A rare thing happened between the management and musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra recently: They came to an agreement. The two sides have consented to hire a financial guru to devise a plan to turn around the troubled 103-year-old music organization. It’s the best decision they have made in a long time.
Left to their own devises, the BSO is headed quickly to insolvency. Management and musicians are so far part, with neither willing to make enough tough concessions, that an agreement seems impossible without the help of an outsider. Quite frankly, the two parties have proved they can’t do it on their own.
Contentious, back-biting negotiations this summer that shut down the orchestra for 14 weeks ended with the signing of a year-long contract with the union that represents the musicians. While we are glad the orchestra is back, we can’t really call that Band-Aid solution a success. The same old structural deficits and disagreement on how to fix the gaps still loom large. The orchestra can’t depend on the last-minute bailout of sympathetic donors every year. At some point, people are going to get tired of its inability to keep the house in order. As they should.
We hope that “turnaround king” Michael Kaiser lives up to the hype of pumping new life into troubled arts organizations. Right now, the BSO needs a neutral, but strong, voice with no allegiance to any one side. Like a court mediator, he needs to be able to honestly chastise both sides and steer them to make choices they may not like. He will need to make each side face up to how they are contributing to the financial problems of the BSO, which has stacked up $16 million in deficits over the past decade.
The one sticking point for Mr. Kaiser is his previous work with Peter Kjome, the BSO’s president and CEO. We hope that doesn’t influence his point of view.
Most promising about Mr. Kaiser, who was president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington from 2002 to 2014, is his work invigorating interest in arts organizations with exciting and push-the-edge performances that draw crowds and encourages a larger pool of donors to reach into their wallets. The BSO can no longer rely on a few wealthy donors, and it has not managed to generate the type of hoopla that fills symphony halls. It needs to find a way to attract a younger and more diverse following. Mr. Kaiser’s suggestions on how to do that are welcome.
Baltimore needs a symphony orchestra as part of its cultural landscape. It is a much a part of the city as the Baltimore Museum of Art, Camden Yards, the Ravens football team and Fort McHenry. We don’t want to see it disappear.
We just hope both BSO management and musicians listen to whatever suggestions Mr. Kaiser lays out — we have no doubt they will be tough. He has said so himself. When seeking the job, Mr. Kaiser already suggested unconventional strategies, including to put BSO’s $65 million endowment campaign on hold.
It’s going to take massive changes to turn the BSO around and everyone involved with the organization needs to embrace that change. They have to for the BSO to survive. Both sides seem willing to listen. Let’s hope that they do. Donors will pay for Mr. Kaiser’s fee to develop a plan and we plead with the BSO to not let that money go to waste.
Many other U.S. symphonies have also gone through financial crisis, and some have emerged even stronger than they were before. The same can happen in Baltimore if the BSO wants it too. It may be an uncomfortable process, but it can be done.
The symphony will start its holiday season soon. Among the performances scheduled: Handel’s Messiah, Cirque Nutcracker and Gospel Christmas with CeCe Winans. A couple of months ago the season was uncertain. Will there be a holiday season next year?
The BSO can become among Mr. Kaiser’s success stories — American Ballet Theatre, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and London’s Royal Opera House. Or they can find their musicians back on the picket line in a year, or worse: Baltimore could end up with no orchestra at all.