Carol Bogash served as orchestra manager of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from 1982 to 1988 and as vice president of education and community engagement from 2011 to 2016. She teaches in the graduate business program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. She is chair of the board of the Washington Conservatory of Music.
In the 38 years that I have been connected in some way with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, there have been extraordinary times and very difficult times. Managements change, board members come and go, music directors arrive and depart, but, through it all, the musicians have remained strong and excellent.
These artists, their devoted audiences and the generous donors who have supported this organization — notably the Meyerhoff family and the state of Maryland — are the reasons that we have the great Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. I have learned a great deal about how the management and board operate and, I think I know why the orchestra is in a dire financial situation.
One thing is clear to me: The root cause of the financial problems that the BSO has faced over these past five years is directly related to decisions made by the management and board. Budgets have been approved that were built on wishful thinking. Huge amounts of money were spent on guest artists and guest conductors with the hope of being recouped through ticket sales and donations. Major projects were undertaken without sufficient underwriting. They were artistically worthwhile but financially went into the red. These are the business practices that lead to serious systemic problems and debt.
The board’s decision to eliminate the public relations and marketing departments in 2016 and to replace its professionals with a contracted media firm did not fix the problem. And a decision to end the outreach across the state and around the city didn’t help fulfill the BSO’s mission of “engaging, inspiring, educating, and serving diverse audiences and to enhancing Baltimore and the State of Maryland.” The absence of a senior-level staff person for a long period of time at Strathmore didn’t help develop connections with the residents of Montgomery County. And owing large amounts of money to vendors over extended periods of time, as the Baltimore Sun recently reported, has not endeared the BSO to its valued suppliers.
An easy way out is to blame the drop in revenue on the fundraising, marketing and public relations teams. In fact, the development team has been working tirelessly trying to raise money against an ever-growing and impossible-to-reach goal line. A reconstituted marketing and public relations department has done the same with highly constricted budgets and impossible goals. While somewhat better this year, audience attendance needs considerable improvement and diversity. Better attendance equates to more donations.
Management and the board would have the public believe the current financial problem lies with the musicians. Musicians do not make program decisions or contract with guest artists and conductors. They are not responsible for development and marketing. Musicians did not decide to cancel the annual free Martin Luther King concerts or to discontinue statewide touring or concerts around Baltimore. Musicians do not prepare the annual budgets, hire and fire staff or eliminate or decimate critical departments. These are the decisions of management and the board.
On one point, management is correct: The current business model is not sustainable. But their solution is completely wrong. Cutting the season to 40 weeks and cutting the musicians’ pay and benefits will not fix the problem. Why? Because the bulk of the variable expenses are contracted and spent in the main season, not the summer. With careful, creative planning those remaining 12 weeks are a golden opportunity to generate increased revenue and connect with the citizens of the Baltimore and Maryland.
With vision and creativity, there is a path forward. It is not too late to effect real change in how business is done at the BSO, to restore faith in the institution and to reach out to those who would help stabilize the “ship”-- only if new business practices are instituted, followed and monitored.