Mismanagement at Atlanta Goes Right to the Top

Well. As I look out at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) lockout, I can only shake my head in wonder at how it has degenerated into a farce in just a few days. If people’s lives weren’t being horribly impacted, you might wonder if the whole thing wasn’t lifted right from Comedy Central. It’s like an episode of The Office, only set within a non-profit.

A few days ago, I posted an article detailing how disastrously the ASO was managing the situation, and more importantly the optics of the situation.

Alas, the leadership’s bumbling continues. And what really worries me is that the leaders are supposed to be experts in the area of business management—that is their whole purpose within the organization. But a series of situations have happened that raise serious questions about the leaders’ basic competence to run… anything.

Allow me to look at a pattern of mismanagement that starts at the ground level of the organization and goes right up to the top.

* * *

The Facebook Debacle. My fellow blogger Emily Hogstad took this apart in exquisite detail over at Song of the Lark (please read it… but be careful not to be eating or drinking while you do, or you’ll mess up your screen). But let me add one point, that I think shows the ASO management’s level of dysfunctional thinking.

The entire point of social media—or having an online presence at all—is to better communicate with your constituents. And to communicate in a mutually beneficial way. Through these interactions, a savvy company or organization can inform the public about its programs, products, outlook, plans, and values. Its constituents or customers can receive “insider information” that gives them greater access and makes them feel more engaged. The business or organization, in turn, learns about the preferences, interests, connections and behaviors of its customers. This info—given free of charge—helps the business better respond, meet customers’ needs, and anticipate potential problems.

You may not always like the feedback you get, but it is honestly given. And that honesty is priceless.

That is why it is so bizarre that the ASO responded to criticism by shutting off public access. The ASO might not like the feedback it is receiving, but this feedback is honestly given and reflects the real thinking of its constituents and customers. That’s what they’re actually concerned about.

Moreover, those concerns are what should be addressed in the FAQ section of the ASO’s website—again, those are the questions people are actually asking. But instead of providing real answers to real questions, the ASO is dressing up its talking points in the form of questions it would like the public to ask. It’s like a twisted form of “Jeopardy!”

And it isn’t helping the situation. As of right now, constituents are still asking those same questions, but the ASO is simply not listening to them. Does the ASO think these questions (and the people asking them) will therefore just go away? Plugging your ears in the face of bad news doesn’t just make you look comically bad—it deprives you of vital information that can help you deal effectively with an ongoing, volatile situation.

How on earth is that going to help you?

* * *

Continuing up the org chart, let’s move to Karole Lloyd, the Board Chair of the ASO.

A memo written by Lloyd went viral over the last 24 hours. It appears that there was to be an ASO board meeting shortly after the lockout began, but before it could happen she sent this out to her fellow board members:

TO: Members, Board of Directors
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
FROM: Karole Lloyd

I wanted to let everyone know that we have decided to postpone next week’s regularly scheduled Board meeting. We will reschedule the meeting for a later date.

We’re postponing because we do not anticipate any updates on the Collective Bargaining Agreement process by Monday. If that does change, we will of course schedule a special telephone Board meeting to update you with any substantive news on the bargaining process.

In the meantime, if you have any questions you can call me at […].

As a board member of an arts organization, this leaked memo stunned me on many levels.

For one, it is astonishing to me that facing a volatile labor dispute that has just boiled over… she cancelled the upcoming board meeting. Good heavens, why? When we in the Minnesota Chorale were caught up in the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute, we had extra meetings to keep abreast of things—this was seen as critical to our organization’s survival.

Instead… Lloyd is cancelling meetings with a vague statement that they will be rescheduled at some later date?

Based on how fast things are developing, I can’t believe that the board is even considering not meeting. I mean, in the past few days, the ASO had to suspend its Facebook account. Bloggers uncovered shocking truths about the organization’s finances. Audience advocate groups have formed… just moments ago I was invited to join one. And Atlanta is attracting all kinds of hostile international attention.

All in less than a week.

What will conditions be on the ground next week? Or next month? How is the board going to control this rapidly-developing situation? Is it even trying to control it? What on earth could the board be thinking?

And is the board even unified at this point? I don’t have any inside information, but the preemptive shutting down of the board meeting—a meeting that any sane observer would say is desperately needed—suggests to me that Lloyd is trying to stifle debate, and make it impossible to anyone to voice dissent in an official capacity.

And the fact that this internal document was leaked out—with Lloyd’s office and cell phone numbers attached—only reinforces this idea. I have to wonder if someone was furious with how events are going and is refusing to let it slide.

Whatever the case, I am simply dumbfounded by this.

* * *

But there is one final person to include in this (too long) post: Virginia Hepner, president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, the ASO’s parent organization.

In an interview on 90.1 WABE, Hepner shared her thoughts about the situation. And I was astonished.

Perhaps her most jaw-dropping statement came when the interviewer asked her to respond to fears that the cuts she envisioned would transform the ASO from a world-class orchestra to a regional one, and that by shrinking its size any further it would hardly warrant the name “orchestra” any longer. She stated: “It’s up to anyone to decide what’s world-class and what an orchestra should be.”

I suppose she was trying to be expansive and inclusive, and show that she isn’t trapped by the old-fashioned thinking of the past.

But this is bizarre. Ms. Hepner, can we do the same for you? Do we also get to decide what a board of directors should be, and whether it too is world-class?

There are so many problems with this quote. For one, if everyone is “right” about what makes a world-class orchestra, then no one is right. This thinking serves to short-circuit any real discussion of the issue—following this line of argument, anything anyone says can be dismissed as their own opinion.  Which I suspect is her reason for saying this.

Worse, Hepner is abdicating any responsibility for deciding what a world class orchestra should be. That is an astonishing position for a board chair to take—isn’t that the explicit job of the board? It’s almost as if she knows that her idea of a world-class orchestra is controversial and won’t be embraced by the community, so she’s afraid to articulate it until after she implements it and its too late to do anything about it.

Interestingly, the locked out musicians have addressed this point, and argued on their website that there is indeed a way to judge what a world-class orchestra is:

The head of the renowned Aspen Music Festival, Alan Fletcher, comments, “A world-class orchestra has real character.  It doesn’t sound like any other.  If knowledgeable people listened to recordings and then were asked to name the orchestra that was playing, they would most often get it right.  That kind of distinctive sound comes from musicians who trust and understand the conductor and each other.  There is no great orchestra without a feeling of community on stage.  It takes time for orchestras to develop a distinctive character and sound.  An orchestra is more than a collection of superbly trained musicians; it develops cohesion over time.” (http://www.orchestrateexcellence.org/world-class-orchestra/)

So it appears that defining what a world class orchestra is can be done.  Why can’t Hepner come up with a working definition of her own?

* * *

So there it is. I am flabbergasted that such an important, dynamic orchestra as the ASO is being run at all levels by people who seem to hold it in contempt.

I guess the question is… what to do about it?

One solution has presented itself this very evening. Following in the footsteps of Detroit and Minneapolis, an audience advocacy group has just been launched: Save Our Symphony Atlanta. In their own words: “Save Our Symphony Atlanta is a non-profit citizens advocacy group, dedicated to the preservation of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, in perpetuity. Our mission is to promote growth and expansion of the orchestra, and to maintain its status as one of Atlanta’s great cultural treasures, and one of the nation’s premier orchestras.”

If you want to protect this national treasure, if you want to stop the mismanagement, if you want to take back your orchestra… I suggest you sign up and learn what you can do.

It’s worked for us, and it will work for you. Good luck!



10 thoughts on “Mismanagement at Atlanta Goes Right to the Top

  1. If one needed an indication that the ASO board is simply honorary in nature, a glorified symphony guild, this would be it. The ASO board doesn’t need to have meetings until Ms. Heppner at the WAC tells them it’s ok.


  2. “the preemptive shutting down of the board meeting—a meeting that any sane observer would say is desperately needed—suggests to me that Lloyd is trying to stifle debate, and make it impossible to anyone to voice dissent in an official capacity.”

    I admire your restraint Scott. Stifle debate and voice dissent are very nice words. I would have used other ones….


  3. Thank you!! My thoughts exactly. I guess she doesn’t want the board members to soil their hands, or worry their pretty little heads, about anything that involves actually, y’know, the nature of the orchestra, or the direction it’s going, or any of that insignificant twaddle. Much better to save their energy for putting on gowns/tuxes and smiling for the cameras somewhere.


  4. Interesting post. The only comment I have is that Fletcher is pretty ridiculous about being able to tell one orchestra from the next on recording made in the past 20 years. They all sound the same. Maybe he only listens to old recordings, where you could tell BSO and Munch from Reiner and CSO, or Mitropoulos and the NYP. Today…all the same. The ASO lockout is another sad moment where that is proof in the pudding that something isn’t working in our current model of labor/management.


  5. However, the relevance to Atlanta is not a matter of telling the sound of Cleveland Orchestra from Philadelphia from New You Phil or Chicago and the like, but the difference between a major symphony orchestra and a training orchestra, as the suggestion has been made that for larger works the greatly reduced complement of professional players (those that would stay) be filled out with interns. There was a time decades ago when board members were reputed to have said to Mr. Shaw (and I paraphrase entirely), “We don’t want a major professional orchestra, we want a place where young people can get training and the go off elsewhere for their career.” There is also a degree, at least with one patron of the arts but surely with more, of, “Well, if we want _real_ culture, we can always fly up to New York.” If you’re that wealthy, but it is an attitude that also grossly insult my native city. The notion expressed by WAC president/CEO Virginia Hepner that “world class is up to anybody to decide” is not only an insult to our orchestra and the city of Atlanta overall, but also an insult to every major “world class” corporation with global reach that is based here. I don’t need to name them; they know who they are.


  6. Pingback: The Quotable WAC | trudgemusic

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