January 27, 2019

Resignation and Unintended Consequences

In case you haven't been paying attention, you should be.    As of January 15, 2019, the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony have been working without a contract as the four-month contract extension offered to them by BSO management has expired.      To be more specific, after playing without a contract since September 9, 2018, the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony agreed to a four-month extension of the previous contract on November 1, 2018 – meaning that the extension was taken with a retroactive start date.

As chronicled in the Baltimore Sun, the musicians took this contract extension after receiving a proposal from BSO management that can only be called shocking at best:    
-Baltimore Sun (November 2, 2018)

According to current Baltimore Symphony President and CEO Peter Kjome, this huge reduction of the symphony season is necessary, and both the reasons for this drastic proposal and some details look like this: 

"There have been discussions about season length for many years, and other major orchestras with shorter seasons maintain a high level of artistic accomplishment.   Of the 21 major orchestras across the country as defined by budget size, one-third have seasons less than 52 weeks....During negotiations on October 30 with the Musicians' Association, the BSO presented a proposal that included a reduction in season length.  During the summer, we have historically presented comparatively few concerts, and the summer season has not proven to be financially viable.   The proposed reduction of our season from 52 to 40 weeks is primarily through fewer paid weeks during the summer, including a reduction from nine weeks to four weeks of paid vacation.   Our proposal includes increasing the weekly base compensation of our musicians and holding auditions to fill open positions.  A comprehensive benefits package, including health insurance, dental insurance, life insurance, long-term disability benefits and pension benefits, will be maintained." 
"A Message from Baltimore Symphony President and CEO Peter Kjome"

Before going on, I must ask:   if it is true that "there have been discussions about season length for many years", why does it seem that the public is hearing about this discussion point for the first time?  

In a press release dated November 1, 2018, the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony shared - very clearly - what the proposed "reduction" means in terms of salary and, concerning leadership, questions regarding previously made statements:

"The BSO management offered a proposal that entailed a radically reduced season, cutting the weeks of employment from 52 to 40, amounting to a 23% cut in work weeks.   The BSO has proposed eliminating its summer season, just one year after telling the Musicians at the bargaining table how important it is that the BSO remains one of this country's 52-week orchestras.    This offer would result in a minimum of a 17% cut in salary.   Other increased costs to Musicians in benefits and workload changes would bring the total cuts to 25% in real world value."

In this press statement, the Musicians also lay out a very clear picture of the BSO's financial picture from 2009 until now. 

"BSO Management Offers Drastic Cuts to Musicians"

As SO much written and shared from November until now, writing a synopsis would be an Olympian feat, but articles and updates can be found at the following sites:

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Musicians 

  • recent updates are chronicled on the home page, and recent press articles on the Recent News page

Save our BSO 

  • Through a search, one can find all of the articles, including editorial letters, that have been written regarding this contract impasse (included in the editorial letters are a significant number of letters in support of the Musicians)

While there has been a tremendous wellspring of support for the Musicians combined with significant opposition to BSO management's proposal - and what looks like "resignation" from Board Executive Committee member Terry Meyerhoff Rubenstein and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Endowment Trust Chairman Chris Bartlett - I find myself wondering if the current BSO Board of Directors and Management have really looked at what the "unintended consequences" of such drastic measures would be.

As another meeting between the BSO musicians and management is scheduled for January 29, 2019 according to Baltimore Business Journal,  we must applaud the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony as working without a contract in the middle of a concert season - acting in good faith that management will neither institute a lockout or violate contract terms - is more than noble.  

With that in mind, we also have to applaud Evan Tucker, who wrote a most insightful article recently published in the Baltimore Fishbowl.   In this article, Mr. Tucker does a brilliant job of putting this contract impasse in context, both regarding the recent decade's history of blistering orchestral work stoppages and postwar American industrial history.   Mr. Tucker goes so far as to ask THE question: 

"CEO Peter J. Kjome and board chair Barbara Bozzuto are the first orchestral bosses with the chutzpah to do what every orchestral board in a Rust Belt town has long wanted:   to gut the orchestra to shreds....What is the point of lending your names to an institution if you willfully preside over its decline?"

- Baltimore Fishbowl (January 23, 2019)

There are two very important figures in the world of arts management that have chronicled the result of continuous cuts, one of them being Michael Kaiser.  Current Chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, Mr. Kaiser is known worldwide as the "turnaround specialist" due to his tremendous work in reviving the Royal Opera House (UK), American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Kansas City Ballet.   Most recently, Mr. Kaiser served as interim Executive Director of the San Antonio Symphony after its near-demise in January 2018 (which has been chronicled at The Rivard Report, a San Antonio nonprofit journal) and following resurrection.

Mr. Kaiser's 2008 book The Art of the Turnaround is now considered required reading for anyone interested in the long-term survival and growth of arts organizations of all sizes and types.    In this book, he shares his ideas about what organizations should focus upon during trying times, those things ranging from ensuring that public statements are unified to focusing on growth and revenue building instead of cuts.    Mr. Kaiser also wrote a blog at the Huffington Post, and in a 2008 entry titled "Arts in Crisis" he shares his thoughts on board decision-making in the face of economic challenges and makes the valid and argument that good work and aggressive marketing lead to success and growth.   In contrast, he also correctly asserts that organizations focusing on cuts to remain healthy set up a vicious cycle that results in loss of revenue leading to more cuts, the end result being that the "organization simply gets too small to matter."

- Huffington Post (July 30, 2009)

Drew McManus, arts consultant and author of the Adaptistration website (on which one can read archived columns about the Baltimore Symphony dating from 2004 to the present), has noted that a proposal similar to that facing the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony was ratified by the Saint Louis Symphony.   McManus shared that one of the unforeseen results of the season reduction in St. Louis was a huge loss of both financial and political support.  Furthermore - and similar to what we have witnessed in the aftermath of the 14-month-long Minnesota Orchestra lockout of 2012-2014 - "it took the introduction of a new CEO and new board commitment to reverse course before they [the Saint Louis Symphony] went down that path."

Indeed, after the cost-cutting season reduction engineered by President and Executive Director Randy Adams in 2001, another consequence of earlier cost-cutting measures was a two-month lockout in 2005, a vote of "no-confidence"against Mr. Adams after the musicians returned to the stage and, in June 2007,  Mr. Adams' resignation.    Fortunately for the St. Louis Symphony, their next President (Fred Bronstein, who has served as the Dean of Baltimore's Peabody Institute since 2014) launched an aggressive revenue plan with audience development, new programming and innovative marketing strategies at its core.   The results of Mr. Bronstein's initiatives include a 26 percent increase in philanthropic support and a 36 percent increase in ticket sales, a shining exception to the conventional wisdom that all orchestras are struggling due to aging audiences and declining ticket sales

Looking at the stellar track record of an internationally-recognized "turnaround specialist" 
(Mr. Kaiser) and Mr. Bronstein's successful initiatives in St. Louis (which, incidentally, is one of the orchestras that Mr. Kjome refers to when speaking of "other major orchestras with shorter seasons" that have maintained "a high level of artistic accomplishment"), I can only wonder what has led to the sense of resignation (meaning "the acceptance of something undesirable but inevitable") pervading the management and board of directors of the Baltimore Symphony.  

This "We give up" position is at best disappointing, especially considering that the during the past ten years Baltimore's musical community has suffered two great losses, those being the 2009 bankruptcy of the Baltimore Opera and the June 2018 shutdown of the Concert Artists of Baltimore.    One would hope that those contemplating such a draconian decision would heed the ambitions and growth-oriented recommendations of Gregory Tucker, who served as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's vice president of public relations from 1997-2004 and a member of the Board of Directors from 2014-2018. 

- Washington Post (January 14, 2019)

So, as the clock ticks and as we stand in solidarity with the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony, let us hope that this impasse is resolved in a manner that truly protects both the BSO's current world-class status and the livelihood of our fellow citizens.  After resolution, however, let us hope that  innovative, ambitious and growth-oriented energy floods both the administrative and philanthropic corridors of the Baltimore Symphony so that the organization can continue to grow through the next century and beyond.   Should this not happen, I shudder at the consequences of what the enactment of a short-sighted proposal will bring.

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