Red Flags and Audience Advocacy at the Baltimore Symphony

Lots of inane things have been uttered in 2018. More than once I’ve rolled my eyes so hard it’s a miracle my retinas haven’t detached.

And alas, the music world was not exempt from problematic statements. There were many potential nominees, but I think the award for Cringiest Orchestral Hot Take of 2018 has to go to Baltimore Symphony board chair Barbara Bozzuto, who, in an editorial that attempted to justify large-scale organizational cuts, blundered her way into writing this:

Orchestras of our budget size have been facing financial issues for some time. Certain challenges pervade our entire industry: changing demographics, varying media available to listen to music, local economics, time constraints of our audiences, aging subscribers and, in our city’s case, a stubborn and persistent crime wave.

BSO board chair: We need change to secure the orchestra’s future, by Barbara Bozzuto; 21 November 2018
Shut it down

That strategically placed “stubborn and persistent crime wave” reference isn’t improvised or an afterthought; it appears at the very beginning of her piece. It’s clearly a preordained talking point.

A local can describe better why exactly this is so bad, and luckily a local did. Earlier this month Baltimore-based violinist Samuel Thompson wrote a blog entry devoted to the issue. The whole thing is worth pondering, but here’s his concluding paragraph:

This tactic has been studied and is referred to as the use of “coded language”, which is defined as “a subtle way members of the public, media, and politicians talk about race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion” in the United States. As no data has been shared to support the claim that a “crime wave” has had a negative effect on the Baltimore Symphony’s bottom line, one has to question the inclusion of coded language in a statement written to support a structural proposal that will wreak havoc both on the institution and the city’s musical community.

“If language were liquid”: Thoughts for a Board Chair by Samuel Thompson; 19 December 2018

And this comes in an era when the League of American Orchestras has an entire section of their website labeled The Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Center, suggesting that this might be a time for orchestras and their leaders to be especially sensitive to the use of coded and loaded language.

In any case, Baltimore is obviously a potential mess that orchestra lovers should monitor in 2019. (What a fun New Year’s resolution to have to keep!)

There’s not enough alcohol in the world.

Personally, given my own life experiences, I find that one of the more interesting aspects of the Baltimore negotiation is the fact that an audience advocacy group is already up and running. It has taken on the “Save Our Symphony” (“SOS”) nomenclature that a variety of other patron advocacy groups have adopted, especially in the wake of the 2010 Detroit Symphony strike. Unlike, say, the League of American Orchestras, there is no central national hub to these SOS organizations. Instead, these groups arise organically and independently, although communication may occur between veteran volunteers and newcomers to the movement.

Full disclosure: For those who weren’t readers here back in the olden days of 2013, I was involved with the formation of Save Our Symphony Minnesota during the 2012-14 Minnesota Orchestra lockout, and I count as friends people who have been involved in various SOS movements across the United States. :)

Over the past decade, whenever and wherever a major orchestral labor dispute has flared, a phalanx of alarmed patrons has appeared to make their displeasure at being shut out known. Folks do this in a variety of ways, whether by raising awareness of the conflict online, fundraising or volunteering for musicians, opening up avenues of communication with board members, working on citizen arts journalism projects, or partaking in any other number of dorkily rebellious activities.

Some SOS groups have been more effective than others. Regardless, a well-organized patron advocacy group strikes fear into the hearts of insular management teams, even when that fear is masked by silence or condescension. (Minnesota management’s 2012 leadership team [now all gone] famously went so far as to attempt to thwart the formation of a local SOS group by purchasing domain names we might use for a website months before the labor dispute even began…and over a year before we patrons considered founding one.)

Their fear makes sense. It is much more difficult to imply that musicians are greedy or uninformed when your customers are questioning your other choices. It’s also an indictment of your ability to develop or communicate a shared vision: one of the most urgent responsibilities of any non-profit leadership team. To admit that you’ve failed in selling your vision is much more difficult than just dismissing malcontents out-of-hand.

And yet audience members and donors should not be the enemy. Indeed, they should be friends: advocates for the product, deeply committed to the mission. These are exactly the kinds of passionate people whose support, expertise, and perspective a functional management should covet. Management teams that recognize this sooner rather than later will benefit.

To date, two former SOSMN founders have ascended to the exalted ranks of the Minnesota Orchestra board proper. And that’s not including folks from Orchestrate Excellence, another audience advocacy group, who also saw its members join the board. After its ill-advised apocalypse, the Minnesota Orchestra, to its credit, embraced the idea of inclusivity in a way it hadn’t before. Nowadays it uses the term “the Minnesota model” to describe its ideal governance style, which is one of collaboration between all stakeholders.

Take note of outgoing board chair Marilyn Carlson Nelson’s words and tone at the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2017/18 annual review (which, by the way, was an event open to the public). “That’s what we’ve been doing for the last years at this orchestra: drawing our circle bigger and bigger, and we have been the beneficiaries.” MCN is such a superstar. (Also, note that the orchestra has been running balanced budgets for several years now while employing this approach.)

In short, if you’re a member of senior orchestra management and you’re planning on opening a two-front PR war against your musicians and your patrons, it might be worthwhile to take a step back, take a deep breath, and reassess.

It’s early days, but unfortunately I don’t see any evidence of this self-reflection happening in Baltimore.

An article laying out the situation appeared in the Baltimore Sun today: “Baltimore Symphony donors form committee to ‘Save Our BSO,’ fight musician pay cuts.”

Donors and supporters of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra have formed a committee called “Save Our BSO” in response to management’s proposal to reduce its musical season by weeks and cut musicians’ pay.

Through letters to the BSO board, the committee of about 20 members is urging management to reconsider the cuts, asserting that orchestra management has chosen not to make use of all available funds. The changes, they wrote, would reduce the “world-class orchestra to a regional ensemble.”

The Sun then summarizes the contents of a letter that Save Our BSO sent to the Baltimore Symphony board on December 7th. (Save Our BSO posted a copy of the letter in PDF format on their website.)

In that letter, Save Our BSO raises three main allegations. (No doubt due to space restrictions, not all of these points appear in the Sun article.)

  1. “Management has not been fully transparent with us about the BSO’s condition, particularly with respect to providing information we have requested about the Baltimore Symphony Endowment Trust.”
    • After requesting access to the Trust Agreement to verify the accuracy of management-cited provisions therein, “On Tuesday, December 4th, senior management advised us that we would not be allowed to see the Trust Agreement.”
  2. Save Our BSO is concerned that management is not using its assets in the best interests of the organization. Save Our BSO is currently advocating a temporarily larger draw rate to serve as “bridge funding” until a more collaborative fundraising plan is developed and implemented.
    • “Management previously advised us that the Endowment Trust paid a draw in FY 2018 based on 5.75 percent of the Endowment Trust’s value, which implies a base of approximately $64.35 million in assets for calculating the draw. Based solely on management’s own numbers, the Endowment Trust’s self-imposed restriction deprived the BSO of over $800,000 in FY 2018 alone.”
  3. Save Our BSO also reveals that management has apparently assigned a bizarre new purpose to the Endowment Trust.
    • “Management has also suggested to us that the Endowment Trust does not exist to support the BSO. Rather, management has advised us that the Endowment Trust exists to support a generic cause, such as ‘classical music in Baltimore.’ We believe such an assertion is preposterous.”

Management’s response to these red flags, judging by the Sun article?

In an emailed statement to The Baltimore Sun, BSO President and CEO Peter Kjome declined to comment on the negotiations.

“The management and Board of Directors of the BSO are committed to both sustaining artistic excellence and strengthening our business model to ensure our community, and our audiences in Baltimore, Bethesda, and the State of Maryland, are home to a world-class orchestra for many years to come,” the statement said.

Yeah, no. This is not an okay public response to the specific concerns that Save Our BSO raised, which are less about the nitty-gritty of negotiations and more about ideology and transparency.

Although it is heartening to see community-, audience-, and donor-led perspectives in a newspaper like the Sun, the article also features some misconceptions about the audience advocacy movement that I’d like to address.

As any consumer of news knows, articles like these are usually structured to showcase two perspectives, almost always opposing, with readers encouraged to come to their own conclusions about what’s actually happening. It’s important to give voice to various perspectives, but this style of coverage can lead to the unspoken implication that truth is found somewhere in the middle. When one “side” of a story is silent (in this case, the Baltimore Symphony management), a third party is more likely to appear in print to serve as a counterweight or de facto surrogate spokesperson.

That’s what happened here. The article quotes Joan Jeffri, “director of the New York-based Research Center for Arts and Culture.” There are several troubling aspects to what she has to say. First off, although she’s being interviewed for an article about Save Our BSO, she seems to be unaware of the five-page Save Our BSO letter.

Tapping into an endowment, however, can be a risky business, said Joan Jeffri, director of the New York-based Research Center for Arts and Culture. “It’s a very short-term solution, it’s not a long-term solution,” she said. “The question would be, do they also have a longer-term financial plan to replace that money back in the endowment, or are they just saying, ‘We’re going to take it, and to hell with it.’”

Presumably when she’s using the pronoun “they” Ms. Jeffri is referring to the Baltimore Symphony board and management, since the members of Save Our BSO obviously have no power to “replace” money in an endowment or say “to hell with” anything. But for Pete’s sake, these audience advocates aren’t idiots. Members of Save Our BSO have the same concerns. In their letter, they volunteered to collaborate on developing a longer-term financial plan. (Thankfully the Sun mentions this after Ms. Jeffri’s quote.) As the Save Our BSO letter says:

Nobody believes the BSO can exist in perpetuity, relying on its Endowment Trust for substantial funding, but the BSO should not be sacrificed simply to increase the Endowment Trust’s assets. We believe donors intended that the Endowment Trust support the BSO, rather than starve it. At the very least, we urge the BSO to consider relying upon the Endowment Trust as a “bridge” to prevent the degradation of the orchestra while it makes adjustments to secure long-term stability for the orchestra.

With regard to that last point, we have offered to work with and assist management through a collaborative process, which would include sharing our thoughts about how the BSO could increase revenues and enhance programming. We can only do so, however, if management becomes more transparent and demonstrates that it is committed to maintaining our great orchestra. Unfortunately, the BSO’s lack of transparency only exacerbates doubts and suspicions about management’s motives regarding the future of the BSO.

Ms. Jeffri goes on in the Sun article to suggest a temporary cut.

“You do it once and you regain your footing and have a solid financial plan for the future and you haven’t lost [people’s] confidence… maybe it isn’t such a terrible thing, in a temporary way,” she said. “But it should have a definite timeline if you’re going to do that. Not like, ‘We’re going to 40 weeks and we don’t know if ever we’re going back to 52.’”

If you have even a passing familiarity with Baltimore Symphony history, you’ll know this isn’t a new idea.

“Baltimore Symphony Agrees To a Pay Cut”, New York Times, 31 July 2009
“Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians agree to pay freeze, cuts”, AP article, 26 March 2010. Accessed via The Daily Record.

Thankfully, in 2013 things started heading in a more positive direction. A three-year contract with musician pay increases was signed (x). Then, to account for management personnel transitions and strategic planning, in 2016 and 2017 one-year contracts were offered and accepted. In June 2017, the Sun reported that the annual base salary during the one-year contract would reach $82,742. This was up from the low-to-mid $60ks in 2011.

So clearly the Baltimore Symphony has been down this road before, and relatively recently. What might have appeared temporary in 2009 ultimately became, from management’s perspective, aspirational and presumably permanent in 2018. Obviously this has ramifications for advocates of the “temporary cuts” solution. How does one guarantee that what happened in 2009 doesn’t happen again? How do you rebuild trust when you’ve been here before? Ms. Jeffri doesn’t seem to be familiar with this painful recent history, or if she is, she inexplicably doesn’t mention it.

As for the newly formed Save Our BSO, Jeffri applauded their efforts, but suggested their energy could perhaps be put to better use. “If they’re such big heavy hitters and they’re so interested in the orchestra, maybe they should fundraise so [management] wouldn’t have to raid the endowment,” she said. “If they’re so in back of the orchestra and they’re so committed to it not taking extra weeks out and extra pay from the musicians’ pockets… would they start start maybe some kind of campaign drive to help replace or raise that money?”

Yes, indeed. Why aren’t these people – these “heavy-hitter” poseurs – fundraising millions of dollars to support a management that is currently pursuing goals counter to theirs? Why don’t they go out there and attract funders with the rallying cry “They Don’t Want to Work With Us; So Give Us Money to Give to Them”?

Remember: in their letter, Save Our BSO makes a clear offer to work with the board, as long as Save Our BSO members receive the information they feel they need to be most helpful. For whatever reason (pride or ideology, probably), that’s not a deal that BSO management is willing to make with them right now.

And stepping back for a moment, let’s be clear: there’s no reason to speak so condescendingly to an organization’s customers, just because they deign to raise questions over governance. This is unacceptable.

I’m here to tell you (from personal experience) that it doesn’t matter if you’re a “heavy-hitter” or not. Sure, it helps, but it’s not necessary to make a positive difference. Communicate your concerns. If you don’t speak up when you feel that a non-profit you love is making mistakes, you’re shirking your civic responsibility. Non-profits are not private companies. In theory, the board and the management are there to serve and to listen to you, the community. They require both formal and informal oversight.

This interview also serves as a reminder that the world of orchestral labor disputes is…weird. It’s a niche place. Accordingly, maybe the perspectives of folks who have been in the trenches over the past decade should be prioritized. I could be wrong, but based on the quotes she gave the Sun, I don’t think Ms. Jeffri is familiar with the orchestral audience advocacy movement in America post-2010, the history of the Baltimore Symphony more specifically, or even the goals, experiences, or backgrounds of the members of Save Our BSO. She has a truly impressive resume, but it doesn’t seem like she’s well-versed in orchestral labor disputes in particular.

“Missing: orchestra”

So as music lovers wade forward into this conflict, let’s be careful about whose voices we trust and amplify. These are complicated subjects, and the people closest to the organization and the movement will likely have the most productive insights.

I’m not sure what 2019 will bring for the Baltimore Symphony and its backers. I do think the questions that Save Our BSO is raising are reasonable. I think they deserve thoughtful, considered, and preferably public answers. I also think the Baltimore Symphony management ignores them at their peril. (God, I can’t believe I’m having to say something as obvious as “don’t ignore your customers“, but that’s the orchestra world for you.) I also think arts consultants shouldn’t condescend to audiences. (God, I can’t believe I’m having to say something as obvious as “don’t condescend to audiences“, but that’s the orchestra world for you.)

In short, I believe that audience advocacy has an important role to play in preserving and bolstering our institutions. And I know that activists who have been in this position before are here to help those who are following us, in whatever ways might be helpful. Solidarity to all those working in good faith to improve the lot of their local musicians and orchestras. May 2019 bring less inanity and fewer red flags for us all.


If you want to keep up with the Baltimore Symphony saga…

(And for the handful of folks who visited this entry looking for part 2 to the Geraldine Farrar’s life saga, I screwed up time management over the holiday and never got my draft whittled down to a shareable point. The entry will come soon though, and I promise to get back in the swing of things in January!)


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2 responses to “Red Flags and Audience Advocacy at the Baltimore Symphony

  1. Doug Ramsdell

    Thanks for your informed perspective, Emily. The BSO management statements do indeed have an eerily familiar ring to stuff the Minnesota management put out; recasting the mission statement in particular. And the bit about “currently advocating a temporarily larger draw rate to serve as “bridge funding” until a more collaborative fundraising plan is developed and implemented” makes me wonder if the ‘collaborative fundraising plan’ involves nothing more than musician pay cuts and orchestra reductions. Fortunately, thanks to the ‘Minnesota miracle,’ orchestra boards and management have a positive template to aspire to (rather than just cutting their way to solvency)–IF they have the courage to embrace it.

    • Thanks for commenting! Your comment about the bridge funding made me realize I used an unclear “they” pronoun… To clarify, it’s Save Our BSO that’s currently advocating this bridge funding / collaborative approach, and given their their stated priorities so far, I doubt that would include musician pay cuts. To the best of my knowledge, management is just advocating cuts without any new kind of community-developed collaborative funding. Sorry for being unclear on that. It’s been a long day and a long entry, lol. Again, thanks for commenting, and sorry I was unclear.

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