War Drums In Atlanta

According to an article by Howard Pousner in the 8/8/12 edition of Access Atlanta, it looks like the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) may join the Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in the latest round of labor trouble. Pousner’s article does an excellent job at providing a detailed overview of the ASO’s recent financial history as well as some of the key points of conflict in the ongoing collective bargaining negotiations.

The overview is fairly straightforward:

  • The ASO’s purports the organization can no longer sustain current spending levels and is seeking to reduce annual artistic expenses in the neighborhood of $3 million per season.
  • The ASO Players Association (ASOPA) believes the organization has yet to demonstrate how they intend to maintain artistic standards in light of proposed cuts and to offer up a package of concessions, but not nearly the degree management is pursuing.

warAccording to the article, current proposals from management include cuts to just about every aspect of artistic expenses including reducing the number of salaried musicians, cutting the weekly pay scale, cutting benefits, and reducing the length of their contract season but not the actual concert schedule.

There’s all sorts of colorful language being tossed about on both sides. ASO president Stanley Romanstein was quoted saying “At the end of the day, we’re playing Russian roulette with the future of the Atlanta Symphony” when asked about the need to cut costs.

Likewise, when asked how management responded to the musician counter-offer, ASOPA spokesperson Daniel Laufer was quoted saying “Management’s response to the million-dollar-plus sacrifices the musicians have offered was simply to shrug and say, ‘We have a long way to go.'”

All in all, there’s nothing coming out of the ASO labor dispute that looks much different than what’s going on in Minnesota and recently at orchestras in Philadelphia and Detroit.

But one aspect that may nudge this conflict in a different direction that the other examples is the ASO’s relationship with its parent organization, the Woodruff Arts Center. Unlike the Detroit Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra, which operate as independent 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations, the ASO is part of the Woodruff’s 501(c)3.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ASO comprises a lion’s share portion of the Woodruff’s annual expenses (you can find the Woodruff’s most recent financial reports here), but it certainly isn’t the only expense the Woodruff must consider. As a result, keep an eye on this unusual variable as it has the potential to play out akin to a divorce proceeding in a ménage à trois relationship.

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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0 thoughts on “War Drums In Atlanta”

  1. The Woodruff Center has done more than most of us to diversify their revenue streams. And yet…

    It seems we all (with a few exceptions) tend to lock up ALL the revenue that we can find into a fixed cost structure that then can’t be adjusted when the bad times come (and of course they will come) without labor fights, mass staff layoffs, even bankruptcy. Maybe we ought to be routinely managing for surpluses, not budgets balanced on the edge of a knife, so that we can handle changes in the economic landscape that cut into those revenue streams.

    I’m dreaming, though. Show me a top executive, an artistic programmer, a top-flight conductor’s agent, a community relations initiative, or an orchestra members committee that doesn’t look upon the tiniest surplus with slavering jaws…

    Managing to zero surplus in an industry where costs are largely fixed seems crazier and crazier to me every day.

    • I think you have some very good points here that ultimately point to the added value of maintaining transparency and good labor relations. The “slavering jaws” comment is apt and in most groups a byproduct of mistrust.

      The old-school approach of hiding surpluses come negotiations and crying poverty is countered with unnecessarily aggressive negotiation positions. It’s a dangerous mix and not a very good long term strategy for anyone involved. I’ve noticed that groups with better relations and transparency avoid that syndrome and have had a much easier time managing debt during the downturn. Coincidence?

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