Cities get my blood going. All the people and possibilities, the public spaces and the hidden places, the markets and clubs, the infinite shades of art. I love visiting cities, their streets usually feel like home to me no matter how far they are from here. I especially love the world class ones that hum all night long, Chicago, San Francisco, New York.
Sometimes I get jealous of some of those other cities though. Like their transit. It’s so freeing to go somewhere I’ve never been and to be able to get around well without a private vehicle, so frustrating to know that I can’t do the same at home. Mostly it’s just a feeling of vitality. I want to live in a place of powerful confluences, where things are possible that just can’t happen without bringing together so many people. Isn’t that the point of a city? While mine might be smaller these days than it used to be, I cherish anything about Baltimore that gives me that feeling.
It’s knowing a few places open late where I could get a spicy tofu stew or a fresh chocolate bun at 3am on a weird night. It’s relying on the drag nights, poetry nights, goth nights, comedy nights, genre-bending cross-over nights, and all the other nights to be there. Knowing that I can see Mozart or Beethoven or Bach played by some of the very best people in the world pretty much whenever, because we have rare and amazing arts here. I don’t have to actually take advantage of these things often in order to treasure their presence.
So, while I’ve been wrapped up in other issues for a while now, it’s been a blow to see headlines about the Baltimore Symphony Musicians being locked out of their building and picketing on the street. What on earth’s going on there?
I read through the basics in a few local news outlets, and also spoke with a few sources to try to get the picture. One who was particularly helpful on the nuts and bolts was John Warshawsky, one of the people who formed the Save our BSO group, a great source for what’s happening and how to help. In addition to being a patron of the orchestra, Warshawsky is an attorney who has been providing some pro bono legal services for the musicians (though not when it comes to their contract negotiations with management).
If one is to believe those closest to the situation — advocates, artists, and employees — this is a tale of labor injustice and mismanagement of our cultural institutions. Here’s how I’ve come to understand it:
In September 2018, musicians and the orchestra failed to reach a new contract for the next season. Warshawsky says that management broke several scheduled meetings, and then finally, at the end of October, proposed cutting the summer season, dropping the schedule from 52 weeks per year all the way down to 40 in one fell swoop. This meant that the musicians, already among the lowest-paid of their peers around the nation, would be taking roughly a 20% pay cut. They refused to sign, but kept on working and receiving their salaries.
Help seemed on the way. In the spring, the state legislature passed a bill giving the orchestra $3.2 million over the next two years and setting up a special committee to examine its programming and finances. While it wasn’t clear if Hogan would release the funds (and he still hasn’t… good old Boss Hogg, always kicking us when we’re down), planning for the summer season was moving forward. One person who’s worked at the BSO in recent times and who’s not a musician (they spoke under the condition of anonymity, I’ll refer to them hereafter as Anon), told me that staff had been working for weeks on the shows that were to come.
But then, on May 30th of this year, a surprise announcement — the BSO leadership was cancelling the summer season after all. The musicians were left scrambling, facing three months without pay with no warning. On June 17th, management literally locked them out of the building. The musicians and the community started picketing outside. The pickets are taking place 2-3 times per week, with the next scheduled for this Thursday at 8am (https://www.facebook.com/saveourBSO/photos/a.206296746934659/363686367862362).
So why’d it happen? Are the musicians’ salaries just untenable? Not according to Warshawsky. As others have done in the press (one of several such opinion pieces: https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/readers-respond/bs-ed-rr-bso-blame-musicians-letter-20190626-story.html), he pointed to the fact that musician salaries are only a portion of the overall budget, yet they are the only ones expected to take a major hit. He also criticized BSO management for not doing more to develop donors in Montgomery County, one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the nation, where the orchestra opened a second site in 2005.
Warshawsky admitted that the orchestra itself as an operating entity has lost money year after year, but said that that’s not unusual for an arts organization, that it’s not supposed to live off of annual revenues alone. As a potential source of relief in times of trouble, he brought up the orchestra’s large endowment, donated by people like the late Joseph Meyerhoff, who he called a lion when it came to raising money for the institution. The endowment trust operates as a separate entity, and its investment income is meant to provide stability. Warshawsky pointed to audits showing that over the last two years, the orchestra and the endowment combined grew in value by almost $4 million. That means that the endowment grew so much, it well compensated for all losses on the actual musical side of things.
While some funds in an endowment are restricted, Warshawsky claimed that the endowment trust board has been less generous than it could be, and also has been less than candid. He said that the orchestra didn’t even want to release the audit information to the public at first, but did so under pressure. While in an ideal world one would want to take very sparingly from an endowment, Warshawsky made the point that right now we have a world class orchestra, but if we cut their pay by 20%, we will lose a lot of them. That combined with a shorter season will result in a diminished institution, draining away major donors and leading to a downward spiral that kills the golden goose.
For balance, here’s the official perspective of the orchestra management, which as you can imagine is somewhat different — https://www.bsomusic.org/misc/negotiations-updates/ However you slice it though, it’s a dire picture indeed. So who’s responsible? Let’s hear again from Anon, for an inside view. I asked them, “Who do you hold responsible for what’s happening to the BSO right now?”
They replied — “I think it’s complex. There’s been a huge amount of turnover at all levels of the administration in the past five years. I would maybe look to the board first because they have the most continuity. The same board chair has been in place for a while and eliminated most of the marketing and education departments in 2016 in an earlier attempt to cut costs. It did not go well and those positions were rehired within a year. The turnover ever since has been pretty intense. I don’t think anyone is really thinking about the hidden costs of that amount of turnover in the staff side.”
Seeing Anon mention the board, and particularly the board chair, Barbara Bozzuto, stuck out to me. I’d come across Bozzuto’s name while reading a Sun article about the lockout, and it caught my eye because of a connection to the very first local activism issue I ever took on.
In 2008, Marc Steiner was abruptly fired from our local public radio station, WYPR. I was upset because he was their one contributor really focusing on local justice issues, and I became more incensed when I read that he’d been crucial to founding the station, and that he’d been kicked out unceremoniously, with no warning (sound familiar?).
Though the community’s protest about Steiner’s firing came to nothing, I remembered the name of the board chair of WYPR at that time, the person responsible for the whole thing — Barbara Bozzuto. I started to see her last name everywhere I went, thanks to the local activities of the Greenbelt-based real estate company started by her husband and now run by her son (https://www.baltimoresun.com/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-kelly-column-anthem-20170623-story.html).
Is Bozzuto really to blame? I asked Brian Prechtl, a BSO percussionist who’s been with the company for thirteen years. His take was that she has to be held accountable for the present situation, because a lot of the debt that the BSO has accumulated happened under her watch. And not just as board chair, he explained — she ran the orchestra while it was between CEO’s, during a time when it ran up millions in debt. In his opinion, the BSO’s current CEO, Peter Kjome, is just there to carry out the wishes of the board.
I asked Prechtl why he thought the board was doing this, when he and the others to whom I’d spoken had made it clear how damaging it was to the long-term prospects of the orchestra. He paused before continuing.
“In my heart of hearts, I think a lot of people on that board are there because they feel like they’re supposed to be,” he said. “I don’t hear the passion for the mission and vision of the orchestra.” People don’t give, he said, because you need money, they do it because you inspire them, and that’s not happening under this leadership. “The board of the BSO doesn’t seem to realize what their mission is,” he continued. “We are not for profit, we’re a philanthropic organization… we’re here to make the world a better place.” Not recognizing that, he concluded, was the root of the board’s problem.
Anon also pointed to more problems with the management of the BSO, including long put-off vendor bills, fears of lay-offs amongst non-musician staff despite promises to the contrary, and poor pay, benefits, and representation. They said that while they had been really excited to work for the orchestra at first, they were angry and felt that working there had affected their mental health, calling the current situation, quote, “a shit show.” It’s a set of sentiments echoed by a lot of my friends about their jobs these days.
Meanwhile, the lockout continues. The management says it will end in September, but both Warshawsky and Prechtl the percussionist find this unbelievable, since a new deal has not been reached. I asked Prechtl about the impact on his life. He said, “I have personally lost over $19,000 in income I’ve had to restructure all my bills putting off anything that wasn’t immediately due. House repairs have been delayed and medical procedures that were not covered by insurance have also been delayed. I was not able to secure out of town orchestra work this summer due to commitments I had made to OrchKids [a music program for Baltimore City kids] for the summer and being available for negotiations and media work related to the lockout.”
While there are many deeply pressing issues that deserve our attention in Baltimore these days, I believe that preserving our world class institutions is one of them. Once lost, they will not be so easily regained, and losing them adds to the downward spiral that degrades the region as a whole. In addition to joining the picket line, learn about other ways to support the musicians at http://www.saveourbso.org/.
On Friday, 7/26, a little more than four years after he was shot in the face by police, the state succeeded in their fourth attempt to get murder charges to stick to Keith Davis, Jr. There were many, many irregularities in this trial, as well as information to which the jury was not privy, and #TeamKeith is doing everything except throwing in the towel. Please save November 14th, the date of his sentencing hearing — let’s pack the room. Now is the time to support Keith and Kelly Davis (https://fundrazr.com/FreeKeithDavisJr), because when there’s no justice, there’s just us.
Thank you to the generous and dedicated folks who provided input for this column. All of them gave me a great deal more material that I couldn’t cover here for space reasons, so look up other articles or reach out directly to learn more.
#SaveOurBSO #BaltimoreSymphonyOrchestra #BaltimoreSymphonyMusicians #FreeKeithDavisJr #OneBaltimore
Cultural Events of the Week: In addition to protesting on the street, the BSO musicians are keeping busy in the community, playing in the Charles Center subway station (4:15-5:30pm tonight, Wednesday, and Friday only, https://www.facebook.com/events/378306306160900/) and at the Hopkins medical campus (for patients, families, employees, and friends, first free concert is this Wednesday at 1pm https://www.facebook.com/saveourBSO/photos/a.206296746934659/364421991122133).
Green Event of the Week: There’s a lot to know when it comes to taking care of young trees, and there’s no better way to learn than by doing. This Wednesday, join Blue Water Baltimore for a one-on-one volunteer experience where you pair with a staff member and help care for our urban forest. Trees cool down the city, and dang we could use that right now. https://bluewaterbaltimore.org/events/greenup-07-31-2019/
Song of the Week: Götterdämmerung by Richard Wagner
Holy gods, ye heavenly rulers! / Have ye ordained this dark decree? / Ye who have doomed me to anguish so dire! / Ye who have sunk me so deep in disgrace! / Teach me such vengeance as ne’er was revealed! / Stir in me wrath, that may never be stilled!