As everyone knows, our world is on fire. Sometimes literally, but always figuratively.
The Internet, in its infinite wisdom, has settled upon a metaphor to evoke the broiling ever-present destruction:
The dumpster fire.
The scholarly website KnowYourMeme.com offers the following definition of a “dumpster fire”:
a pejorative term used to describe something as a spectacular failure or disaster, in a similar vein to other colloquial terms like “trainwreck” or “sh*tshow.”
Merriam-Webster is more to the point:
an utterly calamitous or mismanaged situation or occurrence : DISASTER
Needless to say, the Baltimore Symphony lockout is a dumpster fire.
A new vague proposal (threat?) floated in the Baltimore Sun on July 10th is, to my eyes, a potential game-changer. And not just for Baltimore, either: for managements, musicians, donors, and patrons all over the United States.
If what Chris Bartlett, the chair of the Baltimore Symphony Endowment Trust, proposes in this article comes to pass, a philanthropic Rubicon will have been crossed: a blazing dumpster fire fueled. And across that river, and beneath that trash, lay myriads of unsettling, unnerving unknowns.
The headline cuts to the chase:
The lede is no less blunt or alarming:
Will the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra survive in its current form?
This July 10th article doesn’t go in chronological order, so let’s take a step back and trace the timeline of certain relevant events first…
End of October 2018
In contract negotiations with its musicians, the BSO management proposes “a substantial cut in pay and benefits – over 20 percent – with the contract to be reduced from 52 weeks per year to 40 weeks per year.” (x)
Save Our BSO, a grassroots group of patrons and donors concerned about the impacts of these proposed cuts, accelerates its work. They research the organization’s fiscal issues and attempt to open up dialogue with management. Save Our BSO is ultimately disappointed by the lack of transparency in those conversations.
7 December 2018
Save Our BSO writes in a letter addressed to the Baltimore Symphony Board of Directors:
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. It flies in the face of the disclosures in the Endowment Trust’s annual Forms 990, and it defies management’s repeated public statements over the years to solicit support for the Endowment Trust.…..
(Their whole letter is worth reading, by the way. I love audience advocates.)
14 June 2019
The Sun reports that the Baltimore Symphony is awaiting “an audited financial statement that will determine whether it is ‘a going concern’ – a decision with potentially significant implications for the symphony’s future”:
A determination that a business or organization is not a going concern is extremely rare, according to J.P. Krahel, an associate professor of accounting at Loyola University Maryland.
“Usually an audit is not meant to judge the quality of a business,” Krahel said. “It usually just says that what the business is telling you is honest.
”The exception is that if the auditors feel the business might not survive, they’ll put a note to that effect in the audit opinion as a warning to potential lenders. It is essentially the kiss of death. It means that the business is already on life support and it would be pulling the plug.” …..
17 June 2019
The Baltimore Symphony institutes a lockout of its musicians. They remain locked out today.
Obviously those haven’t been the sole noteworthy events thus far, but they’re what’s relevant for this particular entry.
So. That timeline brings us to the apocalyptically titled July 10th Sun article: “Shaky BSO finances leave endowment chiefs skittish about forking over cash, pondering orchestra’s successor.”
This article breaks some important news. For instance, after several weeks spent on tenterhooks, we finally get some clarification as to the bankruptcy / “kiss of death” question:
Officials say the BSO isn’t in imminent danger of shutting down or the less drastic alternative of filing for bankruptcy. Peter Kjome, the BSO’s president and CEO, wrote in an email that bankruptcy “is not a concern at this point.” …..
But if bankruptcy or a shutdown isn’t in the cards “at this point” (Kjome’s own words!), what specifically is the BSO management looking for in the upcoming audit teased so dramatically in the June Sun article? Was this muddy reporting, or was the BSO management crying (some kind of twisted Peter and the) wolf?
All of that, however, is a pleasant sparkler compared to the Molotov cocktail ultimately thrown into the conversation: i.e., the future of the BSO’s endowment.
Will the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra survive in its current form?
Until recently, that question would have been unthinkable about a 103-year-old arts group described as one of Baltimore’s crown jewels. But the BSO’s finances arguably are so unstable that members of the endowment trust supporting the symphony balk at lending or giving it even one penny more than the $6 million it has received this fiscal year…
Some trustees say that prudence requires them to hold onto the $60 million endowment in case it’s needed to bankroll a future replacement orchestra.
“The endowment trust was created to support the BSO or its accredited successor,” Chris Bartlett, chairman of the Baltimore Symphony Endowment Trust, wrote in an email.…..
If you were worried that Mr. Bartlett suffered an unfortunate case of autocorrect or accidentally fell on his keyboard before clicking send, the Sun underlines his intentions by confirming his typological emphasis:
(The emphasis on “or” was Bartlett’s.)
Heck, this sentence even appears in a pull quote graphic, just in case you missed it the first two times:
“Trustees have consistently assisted when the organization is in trouble, but we have a greater fiduciary responsibility to our donors to … remain financially viable over the long term.” …..
So this was no slip of the tongue. In fact, this has been a plan.
Save Our BSO actually raised the alarm over this back in December when management was telling them that the endowment could be used for “a generic cause, such as ‘classical music in Baltimore.’” I even wrote about that here.
And if you’re thinking, nah, this is a hysterical conspiracy theory; surely the BSO endowment board would serve as a check against any self-serving actions of the BSO management or vice versa while the latter was in negotiations… Wellllllllll, it turns out that check is pretty much a mathematical impossibility.
The Sun explains that there are nine trustees on the BSO endowment board. Three are current members of the BSO board proper; four are former members of the BSO board proper (two of those four are actually former board chairs); and one is Joseph Meyerhoff II, the grandson of the man for whom Meyerhoff Symphony Hall was named for.
And the final man on the endowment board is also the chair. That’s our typologically precise friend Chris Bartlett, who admittedly has never been on the BSO board proper, but did work at Wells Fargo Securities from 1999 to 2012, which is a factoid that doesn’t have anything to do with anything here per se, but consider it an Easter egg to amuse and/or chill the hearts of folks familiar with the history of the lockout in Minnesota.
Anyway! Let’s get back to what Bartlett said:
“The endowment trust was created to support the BSO or its accredited successor.”
First off, let’s be clear: there is no dictionary (or legal) definition for the term “accredited successor.” In fact, the phrase only appears on Google 700 times. It pops up most frequently in history books from the early twentieth century, and usually refers to an individual following in the professional footsteps of another individual.
This imprecision, this carelessness, this apathetic slipperiness opens the door to unimaginable abuses of governance. In fact, there is nothing in this article to suggest that an “accredited successor” “future replacement orchestra” would need to have anything to do with classical music…or even be obliged to employ full-time musicians. Granted, nothing that says it wouldn’t! But also nothing that promises that it would.
Now. Before full-blown panic erupts, I don’t know how serious they are about pulling this trigger, and I also don’t know if they’d face any legal pushback doing so. Maybe floating these outrageous trial balloons is just a sick game to them.
That said, they sure seem invested in this whole successor organization thing, since they’re publicly raising the prospect in the press, and were telegraphing their intentions to gobsmacked audience advocates months ago. (Or maybe they are serious about establishing a successor organization, but just forgot to research the potential legal risks of doing so. That would be a Chernobyl-esque level of toxic incompetence so dangerous it should disqualify everyone involved from serving in this organization.)
There are three stadium-sized red flags that I’m immediately concerned about.
First, what does the Bartlett bombshell mean for the Baltimore Symphony negotiations specifically?
- It means that good faith negotiations are dead (surprise!). Where’s the motivation to negotiate with a leadership team if they’re fine with the idea of a successor orchestra?
- The management team is willing – eager? – to blow everything up. They have no vision and no plan beyond making the cuts in literally the most painful way possible, and then hoping that revenues from a demoralized audience and donor base balance the budget.
- Good luck finding musicians to join a “successor” orchestra! Depending on how that transition would go down, the musicians’ union would likely put The Accredited Successor Philharmonic (TM) on an unfair list, and/or musicians wouldn’t work for an organization that’s willing to toss them out with the trash. So… What does this Successor Philharmonic look like? What repertoire does it play? What’s its budget? Where are its donors? Who is its audience? What’s the business plan? What’s its purpose?
- Housecleaning needs to happen on the management side if they’re serious about maintaining the quality and identity of this orchestra, and regaining public and musician trust. If they were serious about these things, they wouldn’t throw around this kind of extreme rhetoric a month into the lockout, and they wouldn’t support folks on their side who do.
Second, what does this mean for unionized American musicians more generally? If the board of a major American orchestra is successful in cutting off access to endowment funds once there’s a deficit and negotiation… Well, the playbook would be right there: the unofficial road map to a union-free back-up band pops paradise!
Consider the following hypothetical chain of events:
- The stock market tanks.
- The endowment shrinks.
- Donors and foundations pull support.
- Deficits mount.
- Musicians begin negotiating a new contract.
- The board chair and senior management team, wanting to avoid the headaches of steering the Titanic through the ice field, settle on the strategy of holding revenue from the endowment captive, ostensibly in the name of the orchestra’s long-term fiscal health.
- Management institutes a lockout.
- The musicians are out for months, or until they’re broken.
- Audience advocates are ignored.
- If the musicians don’t cave to demands, management forms an Accredited Successor Philharmonic! (TM)
- If no unionized musician joins, non-unionized ones are found, or else the organization pivots away from playing expensive classical music altogether.
Not a lot of that seems particularly far-fetched. (The biggest hurdles would undoubtedly be legal ones.) Needless to say, not only would this approach torch labor relations and audience relations, it would also genuinely devalue the skills of creative, innovative, growth-oriented administrators. It would solve one problem by causing a million more.
Third and lastly, the most morally pressing question:
What might the establishment of an “accredited successor” organization mean for the donors who had given with the understanding that they were supporting not just a major American orchestra, but this major American orchestra?
What if someone gave their hard-earned estate to the endowment, then those funds ultimately ended up supporting a new organization entirely, exact mission and makeup TBD? Does anyone on the management side have the slightest moral qualm about this?
And this isn’t hypothetical; this distrust is an issue that has been affecting the BSO for months, and presumably costing them money. Save Our BSO wrote in their letter:
On Tuesday, December 4th, senior management advised us that we would not be allowed to see the Trust Agreement… Management’s decision is puzzling because many of us are past donors to the Endowment Trust and supporters who have made planned arrangement for death-time transfers to the Endowment Trust. As such, we plainly have a right to know the contents of the Trust Agreement, insofar as it directs how our contributions will be utilized by the Endowment Trust.…..
In a bleakly hilarious twist, the Sun article ends with a truly tone-deaf pitch from Kjome: “It is vital that our ongoing endowment campaign continues to be successful.”
The obvious, unanswered question: your endowment campaign for what?
I’m sympathetic to the argument against hypothetical irresponsible use of the endowment; I really am. The Baltimore Symphony is in deep trouble. It needs and deserves careful stewards. But to my eyes, the only thing worse than spending down the endowment irresponsibly is hoarding it to fund a mysterious new organization entirely.
At that point, donors might as well throw their dollars into a dumpster…then light them on fire to watch those gifts burn.