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BSO leadership decisions damage symphony

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians protest after concerts were canceled abruptly which shortened their schedule. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s current leadership, guided by board chair Barbara Bozzuto, has chosen to make decisions that are causing unnecessary damage to the institution, including locking musicians out of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on Monday, meaning players will be without salaries and health benefits as contract negotiations continue. The Baltimore Symphony has achieved world-class status due to the vision of its earliest supporters, the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland; these people realized that a rich and vibrant cultural environment is an investment that is both lasting and transformative. The Baltimore Symphony Musicians have always been ready and willing to work with our leaders to help the BSO succeed.

Success is not founded in pessimism. The current board of directors is using Robert Flanagan’s doom and gloom volume, “The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras: Artistic Triumphs and Economic Challenges,” to justify their complete lack of vision as to what this brilliant orchestra could achieve in the next 100 years. They choose to burn down the village to save the village as they cut the BSO’s 52-week schedule down to 40 weeks and claim that this has been done successfully in other cities. However, the truth is that it wasn’t the destructive cuts that helped those institutions thrive; it was the improved marketing, fundraising, ticket sales and endowment growth that were responsible for regrowth after the destruction waned.

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Former Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser, known for his ability to help troubled arts institutions, cautions leaders that you can’t cut your way to success in an arts organization, that once you start cutting the product, you initiate a dangerous downward spiral that is accompanied by a loss of excitement from audience and donors. This is precisely what concerns us the most. The artistic needs and goals of the institution are being ignored by members of the board leadership, who seem to value preserving the endowment over preserving the artistic integrity of the orchestra.

BSO leadership points to an average of $1.6 million shortfalls in the operations of the BSO. What they don’t mention is that at the same time, the BSO’s endowment trust continues to grow in value. It now stands at $72.5 million. In FY 17, total assets grew by $2.4 million.

BSO leaders tout the fact that they have cut $3.9 million from the budget between 2016 and 2018. What they do not state is that the total expenses grew by over $5.2 million between 2014 and 2016. Disastrous decisions made during these years deprived the BSO of significant revenue. The musician compensation line in the budget has remained essentially flat over the last nine years, and musicians’ real wages have fallen over the last 15 years. Operating losses have never been caused by the compensation of BSO musicians, who are the reason people support the orchestra.

One last thing that must be addressed is the misleading compensation figure cited in a recent op-ed from BSO board leadership. In the October 30 proposal that management is pressuring the musicians to accept, base pay for musicians will total $69,500, which is almost 20% less than BSO musicians’ current salary. Why are the musicians being asked to take 20% pay cuts when the orchestra’s deficits in most years are less than 3% of the budget? Why aren’t the cuts being spread evenly over the entire budget, including management salaries, which so far aren’t subject to any cuts at all? Why is the board choosing to do irreparable damage to the institution when its endowment is making over $2 million a year? Why does it treat the artists who are the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with such rank disrespect by turning them out onto the street with no salary and health benefits with less than three weeks notice? Why are the BSO trustees abandoning the city of Baltimore, Baltimore and Montgomery counties and the state of Maryland and silencing the music needlessly?

The musicians stand ready to meet our management at the bargaining table just as we stand ready to take the stage every night for performances. Is our board ready to take its positions as stewards of this precious artistic instrument with the same sense of dedication? If so, let’s have a more constructive rather than destructive conversation about the future of the BSO.

Greg Mulligan (gregmulliganicsom@gmail.com) and Brian Prechtl (brian@prechtlmusic.com) are co-chairs of the BSO Players’ Committee. Members Marcia McHugh Kämper, Jane Marvine and Kevin Smith also contributed to this op-ed.

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