An Interview With Baltimore’s James Glicker

A Short Aside:  I know some of you planned to read the wrap up article for the Compensating Effort Instead Of Achievement series today. Don’t worry, it will be up tomorrow.

I had the opportunity to talk with James Glicker, president-elect for the Baltimore Symphony Orcehstra, via telephone last Friday April 9th, merely hours after the Orchestra’s board elected him to replace John Gidwidtz.  James officially takes over the reigns of the orchestra in June, 2004.   I asked James about his plans to reverse the tide of the BSO’s rapidly accumulating debt and a declining audience base.

In addition to ongoing efforts to court big money donors, James said he wanted to expand the orchestra’s smaller donor base.  “Right now only 1/3 of ticket buyers contribute to the orchestra, I want that number up to 100%,” James said. “We are going to deliver a new message that stresses how important the orchestra is to the community and how it makes Baltimore a better place to live.”

Details for how James plans to accomplish these goals and move the symphony back into the black weren’t forthcoming.  But in general, James plans to move away from traditional subscriptions and allow patrons more flexibility and choices when purchasing concert tickets. He also plans to expand the type of programming that recent orchestra studies have found are successful at attracting a younger audience.  These include integrating pop artists with the orchestra as opposed to the orchestra merely “backing up” the pop star.

Besides new programming, James is also going after younger patrons by trying to lower ticket prices to $15 or $20 for these new concert programs.  Plans are also in motion to make the orchestra experience new, “We do have plans to revamp Meyerhoff’s lobby, we want to make it easier to get around and start to include advertisements for future concerts,” said James.  “A better atmosphere will make new patrons feel better about their concert experience.”

In addition to overhauling the orchestra’s outward image, James wants to bring in “influencers” – people from a particular demographic or cultural group – to help newer patrons feel welcome.  “New patrons will feel better about attending if they see more people like themselves in the audience,” he said.

James also mentioned increasing the amount of contact donors have with musicians, and he cited a recent event where members of the orchestra’s oboe section played a chamber concert at a donor’s home.  Other incentives to donors include the possibility of free ticket offers.  James said, “We know that patrons want to get something in return for their donation and we’re looking into ways to make that happen.”

Television and internet will play a big part in future advertising according to James.  He plans to take advantage of Comcast cable’s ability to place television ads based on zip codes.  Offering referrals to online resellers through something like an affiliate structure used by are also being considered.  In the end, James said that the orchestra will need to continue to do research to help achieve all of his goals for the organization.

What was missing from my interview with James was any mention of the partnership the BSO has with the convoluted Strathmore Performing Arts Center, a partnership that is quickly turning into an albatross around the orchestra’s collective neck.  With the project, over budget, behind schedule, and catching a good deal of bad press in its suburban Washington D.C. neighborhood, it only adds to the orchestra’s red ink.

Then there’s also the problem with how they plan to pay for these new initiatives.  Where is the money going to come for all of these new programs and refurbishing projects?  One source is certainly finding new donors, another would be to cut back on Baltimore’s bloated administrative middle management, but it seems there are other plans already in motion.  On April 2, 2003 the orchestra musicians agreed to postpone a scheduled pay increase due to the orchestra’s serious financial problems that reportedly saves the orchestra over $3 million by the end of the 2004-2005 season.  Now the musicians have agreed to reopen the contract again in August.  Perhaps the board and Mr. Glicker plan to find the additional funds there?  As of now it’s all speculation, but it’s rare to see master agreement negotiations if one group isn’t looking for money from the other.

James’ plan to possibly reduce ticket prices for new concert series in order to draw a younger audience seems to come up a bit short. $15 to $20 per ticket for a 20-something just starting out in life is still a high price.  I’ve written about programs at Toronto and Nashville that have proven to very effective at bringing in thousands of new patrons at $10 per ticket.  When I mentioned these programs to James he said that Baltimore would need to have a sponsor in order to initiate a program like that.  This all helps to point out the severity of the underlying financial problems plaguing the organization.

Another possible dark cloud on the horizon is the orchestra’s Music Director, Yuri Temirkanov.  When the orchestra’s board made the decision to make Glicker the new BSO president, Yuri wasn’t even in town.  It appears he’s taken an indifferent attitude toward the entire process.  The Baltimore Sun reported that when asked about Glicker’s appointment, Temirkanov said:

“I fully trust the judgment of the Search Committee and the Board,” he said. “Their decision to appoint James Glicker as the new president of the Orchestra likewise has my support.”

This is quite a contrast to the situation at orchestras such as Minnesota, where it is reported that the incoming Music Director, Osmo V?nsk?, was the deciding factor for their decision to hire Tony Woodcock over the orchestra’s #2 man.  I fully expect to see one of two things happening soon in Baltimore, either Yuri is going to “resign” or there’s going to be a Mexican standoff that will break up an already fractured organization.

In the end, I’ll remember a piece of advice I received from one of my mentors, “Keep your eye on the new man”.  I’m delighted to see the BSO’s administration change hands, but there’s always the fear that you might be jumping out the frying pan and into the fire.  I hope the BSO board of directors is going to keep their combined eye of accountability on their new man. In the meantime, you can count on my eye staying on remaining fixed on target.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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