Many American orchestras have emerged stronger from lockouts and strikes; the BSO can too

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra board’s decision Sunday night to lock out the musicians during their lengthy and increasingly bitter contract dispute is unfortunate but not exactly unexpected. There have been at least a dozen lockouts or strikes at major U.S. orchestras in the last decade, and the issues at play in Baltimore echo through all those other cities’ struggles.

The story is the same everywhere. The difficult economics of maintaining an orchestra in the 21st century, plus skyrocketing benefits costs, prompt management to seek concessions from musicians — often in the form of dropping the number of weeks musicians are paid, increasing cost sharing for health care and reducing the number of positions in the orchestra. Musicians are understandably angered by the prospect of seeing significant salary cuts — the 20 percent reduction Baltimore’s musicians would see in the latest management proposal is on the high side of what other orchestras have experienced but isn’t unprecedented. They criticize the management’s fiscal stewardship, question limits on the amount the orchestra can draw from its endowment and warn that the symphony, whether in Baltimore, Atlanta or St. Louis, is in danger of losing its “major league” status.


But other orchestras have emerged from these troubles stronger than they were before. The BSO can, too. Here are some lessons from other orchestras’ experiences that the BSO management, the musicians and the public need to keep in mind.

Management needs to provide a real reckoning

It’s no surprise that the BSO has had financial troubles in recent years, losing on average $1.6 million annually for the last decade, but it has not adequately conveyed just how close to the precipice it is. That became clear in Sun reporter Mary Carole McCauley’s report last week demonstrating the orchestra’s severe cash flow problems and its failure to make them clear to state lawmakers and others who sought this spring to help. Management’s announcement after the legislature approved $1.6 million a year for the next two years that it would hold a summer season, then its cancellation of those appearances a few weeks later when Gov. Larry Hogan indicated he might not release the money, crushed what little trust the musicians may still have had in the wise stewardship of the institution. That makes them less likely to accept more concessions in their next contract, and it makes the public less inclined to pitch in with additional support.


The St. Louis symphony was in a similar position in 2001, hovering near bankruptcy. It secured concessions from musicians — a 10 percent pay cut, a reduction in the schedule and other things — but brought in new management, developed a new business plan and stuck with it. That didn’t solve all problems; the musicians went on strike a few years later, contending they should see more of the benefits from the orchestra’s improved financial situation. But the institution today is much stronger. In 2017, management and musicians agreed to a new contract that will put musician salaries over $100,000 within a few years, well above Baltimore’s current level.

What we certainly want to avoid is what happened in Atlanta. There, a 2012 lockout ended in what management promised was a one-time reset of the finances, but the orchestra was locked out again just two years later as management said more cuts were needed. The BSO needs to do this once and do it right. There are already signs that public and private support for the orchestra is at risk as a result of the financial uncertainty; a fiscal cure that fails to solve the problem will only make that worse.

The musicians need to contribute to the solution

We realize that the BSO musicians have made concessions before, but there is no likely way out of this situation that doesn’t involve them giving something up. That’s the lesson of most of the other strikes and lockouts at U.S. orchestras. In the last decade alone, musicians in Atlanta, Detroit, Indianapolis, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh all eventually agreed to wage cuts, including a whopping 25 percent for new musicians in Detroit. In many cases, musicians accepted higher health care costs, smaller orchestras, shorter seasons or reductions to retirement benefits, particularly for new hires.

Drawing more each year from the endowment — at least at its present size — isn't a long-term solution. Endowment management needs to be cautious so the institution can weather economic downturns. More public support isn’t likely to save the orchestra either. Del. Maggie McIntosh was able to convince her fellow legislators to set aside funds to cover the BSO’s average annual deficits, but only for two years and only with the promise of a high-powered commission to evaluate the orchestra's finances and come up with a sustainable business plan. And Governor Hogan has signaled substantial reservations even with that, given that the BSO already receives far more state arts funding than any other institution.

And whether the BSO management is the best it’s ever been (as members of the board claim) or a disaster (as the musicians contend), the fact remains that the orchestra is barely paying its bills right now. Better marketing, consistent leadership and stronger annual fundraising efforts won't help fast enough. The first step needs to be making sure the money coming in matches what's going out. That shouldn’t all happen on the musicians’ backs, but realistically, they need to be part of the solution.

Take the emotions out of the situation

The musicians’ complaints that the management’s proposed pay cuts are an insult to their talent and hard work are not unique to Baltimore. Nor are predictions that a shortened schedule and lower pay will result in a talent drain of people leaving for posts in other, more prestigious (and better paid) orchestras. Some of that may happen. It did in St. Louis, and it did in Atlanta. But it wasn’t a wholesale exodus, and those orchestras continue to play at a high level.

Everyone, and this particularly applies to BSO management, needs to make clear that the orchestra’s financial problems are not a reflection on the quality of the musicians. Changing consumer tastes and habits put pressure on orchestras everywhere, and Baltimore faces particular challenges. The BSO was able to bail itself out of financial trouble for years by relying on a few wealthy patrons — the Meyerhoffs or Willard Hackerman, who brought an end to a 1989 BSO strike with an infusion of his own funds — but it lacks the kind of big-time corporate support that other cities have. When the St. Louis symphony was in trouble, the family that owns Enterprise Rent-a-Car offered up a $40 million challenge grant. Atlanta has Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines. Baltimore doesn't. That’s not the musicians’ fault or the management’s.

The public needs to step up

It was heartening to see former Gov. Martin O’Malley and others attempt to rally the public to support the BSO musicians and the vision of Baltimore as a major-league city in the arts as well as sports. But in other cities, when the orchestra has been in trouble, the response has been much more tangible. When the St. Louis symphony hit rock bottom in 2001, the community raised $130 million to support it. The endowment there now stands over $200 million. The BSO’s endowment is a little more than a third of that. This year, anonymous donors gave the Philadelphia Orchestra a $55 million gift to complete its recovery from a 2011 bankruptcy.


In a letter to The Sun in February, long-time Baltimore Symphony Endowment trustee Joseph Meyerhoff II wrote that his family offered a $4 million challenge grant, and he called on every major foundation in the city and dozens of wealthy philanthropists but found no one willing to provide the kind of multi-million-dollar endowment-building gifts the symphony needs.

We can certainly understand that in a city like Baltimore, there are many other causes that command philanthropists' commitments. But the BSO is more than an elite cultural institution. Its OrchKids program, for example, is a model for exposing children from disadvantaged backgrounds to the arts, and its musicians’ ties to the entire community run deep. The BSO needs to make that case broadly — beyond the usual suspects who have helped it in the past — to raise funds from throughout the community and Montgomery County, where the orchestra has its second home. Such an endeavor wouldn’t solve the immediate problem like a check from Williard Hackerman did 30 years ago, but it would position the orchestra to grow again after whatever reckoning it now faces.

Leave Marin Alsop out of it

Traditionally, music directors have stayed neutral in disputes between musicians and management, and Baltimore’s Marin Alsop has so far followed that pattern. But in several recent cases, musical directors have weighed in on one side or the other, most notably in Minnesota, where Osmo Vanska at one point resigned in protest over management’s treatment of the musicians. He was eventually brought back, but the last thing we need is to risk lingering tension between Ms. Aslop and one side or the other in this dispute. No matter what happens, Marin Alsop’s leadership will be crucial in the BSO’s recovery. All sides need to make sure they do nothing to risk losing her.