Reckless O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me,
Sail forth—steer for the deep waters only,
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.
O my brave soul!
O farther farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!
– Walt Whitman
It appears that the ugly lockout of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) is over, and the ASO musicians have reached a new four-year agreement with their parent organization, the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC). The new contract retains a fixed complement of 88 and provides small pay increases for the musicians. It also gives the WAC time to improve marketing and fundraising.
Upon hearing this, I immediately recalled the above text by Walt Whitman, which was set by Ralph Vaughan Williams as the finale of his visionary work, A Sea Symphony. This is a work that the ASO was scheduled to perform shortly, but given the loss of rehearsal time will likely be replaced with another work.
The words carry a reminder of what was lost with the lockout, but convey a sense of hope… of an extraordinary journey ahead into uncharted waters, with a vast horizon beckoning.
To all y’all in Atlanta, I wish you well as you start this journey—one that will involve everyone working together.
And based on my observations of the ASO and Minnesota Orchestra labor disputes, allow me to share a few thoughts about that future. I had just posted a series of broad principles about how an arts organization should work, and these may be of use as people start planning the next steps. But I have a few specific thoughts about the ASO’s situation, too.
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Rebuilding trust. For the organization to not just thrive, but to survive, there has to be a new sense of trust between stakeholders. Unfortunately, the ASO dispute has raised some serious questions about the organization… and I don’t think the questions, or the questioning, will die away soon. More important, I’m not sure the questions and questioning should die away soon. We need explanations.
I would hope that the WAC doesn’t attempt to sweep the recent allegations under the rug, under a mantra of “we’re all working together now” or “that’s all in the past!” Instead, I hope it commits itself to addressing the various concerns that have been raised with openness and honesty. As it does so, trust will return over time.
Rebuilding trust is an enormous challenge, but it also represents an opportunity. In working through the underlying issues, all sides can hear each others perspectives, and gain a greater understanding of their positions. This has happened in Minnesota; the effort to work together, while perhaps awkward at first, has created a sense of camaraderie and shared purpose. It can happen in Atlanta, too.
Restoring a mutual sense of trust is the most difficult step the various stakeholders can take… but it is necessary for all other steps to happen.
Rebuilding the organization. Let me be blunt… the organization is in need of a serious overhaul. For example, it has been hemorrhaging musicians for at least two years; this is dangerous, being that music is the organization’s product. The ASO’s President and CEO Stanley Romanstein has left, leaving a huge gap in the administration. The role of the ASO board is in limbo. And as has been pointed out, there are questions about how the WAC has allocated resources among its constituent parts.
Clearly, there is a need for comprehensive, honest discussion about how the organization should be… well, organized. This is an opportunity to have all stakeholders come together and decide what the ASO, and the WAC should be doing, and then to create an appropriate structure to meet these needs.
This discussion cannot be dictated top-down; there needs to be input from the board, the staff, the musicians, and volunteers. Plus, this conversation has to include the community at large—ticket buyers, donors, the city, and the state all have a stake in the ASO’s success, so they should be involved, too. Bringing everyone into the discussion will not only help to create a stronger organization, but greatly increase the number of people who are personally committed to its success.
And returning to my previous point, it will help build trust.
Rebuilding the community. In order to thrive, the ASO needs to rebuild its standing with the community. I don’t think it’s too much to say that regardless of which side they were on during the dispute, people are feeling raw right now. Audience members, donors, funders, and volunteers are feeling frustrated. As a bit of comparison, let me throw out the example of the baseball strike in the 1990s. Once the strike was over, the public didn’t care which side was in the right; people were still hoping mad and stayed home.
This has to change—without the support of the public, the ASO cannot survive. Everyone in the ASO will have to work hard and fast to re-engage the public. New marketing initiatives are needed fast, along with new ways of engaging donors. Education and outreach opportunities need to move ahead at light speed.
As before, this means a lot work lies ahead, and it means things will have to happen on a compressed timetable. But again, the challenge of rebuilding ties with the community also provides a new opportunity for the ASO. As we saw in Minnesota, the lockout snapped the public out of its complacency, and forced a re-evaluation about what the Orchestra meant for the community. The public ended up being far, far more engaged then they had been in the past, and the Minnesota Orchestra wisely tapped this enthusiasm to speed the recovery. The same needs to happen in Atlanta.
There’s another opportunity that can be taken advantage of. As has happened in other cities with classical music labor disputes, audience advocacy groups have arisen in Atlanta, driven by passionate music lovers and civic boosters. They have not only come forward, they want to help. Let them! They are a resource that can be used, taking on valuable initiatives and serving as a bridge to the community at large.
The ASO and WAC would be wise to make use of this energy now, while people are still deeply engaged. The danger isn’t feelings of frustration on the part of the public… frustration can be channeled into useful activity. The real danger is feelings of apathy. This will create inertia that is nearly impossible to break.
This is an opportunity for the ASO to re-introduce itself to the community. The public is hungry for such an introduction now, so get out there and do it.
* * *
To my friends in Atlanta, let me say that I’m thrilled this lockout is over.
…and now, the work begins.
I won’t promise that this work will be easy, but there is opportunity here. There is a chance for substantial growth, healing, and renewal, if all sides commit to making them happen.
As Vaughan Williams’ work suggests, you are starting a new journey, to unknown waters. Go forth boldly and with purpose on these seas of God.
And please be assured that I stand with you as you embark on this voyage, and will do what I can to help you.