and said the financial issues it is experiencing threaten a gem of the state.

Peter Kjome, the BSO’s president and CEO, said in a statement Monday that he was “tremendously grateful” for the council’s support.

“With financial losses averaging over $1.6 million a year over the past decade, it has become very clear that our current financial model is not sustainable,” he said. “We prefer not to speculate on the amount of additional resources that may be available, and we are tremendously grateful that additional support is being considered. We continue to engage in this dialogue with our community leaders.”

Performers from Washington and Pennsylvania joined brass musicians with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Tuesday night at the Baltimore Basilica for a concert meant to rally support at a time that many see as a crisis for the city’s more than century-old orchestra.

Kjome said in November that the BSO had lost $16 million in the last decade. He said it must reduce its seasonal schedule from 52 weeks to 40 weeks and cut musicians’ pay to move forward in a sustainable way.

The BSO Endowment Trust Board, meanwhile, said last month that it has “reached the limit of our capacity to provide greater support” to the BSO without depleting its endowment and its purpose.

“We are not involved in contract proposals or discussions between the BSO and its musicians, but we do see a need for the BSO to find an approach that allows it to live within its means. We are committed to funding that sustainable approach,” it said.

Musicians, who are working under an expired contract as collective bargaining negotiations continue, said they wouldn’t accept a pay cut or a reduced schedule — which they said would demote the BSO from “a world-class symphony into a part-time regional orchestra.”

Greg Mulligan, a violinist and co-chairman of the players’ committee, said he was “delighted” by the council’s resolution, and that he and other players have been talking to legislators in Annapolis about the need for increased funding, as well.

He said the BSO’s suggestion that musicians should take what he calculated would amount of a 20 percent pay cut was ridiculous, and “would really damage the institution” by encouraging additional attrition as talented musicians sought other opportunities.

Donors and supporters of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra have formed a committee called “Save Our BSO” in response to management’s proposal to reduce its musical season by weeks and cut musicians’ pay.

Cutting the symphony’s schedule would have a similar impact, he said — and he hopes state officials step in to help avoid such an outcome by committing again to the type of funding that was in place in 2007.

“If public funding were restored to that level, it would be a huge step towards giving us the money that we need to just maintain status quo,” he said.

The BSO’s total operating budget for 2019 was more than $26 million, according to state figures. It draws more than $3.5 million a year from its $62.3 million endowment to support its operations.

In addition to state funding, the BSO received funding from local jurisdictions, including Baltimore, which contributed about $247,000 this year, according to council members.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who backed Costello’s resolution, said she would like to see the city double its contribution next year to $500,000. Costello, chairman of the council’s budget and appropriations committee, said he would be happy to consider that in upcoming city budget discussions.

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