In the aftermath of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) locking out its musicians, I fired up one of my favorite recordings of the group—an album dedicated to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Vaughan Williams has long been among my favorite composers, whose music speaks directly to my heart. And this album has a place of honor in my collection, bringing together a stunning rendition of his Fifth Symphony (a work I could listen to every day of the week), the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (which always hits me like a sucker punch), and a gorgeous version of the Serenade to Music, which is one of my favorite works of music ever written.
The Serenade to Music’s text comes from Shakespeare—the final act of The Merchant of Venice. It is heady stuff. But with the start of the ASO lockout, one section in particular jumped out at me:
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted!
This sentiment was amplified when I read the press release from President Stanley Romanstein and the rest of the ASO management on why the lockout is necessary (the text can be found in this article). Let me share a few thoughts on that document.
* * *
“Progress has been very slow, despite eight months of negotiations and ongoing transparency regarding the organization’s finances.”
Eight months? You’ve only been working on this for eight months? But two years ago, when you last locked out the musicians, the rationale was that a similar program of cuts was absolutely critical to get the organization’s finances in order. You argued that with that breathing room, you would be able to create a new business model that would allow the organization to flourish. Why, then, didn’t you engage the musicians and try to create a system of open dialogue to ensure that nothing like that ever happened again? Wasn’t that organizational overhaul part of your stated plan? Why are you only getting around to it eight months before the contract runs out?
This creates the appearance that despite lofty rhetoric about “saving the organization” and “creating new business models,” this situation really is nothing more than a garden-variety labor dispute where you’re trying to leverage concessions from the musicians.
“ ‘We are all extremely disappointed that we do not have a new contract,’ said Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) President Stanley E. Romanstein, Ph.D.”
I’ve lost all patience for this kind of anemic statement, which is apparently supposed to convey worried concern. Let me be clear—“all” are not “disappointed” or even “extremely disappointed.” Many are frantic as they start calculating how they will live. Many are terrified as they ponder how they will continue desperately-needed medical treatments without insurance. Some people, such as myself, are furious that that this event is happening, and that a person who will feel no personal hardship from the decision he’s making has the audacity to say he’s “disappointed.”
And it’s intriguing that Romanstein is disappointed that there isn’t a new contract. There are many things I find disappointing about this whole situation, but the lack of a punitive contract that blithely demands sacrificial cuts from musicians only two years after they previously accepted sacrificial cuts is not one of them.
“While we value the art and the artists of the ASO enormously, we believe we must develop a new model that will allow us to balance our artistic and financial needs. Clearly, that is not the model we have today.”
Oh good God. You had all sorts of time to prepare a statement… and that’s the best you could do?
Let me remind you. These were nearly exactly the same arguments that launched the last labor dispute and lockout two years ago. And two years ago, you got your preferred contract to make this new business model a reality. The musicians gave you the concessions you needed to have enough breathing room so you could figure out a long-range plan to stabilize the finances. Why didn’t you? Why didn’t you change the model that you yourselves acknowledged as being insufficient two years ago… when the musicians gave you the chance to do so? Why are you blaming the problems of the organization’s administration and finances on the musicians… when two years ago they gave you the tools you asked for so that you would be able to solve the crisis?
To put things into perspective, the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute ended less than a year ago, without the musicians giving the management all the concessions it demanded. And the Minnesota Orchestra has already made huge organizational changes, launched new partnerships, and begun a massive campaign to turn things around. And it’s working.
Why haven’t you been able to do the same in two years when you got your preferred contract to make such changes possible? When do you admit your own failures and take real responsibility for them?
Another point. If you really were desperate to save the organization from imminent collapse, if you really were interested in creating a new business model… I have to believe you would have gone the route of the San Diego Opera, which truly was on the verge of dissolution. Like San Diego, you would have thrown ceremony aside, gathered everyone, engaged everyone, examined any idea, and made whatever changes were necessary. In your case, that would most likely have included a re-evaluation of the relationship with Woodruff, the size of the board, the size of the staff, the size of the orchestra, everyone’s salaries, community outreach, musical initiatives—everything would have been up for consideration.
The fact that you didn’t suggests to me that you are not at all serious about creating a new business model; your only concern seems to be securing concessions from the musicians. And your lack of seriousness in this area makes it hard to take you serious in any other area.
So where is your plan? Why haven’t you brought it forward, and made a convincing case that further concessions are a necessary part of it? Are we simply supposed to trust you that there’s a plan out there… or that this time you really will put one together?
“The ASO has had 12 consecutive years of deficit operations. In the recently completed 2013 – 2014 fiscal year, it had a $2 million deficit, even with a significant contribution from ASO Presents, the concert promotional arm of the ASO. Accumulated debt is approximately $5 million. The ASO endowment has declined to about $70 million today as the Orchestra has taken additional distributions of $18 million to cover its accumulated deficits.”
Yes. That is terrible. Perhaps if you had started to do something about it two years ago when you trotted out a similar scenario supported by similar statistics, you’d be in better financial shape today.
And, perhaps you should consider bringing in new leadership that has greater skill in financial management.
“The organization’s financial woes would be even more pronounced if it wasn’t a division of the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC).”
This is a curious point… and with respect, it feels like it’s a sop to your controlling organization. Many, many observers have wondered if the ASO’s unique relationship to the WAC is more of a burden than a blessing. Yes there are benefits from the relationship; but do they come at the cost of financial autonomy, with the ASO forced to adapt to financial and administrative demands that are not of their own choosing? Again, if the ASO were serious about finding a new business model, there would at least have to be an examination of this relationship, even if the status quo was upheld.
“ ‘The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s donor base has been very generous, especially considering the long-term financial trends of the ASO,’ said Woodruff Arts Center President and CEO Virginia Hepner. ‘But, these donors have told us that we must balance our budget in order to expect continued support. It’s really critical that we find a contemporary operating model for the ASO.’ ”
Yes, the diversification of the donor base is a problem that bedevils every single arts organization, and every non-profit generally. Many organizations, however, have enjoyed success in this realm. Have you reached out to them for advice? What efforts have you made in this area?
I’m also curious as to what this information is based on. Did the ASO actually do a capacity study that examined the fundraising potential for the organization within the broader Atlanta community? Many organizations do such a study, or a feasibility study to gauge support for an initiative. If the ASO is definitive that there is no more money to be had, at least without a new business plan, there should be some sort of documentation that lays this out. Lacking such a document or study, it feels like you just heard back from a few donors, and are using this highly selective feedback to create overarching organizational plans. That, or you’re creating a fundraising plan based solely on conventional wisdom.
“ASO Management offered to increase musician salaries by 4.5 percent over the life of a four-year contract plus a share (22%) of any budget surpluses. The proposal called for musicians to shoulder more of the costs for health care, in line with what ASO staff pays for its health care costs.”
It is curious that you are incredibly specific about the so-called perks you are dangling in front of the musicians (“4.5 percent over the life of a four year contract plus a share [22%] of budget surpluses”), but intentionally vague about the concessions the musicians will have to make in return (“more”). That change in specificity suggests that the numbers on the two sides of the equation are not equal… a fact that you don’t want us to realize.
“Management has also proposed flexibility in determining how and when vacancies on the orchestra are filled in order to balance the artistic and financial needs of the orchestra.”
And here you simply use the positive-sounding word “flexibility” without giving any indication of what that means. This raises warning flags.
“Since the last contract was signed in 2012, expenses have declined but sales for the classical season have declined more dramatically as cost-conscious consumers favored single-ticket purchases over season subscriptions.”
Is it possible that marketing initiatives failed because you vilified the musicians repeatedly in the press? As many arts organizations have found, a key element in engaging the public is ensuring people feel a close, personal connection to the artists themselves. This humanizes the arts, and personalizes the experience for the attendee. If there was any doubts about that here with the Minnesota Orchestra, those doubts were dispelled in the series of focus groups we ran over the summer. Again and again, people commented that feeling connected to the musicians was incredibly important to them, and significantly impacted their decision as to whether or not to buy a ticket. People wanted to somehow experience backstage banter, listen to musicians talking about the music, and have chances to interact with musicians informally. That’s what persuaded them to buy tickets—the public wanted to see their friends in action.
The danger in adopting a hard-ball approach to win the labor dispute is that you are forced to shatter this relationship. And that will impact your ticket sales and donations, as the public loses that sense of connection.
And with respect, do you feel you are the first performing arts group to see season ticket sales decline in favor of single tickets? That’s been the industry trend for the last decade.
“We hope we can return music to the stage very soon.”
Well, since you have locked the musicians out, you’ll forgive me if I don’t take this statement too seriously.
* * *
A final word. Given the example of the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute, and more recently the Metropolitan Opera, it is hard to believe the ASO management is so resolutely going down the same path. What is even harder to fathom is that given the ASO’s experience two years ago, that the management wants to try it again.
Again, the ASO leadership had their chance—two years ago, they got what they wanted and were free to put their utopian plans in place. But the plan failed. The golden age did not commence, and two years later the organization still has financial trouble.
So why on earth is the management trying to implement the same plan? What will be different? Why should we believe them? Why believe in their vision when it has so manifestly failed?
I am dumbfounded.
[Edit: I believe this is the ASO’s press release: 20140907 ASO Contract Expiration 930pm FINAL.ashx-1]