Is August 25 Atlanta’s Line In The Sand?

In a 8/9/2012 letter from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players Association (ASOPA) Committee on behalf of all Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) musicians addressed to the ASO Board of Directors, the ASOPA assert that the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC) and ASO executives “have announced that if we do not agree to their demands before August 25, they will lock out the Orchestra and cancel our healthand [sic] dental insurance.”

stopThe ASPOA letter continues by asserting that their management anticipated a work stoppage and is allegedly using the threat to intimidate the musicians.

While ostensibly bargaining in good faith, they clearly planned for this confrontation by scheduling the start of the 2012-13 season weeks after our contract expires, later than any season has ever begun before. Management apparently believes this will intimidate musicians yet pass unnoticed by the public and other interested parties, such as yourself.

I asked ASO Senior Director of Communications, Melissa A.E. Sanders, if the ASOPA allegations are accurate and she provided the following statement from Stanley E. Romanstein, Ph.D, President, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

“The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s financial situation is of deep concern to all of us because, in the end, our musicians, board, staff, and community all want the same thing: an artistically vibrant and financial stable Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. We’re not yet of one mind on how to get there, and the clock is ticking.

The ASO has operated at a deficit for 10 years and borrowed to cover its losses. Our accumulated operating debt is approaching $20M, and we have used up our capacity to borrow more. We must meet our fiscal challenges head on – and we must do so now.

Our current contract expires on August 25, and we simply cannot afford to extend it. That’s regrettable, but that’s our reality. Our donors have spoken loudly and clearly: they cannot and will not support our vision for the future unless we balance our operating budget and end our decade-long pattern of borrowing.

We understand what a difficult situation this presents for our musicians. It’s in everyone’s best interest to find resolution to our differences as quickly as possible and to turn our focus back to the music.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, incorporating a work stoppage into bargaining strategy might be interpreted as a step toward increased pressure and hostility, not to mention functioning in an entirely counterproductive fashion.

For instance, in an article from 8/12/2012, Norm Lebrecht describes the ASOPA’s assertions as the WAC board “putting a gun at the players’ heads.” Lebrecht offers up additional thoughts about the ASO’s financial woes in another article from 8/11/2012 that reminds his readers the soon to expire master agreement was negotiated by former ASO executive, and current Philadelphia Orchestra CEO, Allison Vulgamore.

The rest of the ASOPA’s 1,687 word letter touches on dozens of other items but none of them rise to the level of potentially sparking incendiary public debate as does the work stoppage accusation.

The ASOPA letter was published at the group’s Facebook page on Saturday morning, August 11, 2012.

Read the ASOPA letter.

August 9, 2012

;

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Board of Directors of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra,

We hope your summer is going well. We wish this letter were simply a greeting to look forward to great music-making in a new Atlanta Symphony season. Unfortunately, we write instead with an urgent plea for your intervention to avert a catastrophe that threatens to derail the upcoming season and cause permanent damage to the ASO as a whole.

On May 15, ASO management announced a new business model to “ensure the continuation of great musical experiences [and]…find new ways to deliver our art for the 21st century….a template for the future that other orchestras could emulate.” Yet in contract negotiations, the ASO management is insisting on terms that will hurl us backwards rather than propel us forward, gut the heart of the Orchestra, render untenable the work lives of the very musicians who create these great musical experiences, and make it difficult if not impossible to retain them or attract new talent.

Last winter, several of you astutely questioned ASO executives’ erroneous claim that they were prevented by law from discussing contract negotiations with the board. ASO executives reassured you at a subsequent meeting on March 12 that the Draconian terms they had presented were “just the first proposal.” Five months later, they have not retreated from extreme measures that would strip the orchestra of its artistic integrity. They propose to reduce the total musicians’ expenses by 26%, slashing each musician’s compensation permanently by over $20,000, reduce the number of musicians from 95 to 89, and reserve the right to impose further reductions at their will.

The WAC board and ASO executives have announced that if we do not agree to their demands before August 25, they will lock out the Orchestra and cancel our healthand dental insurance. While ostensibly bargaining in good faith, they clearly planned for this confrontation by scheduling the start of the 2012-13 season weeks after our contract expires, later than any season has ever begun before. Management apparently believes this will intimidate musicians yet pass unnoticed by the public and other interested parties, such as yourself.

Within the music world, the turmoil has already attracted plenty of attention. The troubling state of affairs has hurt the orchestra’s reputation and threatens to inflict long-term damage. At a recent ASO audition, only one-third of the usual number of candidates appeared, none of whom was qualified for even a temporary position. Numerous orchestra members are preparing for auditions elsewhere. Three have been invited to play with the New York Philharmonic this coming season, and may not return. Even without further reductions, the ASO ranks 14th in salary out of the top 18 full-time American orchestras. We must take steps to stanch this talent drain, and resolve conflicts that will otherwise hasten the demise of a great orchestra.

Is this the “template for the future” that the ASO management claims to aspire to achieve as a model for others to emulate? Certainly it does not live up to the WAC’s commitment to “never sacrifice the quality of the art.” Nor could the ASO expect to add to the 27 Grammy Awards it has brought back to Atlanta. Rather, it would cause irreparable harm to the orchestra and generate years of ill will.

We musicians are fiscal conservatives ourselves – we have to be in a profession in which our incomes do not rise significantly over the course of our careers even in the best of times as most professionals’ do. We do understand that changes are required, and are willing to help the ASO achieve a stronger financial position. The boards and management of the WAC and the ASO, as well as the musicians, must all play a fair part in achieving that financial stability. At the same time, we know that the financial problems of the ASO are not that the musicians are “just too expensive;” after all, the costs of employing 95 musicians comprise a mere 28% of the total ASO budget. The sacrifices must be shared. Management has claimed they have made cuts in staff compensation comparable to those they are demanding of us. We have yet to see any proof of this statement.

As many of you are aware, Orchestra musicians already made difficult concessions in 2009. We made others earlier to create the complement we have, steps we took — together with the Music Director — because both sides understood how important it was for artistic excellence. Those agreements, negotiated in good faith, helped propel the Atlanta Symphony to its place as one of the nation’s preeminent
symphony orchestras, which in turn burnished Atlanta’s image as great city. Today, the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC) board of directors proposes to undo that compact, taking away those benefits without any recompense.

The WAC board does not seem to understand or value what it takes to make a great symphony orchestra. Each member of the Orchestra devoted years to practice and individual study with eminent teachers before qualifying even to participate in the grueling audition process one must pass to play in the Orchestra, and each of us must continue to practice for many hours every week (whether being paid for our work or not) throughout our professional careers. Our instruments put many of us into debt that dwarfs student loans, auto loans, and even mortgages. ASO musicians’ level of expertise is comparable to that of major-league athletes, surgeons, lawyers or top engineers: it takes virtuoso musicians and years of working together to develop the cohesive, subtle, powerful sound that the ASO capably produces week after week. If it was easy to plug musicians into a group and sound fabulous, every city would have an internationally recognized orchestra!

It is glaringly apparent our institution must evolve in order to thrive in the 21st century. Other orchestras — Los Angeles, Boston, St. Louis, Houston, Nashville, National, San Francisco, and the New York Philharmonic, to name a few — have made exciting innovations in what they offer patrons and the larger communities they serve and in how they fundraise. The Dallas Symphony just announced a balanced budget after expecting a shortfall of $6.5 million. They expanded their donor base, added significant corporate and foundation support, and generated positive responses to new marketing and audience development initiatives – all areas where the ASO falls short. Atlanta has just as many Fortune 500 headquarters as Dallas. Yet the many creative ideas we offer for programming to reach untapped and underserved audiences meet with silence and inaction.

The WAC model for supporting and evaluating the ASO must be reevaluated. The WAC board historically judges and punishes the Orchestra failing to produce a profit in each of its venues and activities – an entirely unrealistic goal. At the same time, the board impedes you, our ASO leaders, from forging relationships with corporations, foundations, and others that would enable us to raise additional funding, and redirects funds that could help us to other uses. One need only compare the WAC’s corporate donors to the ASO’s to see how few corporate contributions reach the Orchestra.

We are eager to realize the potential that exists, and we imagine you are, too. We hear only about what the ASO can’t do – they can’t find sponsors, corporate or individual donors, or government support. They can’t sustain future summer concerts. (Yet watch Stanley Romanstein speaking just last summer about our summer home: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhLjoQnEewg.) And while management touts education and community engagement, they actually propose to cut community outreach by ASO musicians instead.

We need to bring to your attention one more related issue, that of the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater at Encore Park, which we believe merits close analysis. The amphitheater was touted as the Orchestra’s new summer home and a revenue center that would fund the Symphony and support our work there and elsewhere. We all sacrificed for this initiative, agreeing to lean contracts, concessions, and reallocations of funding in the expectation of added revenue in the future and a superior summer home where we could build new audiences. But after millions of dollars invested to build and run VWA, the income has fallen dramatically short of promises and projections. Unlike the Orchestra, VWA was designed for the purpose of generating revenue to support various functions of the ASO. Perhaps fiscal conservatism and the level of due diligence we exercise in our audition procedures should have been – and now must – be applied to VWA.

We need for the ASO to exercise strong and visionary leadership and for the WAC to fulfill its role as the supportive parent organization of a renowned symphony orchestra. We believe new WAC CEO Virginia Hepner when she says she cares “all about artistic excellence…having more arts and culture…and world-class art and education,” values we share with you as well.

The WAC and ASO boards need to get to the bottom of the current precarious fiscal condition and right the ship – without throwing the Orchestra, its most precious cargo, overboard. Musicians are willing to play a part in cutting costs. On August 2, we submitted our second proposal, which includes deep concessions. We proposed not only cuts in compensation, but also a permanent reduction in the size of the orchestra (with additional unfilled positions), two weeks of furloughs, and contributions to our health care premiums. These add up to a contribution of more than $2 million over two years. We are still waiting to see that sacrifice is shared and felt equally across the entire ASO organization.

The future of the ASO hangs in the balance. Your actions will determine whether the ASO remains the prize-winning orchestra in which so many people have lovingly invested for many decades.

We thank you, as always, for your generous gifts of time, support, and leadership, as well as for your friendship. We are equally grateful that you appreciate and understand the value — and the need — of together finding an economically viable solution that does not compromise the excellence the ASO has painstakingly built over generations. Please take action to avert the disaster we all face without your help, and work with us so that the ASO as a unified organization can ensure its future.

Sincerely,

The ASOPA Committee on behalf of all ASO musicians
ASOPA Committee: Daniel Laufer, President / Joel Dallow, Vice President Bruce Kenney, Secretary / Michael Moore, Treasurer At Large Members: Lachlan McBane, Sandy Salzinger, Christina Smith, Colin Williams E-mail contact: ASOPAPresident@gmail.com

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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5 thoughts on “Is August 25 Atlanta’s Line In The Sand?”

  1. I don’t think incorporating a lockout into a bargaining strategy is a good idea, unless you are confident that the conflict will be resolved quickly, in your favor, and you’re not worried about the aftermath.

    However, I think it’s totally reasonable that the management wants the season to start some time after the contract expiration date. When seasons start immediately after a contract expires, one or two days later, then it is the musicians who have a gun to management’s head.

    It seems disingenuous to complain when management takes a tool of leverage away from the musicians, when that tool (the season opening schedule) was of management’s own making.

  2. There’s a very old rule of thumb for scheduling events around a contract expiration in that the events are easily rescheduled and you avoid traditional flagship productions. This way, the season officially “starts” at the same time as previous seasons but you still have a built in pressure valve in the event that negotiations break down and there is a short term work stoppage.

    Interestingly enough, in the past few years, I can’t recall a situation where the musicians used a Masterworks concert scheduled shortly after a contract expiration as negotiation leverage. Even in Philadelphia, they made a point of saying they had no intent to initiate a work stoppage on those concerts.

    In a perfect world, season schedule shouldn’t be used as bargaining leverage by either musicians or management as it only advances division and forces patrons to take sides. But then again, the world is far from perfect so I doubt we’ll see that change anytime soon.

  3. I don’t think many orchestras want to open a season without any “flagship” productions. And I’m not aware of many events in this business that require the orchestra and are also easily rescheduled.

    I think moving the contract expiration date to several weeks before a season start does, in fact, reduce the musicians’ bargaining leverage attached to the schedule, without giving any new leverage to the management. If the contract is set to expire right before the orchestra starts vacation, I agree that would give some leverage to management, but that isn’t what’s happening here, is it?

    Of course, there is always a contract expiration date, and there is always a season start date. And there are always other key dates, so the interplay of these dates are almost always going to favor one side or the other, but hopefully not much.

  4. Setting the expiration date several weeks in advance of the season only works in 52 week orchestras as those with anything less usually have the musicians gone over the summer (playing in festivals etc. for added pay). As a result, this makes scheduling bargaining sessions more difficult etc.

    On the other side of that coin, if a 52 week group has a long standing summer season (something like Tanglewood) then that initiative becomes jeopardized so it really doesn’t avoid the problem.

    But as to the point about easily rescheduled events, it varies from one group to the next but one of the more common targets are education runouts and in-school events.

    But in the end, it’s all a leverage game with one side attempting to gain a leg up on the other.

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