Maryland is the richest state per capita, with a median household income of $80,766 and one in 12 households the home of millionaires. Kiplinger last year estimated close to 180,000 millionaire households in the state. So why is the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra struggling to stay alive? It should not be — not with the kind of money available from private donors. But people who become multimillionaires these days seem more inclined to fatten their portfolios or purchase second and third houses than to give their money to arts institutions. Or maybe the super-rich would rather buy a $10 million painting than give it to a symphony orchestra. The arts have traditionally been sustained by the civic-minded wealthy and, in an era of highly concentrated fortunes, it is something close to shocking that an orchestra of the BSO’s stature should be losing money.
Here’s a letter I recently received from a Sun reader named Jacki Stone:
“I was reading a book about the artist John Singer Sargent and the Gilded Age ladies he painted and I came across this: ‘Henry Lee Higginson, head of a financial firm in Boston, created the Boston Symphony Orchestra as a gift to the city, bearing virtually the entire cost himself for decades.’ Reading this made me think of Andrew Carnegie, who gave away something like 92 percent of his fortune before he died. I’ve always thought that would be a major reason to make an enormous fortune, so that you could make a difference in the world that you leave behind. I know that institutions like the BSO do their own fundraising, but maybe the heads of our local companies that have received so much money in corporate tax breaks over the years would step up if you were to write about it.”
Well, I have written about it. A column on the BSO troubles in late February suggested that the organization needs to do a bigger and better job of attracting donors from Montgomery County, where the Maryland millionaires — old and new — are most concentrated, and where the BSO, thanks to the state of Maryland, has a second home, called Strathmore.
Classical music needs to survive, for the sake of our souls. And the BSO needs to survive, for the sake of Baltimore and civic pride. It’s ridiculous that the governor of Maryland has withheld funds the General Assembly set aside for the BSO. But even worse is the BSO’s failure — and you can almost smell it in this story — to pull in money for its endowment from the new generation of millionaires in Maryland. Instead of a third home in Telluride, they need to step up for the state’s premier orchestra. And if the BSO and its board have no one who can make the argument, they need to get someone who can, and quick.