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BSO board chair: We need change to secure the orchestra's future

Much has been said online and in the media over the past few weeks regarding some proposed changes at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. As the chair of the Board of Directors of the BSO, I feel it is my place to provide some perspective that I hope will guide the ongoing discussions efficiently, prudently and in the best interests of our fine musicians and loyal audiences.

  • Orchestras of our budget size have been facing financial issues for some time. Certain challenges pervade our entire industry: changing demographics, varying media available to listen to music, local economics, time constraints of our audiences, aging subscribers and, in our city’s case, a stubborn and persistent crime wave.
  • Two years ago, we cut well in excess of $1 million out of the budget through actions such as layoffs and streamlining administrative positions. Our lean administrative staff has had a 2 percent pay increase since then, there has been no employer contribution to the staff 403(b) plan since 2015, and we have eliminated all professional development. In that same time period, we have provided our musicians with a 4 percent raise one year and a 2 percent raise the next, in a genuine attempt to bring them back, as they deserved, to the fiscal 2009 pay scale following sacrifices in previous years.
  • Many orchestras have found their way through fiscal downturns with robust endowment campaigns. The BSO is three quarters of the way through a $65 million endowment campaign, having raised $46 million to date. We foresee the end of the campaign in the next two years, raising our annual draw from the endowment. Our musicians will benefit from this increased draw.
  • The BSO’s revenue from contributions is at an all-time high. In the 2017-‘18 fiscal season, our development staff raised $14 million in annual giving, along with special one-time capacity gifts. However, our city has no Fortune 500 companies in residence, and the social and educational demands on the generosity of local companies present great challenges for all of us in the arts. On the cost side of the ledger, our expenses are spiraling and are untenable.
  • In spite of successful fundraising, our costs have outrun our revenues in recent decades due to strict union-controlled contracts, the rising costs of providing health-care benefits, declining attendance, and the costs of guest artists and conductors. It is not enough to raise more funds. Our business model needs alignment between an exceptional product and market demand. A number of our peer orchestras in range of our annual budget of $28 million have concluded that adjusting a summer season is one of the key ways to mitigate climbing costs. The orchestras that have opted for a different kind of season continue to tour, record, broadcast and present an excellent standard of musicianship and art. Reimagining their season and union agreements has actually led to innovation in broadening audience reach.
  • The BSO is fortunate to perform in a permanent second home, Strathmore. Our efforts there to maintain a more visible brand need to expand, as we aim to strengthen our ties with this remarkable hall and its discerning audiences in Montgomery County. We owe it to our orchestra to maximize our development efforts in the most affluent county in our state.
  • It should also be noted that the recent and hugely successful tour of the UK and Ireland was not financed from the operating budget of the BSO. Support came from fees paid by the festivals and concert series, the Maryland Department of Commerce, Visit Baltimore and other organizations that provided special support designated for the tour. We would hope to plan another tour to promote our world-class orchestra overseas in the future, but without a serious restructuring of our operations, it is highly unlikely that such tours will be a possibility.
  • I am a volunteer, and I face the challenges of this task with a dedicated volunteer board, a finely tuned and thoughtful management team and the best musicians anywhere. Our only goal is to preserve this 102-year old institution for the future. We need to adapt, change, be nimble and stay wise, to ensure a future for all of us. It is the job we have chosen to do, and for the sake of future generations of music lovers across the state of Maryland, we must be successful!

Barbara Bozzuto (barbbozzuto@bozzuto.com) is chair of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Board.

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