James Russell Gets It

The 6/28/09 edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) published a guest column by James Russell, the architecture critic for Bloomberg. For my money, Russell is one of the rare visionary writers in this country. His onetime blog, Sticks and Stones, was a beacon of insight and reason that not only predicted the 2008 housing fiasco years in advance, but it regularly covered issues related to architecture and concert hall design. Russell’s AJC piece examines the pros and cons related to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s (ASO) decision to shelve plans for the Santiago Calatrava designed concert hall…

relocate homeAlthough the Calatrava design may have been in the casket before the economy took a turn for the worse, those events almost certainly served as the nails sealing it shut. On one hand, Russell acknowledges these realities in his article.

“Spectacle, in great boulevards and grand buildings, is one of the great pleasures of city living. Still ASO’s leadership looks wise for recognizing that the times are simply not right for Calatrava’s design.”

Yet, the majority of the article focuses on the overall value of a landmark city project implemented using an efficient process. In due course, Russell sums up the value of quality projects in a simple sentence.

“Orchestra halls are expensive, but they don’t wear out, and the good ones only increase in stature over time.”

Russell goes on to point out that although fiscal prudence certainly has its place, it can also lead to decisions that can hobble an orchestra for decades.

“On the other hand, a new site and a new architect should not be a license to lowball. That’s how Atlanta got the characterless Woodruff Center and the lifeless Symphony Hall.”

The ASO has been flirting with the notion of becoming the latest member of the Big Boys Club (AKA Big Seven) for years and if Calatrava’s design were successfully implemented, it would have undoubtedly been one of the last benchmarks confirming the ASO as an artistic force to be reasoned with. Instead, the group will take a few steps back, reassess their situation, and ultimately move forward in a different direction.

Perhaps the decision to move away from the Calatrava design is for the best since the capital campaign has more than its fair share of troubles, but it is good to see Russell provide some much needed perspective on the issue. If nothing else, at least the Greater Atlanta Metropolitain community is in a better position to understand the gravity of their decisions.

Note to the city of Chicago: now that the ASO has passed on Calatrava’s design, perhaps he’ll be willing to sell it at a discount. After all, you can lump it into the other building projects planned for when (if?) the city wins the 2016 Olympics.

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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