ROD SERLING VOICE:
Imagine, if you will. A non-profit dependent on the trust of the community it serves. The product they push isn’t a product at all; it’s an experience created by people. People who have worked themselves to the bone from childhood to perfect their craft. Imagine, if you will, a decision seemingly pointing to deliberate destruction.
*perches coolly on the edge of a desk*
This non-profit is the Baltimore Symphony in the year two-thousand-and-nineteen AD. April twenty-four: management announces a summer season of concerts. May twenty-five: the state government approves $3.2 million to carry the organization through financial trouble. May thirty: the organization’s leadership burns every bridge, to every stakeholder, for reasons yet unknown and unknowable.
*drags on cigarette*
Ladies and gentlemen, you don’t have to imagine. Because…
I’ve written about labor disputes on this blog since the autumn of 2012. But truly, few developments have been as mind-boggling to me as today’s implosion in Baltimore.
I worry that because the story is complicated and so much of it still doesn’t make sense, that people will tune out.
People: don’t tune out.
We are possibly (likely?) on the verge of a lockout of a major American orchestra.
And here’s why you should care.
In the fall of 2018, the musicians and management at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra were negotiating a new musician contract. They agreed on two extensions, the latter of which lasted until January 2019.
In early December 2018, management went public with portions of its proposal. It included dramatic, disruptive cuts in programming.
As we have explained to our musicians during bargaining, the Baltimore Symphony can no longer support a 52-week season. Our proposal includes a reduction to a 40-week season, with the number of performances aligned to market demand.“BSO Proposal Information,” 6 December 2018; https://www.bsomusic.org/misc/bso-updates/bso-proposal-information/
(My italics, because veterans of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout [2012-14] recognize the sentiment… Here’s an excerpt from the 2011 management strategic plan that immediately preceded that organization’s disastrous lockout:)
We will develop new performance formats and content in our expanded Hall, and re-scope our number of concerts to align supply and demand.Vision for a Sound Future: Strategic Business Plan Summary, Fiscal Years 2012-2015 http://www.saveoursymphonymn.org/uploads/2/2/7/7/22773088/strategic_plan_2011-11-02.pdf
Now, I’m not saying that one phrase a disastrous lockout makes, but it’s also irresponsible to completely ignore similarities of rhetoric. (And this is not the only example.)
Moving on. In late December, a group of donors and patrons banded together with the aim of pushing management in a new direction. They called themselves Save Our BSO.
(Side note: Patron-led advocacy organizations have been a fixture of labor disputes since 2010; some have been better-organized and more effective than others. Save Our Symphony Minnesota was a major presence during the Minnesota lockout, and, full disclosure, I volunteered for them and have a soft spot in my heart for audience advocacy work.)
Save Our BSO laid out their position in a December letter:
Management’s proposal may be one that would produce lower costs, but, in doing so, we believe it will exacerbate the BSO’s problems retaining its musicians and will seriously hinder the BSO’s ability to attract the caliber of musicians who have made the BSO a world class orchestra.Committee to Save Our BSO letter; 7 December 2018 https://www.saveourbso.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/SaveOurBSO_Letter.pdf
In the letter, Save Our BSO described a culture of unresponsiveness. They claimed they were unable to see documents they requested to get a fuller picture of the organization’s financial issues. They also wrote that management went so far as to claim that the Baltimore Symphony endowment “exists to support a generic cause, such as ‘classical music in Baltimore'” as opposed to just the Baltimore Symphony itself.
Save Our BSO concluded the letter with the suggestion that bridge funding of some kind be made available and that alternate, less destructive methods be employed to reach financial goals. In their words:
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.Committee to Save Our BSO letter; 7 December 2018 https://www.saveourbso.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/SaveOurBSO_Letter.pdf
Save Our BSO conceded that, by its very definition, bridge funding could not be a permanent solution to the crisis, but it would buy the orchestra time to create a more collaborative, inclusive institutional culture, which in turn might ultimately help the organization’s financial situation.
It was against this specific backdrop that government action was soon taken to help provide that suggested “bridge” funding.
Enter Maryland House Bill 1404.
Thanks to lobbying from musicians and concerned citizens alike, Maryland House Bill 1404 began its life in February 2019 and went into effect on 25 May 2019.
House Bill 1404 provided $1.6 million per fiscal year for two years (FY 2020 and FY 2021), for a total investment in the orchestra of $3.2 million.
But, importantly, it also established a “Workgroup.” According to the bill, this is the work that the workgroup is tasked with:
The workgroup is to present its findings to the government “on or before October 1, 2019.”
These are clearly the same types of collaboration-ripe issues that Save Our BSO was concerned with in its December 2018 letter.
Finally, I know that this is boring, but stay with me one second longer, because it might eventually prove important: here is who the bill mandates be in this workgroup:
- 1 member appointed by the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Delegates
- 2 members of the Baltimore Symphony board, 1 by the chair of the board
- 3 members of the Baltimore Symphony Players Committee, 1 by the chair of the Baltimore Symphony Players Committee
- 2 members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra administration, 1 by the BSO CEO
I haven’t delved far enough into the local politics of what this workgroup might look like, but it’s clearly something to stick a pin in. (For instance, is one side feeling underrepresented, and if so, will that be reflected in their enthusiasm about participation?)
However, management appeared to be pleased about developments, including the workgroup, if the 18 April 2019 edition of the Baltimore Sun is any indication. In it, Baltimore Symphony CEO Peter Kjome told the paper:
We are hopeful and optimistic that the bill will become law. A tentative date has been set for the signing ceremony and we anticipate having a firm date in the coming weeks. We are extremely grateful to the General Assembly of Maryland for the passage of this important bill which provides not only financial support but a work group to examine our business model.“$3.2 million grant from Maryland legislature may help BSO settle contract dispute”, Baltimore Sun, 18 April 2019; https://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/arts/bs-fe-bso-negotiations-update20190417-story.html
The paper also noted:
It is perhaps a positive sign that symphony management will unveil its summer 2019 season in the next several days — a season that previously had been up in the air.
It turns out that “perhaps” was the operative word there. After announcing the summer season on 24 April, today the Baltimore Symphony revealed that their musicians and patrons might as well have been on the crappiest episode of Punk’d ever.
Because today we got this historical doozy of an article from the Baltimore Sun.
Yep, the summer season that they’d launched with such optimistic aplomb… *checks calendar*...five weeks ago has now fizzled out like a faulty Fourth of July sparkler, leaving everyone in the dark.
Greg Mulligan, co-chairman of the Baltimore Symphony Musicians’ Players Committee, said the musicians were stunned by the announcement. They first heard of Kjome’s plans at 1 p.m. Thursday, an hour after they had completed their final rehearsal for a scheduled concert that night.
Interestingly, the audience members (and music director?) are apparently sympathetic to the players:
Before Thursday night’s concert began, the crowd gave the musicians a rare pre-performance standing ovation.
Brian Prechtl, co-chairman of the BSO players, addressed the crowd as Maestra Marin Alsop faced him respectfully from the podium.
He told the crowd that musicians have been told they will not be paid after June 16. Loud boos erupted the audience.
A performance of Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations then followed.
Another patron quote:
John Jay Bonstingl, 73, of Columbia was not among the protesters. He has been a subscriber for more than 35 years but said he would consider not renewing his subscription in light of the cuts.
“I’m just so absolutely, utterly disgusted,” he said. “This is a slap in the face to the subscribers, to the musicians and to the whole state of Maryland.”
CEO Peter Kjome also made a series of puzzling comments in the article:
“Their support was greatly appreciated,” he said of legislative leaders. “But when we look at our very serious financial issues, their support alone is not enough.” …
Did you…um…tell them that? If not, why not? If you did tell them that, and they didn’t listen to you, why didn’t you mention this in April? And why are they acting so shocked in the press?
The action also cancels a slate of high-profile summer concerts that the organization had announced with some fanfare in late April. Kjome said he hopes to right the organization’s fiscal health enough by next year to resume some of those events, including a popular July 4 concert in Baltimore County.
“We will return to Oregon Ridge in 2020,” he pledged.
How? I mean… I know how, and the people reading this know how, and the musicians certainly know how, and you know how, but why don’t you say the word out loud? You’re convinced you’re going to get your way because you’re likely going to impose a lockout.
Just to make sure I understood, I messaged arts lawyer Kevin Case to hear directly from a professional about what this process might potentially entail after today’s concert cancellations, and after the BSO’s regular season ends on June 16th:
If a contract expires and there is no strike or lockout, and the parties haven’t bargained to impasse, then the employer is obligated to maintain the status quo – i.e., keep paying wages and benefits at the same level as before the contract expired. The employer is NOT entitled to simply stop paying. The only way that can happen is with a lockout. (Or by declaring bankruptcy.)Message with Kevin Case, 30 May 2019
And hey, remember that work group tied to the state money? The one that was supposed to get the BSO on firmer financial footing by jointly studying vital issues like cost containment, structural efficiencies, health care costs, and audience development and diversity? Yeah. That bill only became law five days ago, and so that group hasn’t had time to name its members, let alone actually do any work.
So clearly there are still a lot of unknowns here, and the situation is obviously fluid. But these were the main questions I walked away with after today:
- When working to pass House Bill 1404, did Baltimore’s management ever indicate to lawmakers that they were considering (or planning on) canceling the 2019 summer season? Because the politicians quoted in the Baltimore Sun today sounded totally blindsided! Or has management deliberately burned that political bridge? If so, who benefits – ideologically or otherwise – from the arson?
- Or did the management legitimately have no idea that cancelling the summer season was a possibility a few weeks ago? If so, a replacement of senior leadership seems like it would be more constructive than a labor dispute. Damn.
Remember, as best as the public knows, nothing significant changed about the orchestra’s finances between the announcement of the summer season in late April and today…aside from the securing of the $3.2 million from the state.
This entry has gone on long enough, but allow me one last digression.
This sh** is not okay.
You don’t agree to take government money, while sidestepping a work group deliberately legislated alongside that money, and then unilaterally impose big concert cuts onto the musicians and audiences who helped lobby for that money. It’s a terrible look. It erodes trust in good governance, and when a non-profit loses the trust of its stakeholders, what does it have left? That hypothetical non-profit has nothing. And it deserves nothing.
This field has enough problems as it is. We don’t need to add to the list “patrons having to decide whether ineptitude or mere cynicism is the reason why an entire summer season of concerts has been abruptly canceled.”
If you’re at the top, just be better. These kinds of antics are unsustainable. And they will be called out.
If you’re the rest, stay informed. Check out the Baltimore Symphony Musicians’ and the Save Our BSO websites. Follow them on social media. See how you can get involved, even if you aren’t based in Maryland. You can always speak your mind in comment sections and send well wishes directly to folks affected. All people who care about well-run non-profits – and especially people who care about well-run orchestras – need to call out problems when we see them.
Because in the words of Mr. Serling:
“Couldn’t happen you say? Probably not in most places, but it did happen…in the Twilight Zone.”