The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is a beloved cultural institution. The BSO musicians are among the best in the country, and we are fortunate to have them living and performing in our city and state. Every member of the BSO Endowment Trust Board, which I chair, wants to ensure that our orchestra can continue to thrive and perform at the highest level for generations to come. No one is more committed to “saving our symphony.”
But no organization can survive, let alone thrive, if it continually spends more than it takes in. Over the past decade, the BSO has operated at a deficit, losing more than $16 million in that time even as donor contributions have grown. This, despite great efforts by the BSO Board and staff to expand and diversify its audience, cultivate giving and manage expenses.
Through that time, the BSO Endowment Trust has attempted to bridge the gap to profitability. In 2006, concurrent with providing over $20 million to the symphony as a buffer and to eliminate debt, the endowment trust was created as a separate entity to protect its assets. In the time since, we have increased the draw (or percentage of the endowment) that we contribute each year to support the operations of the BSO. We have provided significant loans to help the BSO, most recently a $5 million loan that remains outstanding. But there is a limit to how much we can provide and still meet our responsibility to those who contributed to the endowment, intending to ensure the support of symphonic music in Baltimore and Maryland for generations to come. It is our fiduciary responsibility to ensure that the endowment survives in perpetuity.
Unfortunately, we have reached the limit of our capacity to provide greater support. If we continue to increase the annual draw, we risk depleting the endowment principal to the point that we are precluded from providing further support at all. This actually happened once before, after the market downturn in 2009.
The BSO is not the only orchestra that is suffering from declining attendance and rising costs. It is a common problem for orchestras across the country, many of which have made adjustments to reflect market demand and to economize. Other major orchestras, renowned for excellence, have seasons shorter than 52 weeks. 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.
Ultimately, we are all striving for the same goal. There is no finer representative of our great city and state than the BSO, and we must come together as a community to develop a solution that ensures our orchestra remains intact for the next century and beyond.
Chris Bartlett (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the chairman of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Endowment Trust and private client chief investment officer at Brown Advisory.