The ASO Lockout and the Battle for Atlanta’s Soul
A Call for Moral Courage and Leadership
The lockout of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is most often portrayed as a conflict over the musician’s contract in the context of declining audiences and revenue for classical music. While there is superficial truth to this characterization, it is profoundly misleading. The deeper truth is that the lockout is one battle among many in an all-out war being waged by the management and governing board of the Woodruff Arts Center to destroy the Symphony and, by extension, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus. This war has been carefully planned by the WAC for at least 3-4 years and has been carried out to this point through two major assaults on the Symphony, the lockout in 2012, and the current lockout in 2014. At every stage the WAC has carefully camouflaged its actions through euphemisms (“work stoppages”), misleading public statements, and outright mendacity about its intentions, its actions, and its financial situation.
If the WAC succeeds in its campaign of aggression, it will destroy the crown jewel of Atlanta’s cultural life, its world-renowned symphony and chorus. Much has already been written about the ASO’s astonishing record of recordings, its record number of Grammys, its many triumphs in Carnegie Hall and on international tours. It is incomprehensible to anyone knowledgeable about the arts and classical music that the WAC is bent on the destruction of this treasure rather than finding the resources to protect it. But there is another, more fundamental point to be made: By destroying the ASO, the WAC is also defining Atlanta’s soul, permitting crass commercialism and the narrowest possible “bottom-line” thinking. By commercialism I mean the belief that everything has a price, neglecting important human values and goods that cannot be given a market price. The result is the triumph of short-term thinking and cost-cutting over the long-term nurturing and growth of the highest artistic achievements which have had and still can have a powerful role in shaping Atlanta’s civic life, enriching its culture, adding creativity in our schools, opening up imaginative and creative worlds for our youth, shaping the way Atlantans understand themselves and are perceived by the world.
By destroying the ASO the WAC is betraying the efforts and commitments of the founders of the Woodruff Arts Center, betraying the memory of the Atlanta arts leaders who died in the plane crash at Orly, Paris, in 1962, betraying the legacy of the great Robert Shaw, betraying the donors, subscribers and hundreds of volunteers who have supported the WAC and the Symphony over the last half-century, tragically limiting the future of our younger generation. And, of course, it is treating the fine musicians of the ASO and their years of artistic preparation and achievement with utter contempt.
Make no mistake: The current lockout is a brutal tactic designed to break the will of the ASO musicians. The public statements by management speak of “work-stoppages” and of “continuing negotiations.”
“Work-stoppage” can refer to either a strike or a lockout by management, and the ASO and WAC management use it to mask the fact of a lockout by them, a power move by privileged WAC management and board members, which not only cuts off all income for the players but leaves them and their families without healthcare and other benefits. All the power—which is to say all of the money—is on the WAC’s side, and they have tried their best to control how the conflict is perceived by the larger public. To claim, as the ASO has in emails to its subscribers, that Symphony performances have been cancelled while negotiations take place is barely short of an outright lie: In spite of repeated attempts by the Musicians to engage in negotiations over the last nine months, the WAC has not once agreed to meet. What they did was to deliver to the Musicians one “last, best, and final offer,” demanding unconditional surrender by the Orchestra, even while Doug Hertz, Chair of the WAC Board of Governors, has made public statements that “we want to work with them.”
The current process of mediation, which has just begun, will not, in my judgment, lead to a resolution because both Hertz and Virginia Hepner (President and CEO of the WAC) have made it clear that the budget must be balanced; but then claim that it can only be balanced by down-sizing the Orchestra and giving over control of the size (“complement”) of the orchestra and decisions for filling positions to ASO management. No major symphony orchestra has ever ceded this vital artistic decision to management. The Musicians on their part have courageously made it clear that they cannot and will not yield control of their future, of their artistic excellence and integrity, to management. To be clear: The most important points of conflict are in fact not negotiable and that likely means that the mediation process will fail. If so, the lockout could last months or years and the damage to the ASO could be deep and irreparable.
It Is Time for Moral Courage and Leadership
The Symphony musicians (represented by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players Association, ASOPA) fully understand the nature of this frontal assault, as do their many supporters from among the Chorus, their peer orchestras across the nation, subscribers, donors, and a far-too-small group of concerned citizens who have been waging a grass-roots campaign to save the symphony and expose the WAC’s planned brutality, its ineptitude, and its mendacity.
But the war cannot be won unless civic and business leaders from the Atlanta Symphony Board, perhaps even some from the WAC Board and from other major Atlanta institutions, have the moral courage to break ranks with the leadership of the WAC and lead the ASO down a new path of independent strength and excellence. I appeal to all of you, in whatever position you occupy, to take a stand in this battle. Failing to take a visible and outspoken stand now, when courageous action and leadership can still make a difference, is to permit irreparable damage to the ASO and to condone continued mismanagement of the ASO and the WAC. Will you want, years from now, to look back and realize that “This happened on my watch”? Maestros Spano and Runnicles have courageously broken with tradition, risking the anger of the WAC management, to speak out. Will you?
Jon P. Gunnemann Professor of Social Ethics, Emeritus, Emory University
ASO Donor for 15 years
ASO Subscriber for 32 years
ASO Chorus for 24 years
What we know about the WAC’s assault on the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra:
1. On May 11, 2011, the WAC’s Board of Trustees voted to revise its Articles of Incorporation, eliminating the ASO from its stated purpose. I do not know whether the ASO Board knew about this significant change. The change was certainly not made public, whether to donors of the ASO and the WAC, subscribers to the ASO, or to the general public. It is not clear that the ASO Players knew about this. But the change means that since 2011 the WAC no longer saw the nurturing and support of the ASO as part of its legal purpose; and that this decision was consciously made.
The original stated purpose (since 1965, I think) was: "to form a vehicle for achieving high quality artistic attainment for the benefit and erudition of the public and for the nurturing and developing of creative talents and performance of participants in both the visual and performing arts; to receive capital funds required to provide Atlanta and the Southeast with first-rate facilities for a college of the arts and a performing art center; and to provide the management and continuing financial support for maintaining and enhancing the development of Atlanta as a leading art center; and the arts affected shall include music, symphony . . . . ." (Emphasis added) The purpose in the new Articles is: "The non-profit corporation is organized pursuant to the Georgia Nonprofit Corporation Code for the following purpose: To serve as a single legal entity which fosters, promotes and produces significant artistic expression in a variety of arts including music theater, the visual arts and art education for the benefit of the general public, and to transact any activity otherwise permitted by law." (From IRS statement Form 990, emphasis added)
In sum: The Symphony was replaced by “music theater” in the WAC’s statement of purpose a year before the ASO was to renegotiate its contract with the WAC in 2012. Even if this quotation involves a typo, a missing comma after “music,” “symphony” no longer appears as part of the WAC’s purpose. In my mind, the most probable interpretation of this erasure of the ASO from its legal statement of purpose is that the WAC Board was laying groundwork for its first major battle with the ASO Players in 2012.
2. The 2012 Lockout: The contract negotiations scheduled for 2012 never in fact materialized as negotiations. The WAC leadership repeatedly called attention to the many years in which the ASO had operated a deficit; they noted that the WAC’s credit rating had been downgraded, and they insisted that the ASOPA make deep concessions in salaries and benefits, the length of the season, and the number of funded players (from 95 to 88). The WAC spoke publicly of negotiating a new contract with the Players but in fact there were no negotiations. In spite of repeated attempts by the ASOPA to meet with management, they were denied any meetings with the WAC Governing Board or leadership. The Players were presented a “take-our-offer-or-leave it” from the WAC and, after being additionally threatened with the prospect of having their Fall engagement at Carnegie Hall cancelled, finally gave in to the draconian cuts in pay and orchestra complement.
Those are the bare-bones facts. But around this battle the WAC was weaving a public narrative that was deceptive on almost all fronts. The down-grading of the WAC’s credit rating was consistently cited as a major reason for demanding concessions from the ASO in spite of the fact that the down-grading was chiefly a result of the debt incurred by the WAC in building the Verizon Amphitheater. Publicly the WAC referred to ongoing negotiations when they in fact rebuffed every ASOPA effort at negotiation. Requests by the ASOPA and others for financial disclosure from the WAC were rebuffed. The President and CEO of the ASO at the time, Stanley Romanstein, came to speak to the ASO Chorus at its second rehearsal that Fall and told us that there were many rumors circulating about the contract process; that rumors were dangerous; and that if anyone asked us about the process, we should answer, “The negotiations are on-going,” asking us several times to repeat this as a chant. Two days later the WAC and ASO management locked out the players. No negotiations had taken place. The players finally relented and made ALL the concessions demanded of them in part because they were promised, by the WAC through Stanley Romanstein, that these concessions would be a “one-time” event, giving the ASO two years to do major fund-raising and get back on its financial feet, after which, in 2014, a more generous contract could be negotiated.
In sum: The WAC had launched its first public attack on the ASO disguising it as “negotiations”; justifying its actions by appealing to a debt for which it was itself primarily responsible; further cloaking all of the substantive issues with a complete lack of financial or decision-making transparency; and making a promise to the Players that turned out to be either false or a lie. It won this first battle.
3. Between 2012 and 2014: A few markers with omens for the next public battle in 2014:
a. Stanley Romanstein received a reported $45,000 bonus from the WAC for his good work the preceding year. Others at the WAC also received substantial bonuses.
b. On the promise to raise funds for the ASO: We have heard that some significant gifts were made to the ASO, including from members of the WAC and ASO boards. But:
- No major fund-raising campaign, no capital campaign asking for a broad base of support was publicly announced. - Letters to subscribers and donors asking for donations at various levels, ceased to go out. My wife and I became donors when we first received such a letter about 15 or more years ago, and every year after we renewed our gift upon receiving another letter. About three years ago, these letters stopped. When I called the ASO development office and asked why, I was simply told that this was not done anymore. My request that the ASO management reinstate the practice was met with silence. Conversations with numerous friends and acquaintances confirmed that they too no longer received such letters. - In late summer of 2013, some of us learned that the ASO Development Department had failed to meet its fundraising goal by two-thirds. The Delta Airlines initiative, led by Richard Anderson, had been put in place to stimulate corporate donations; the original plan was that ASO Management would raise a substantial amount, the total of which would be enough to close the deficit. However, to raise these funds, ASO Development Department went, unaccountably, to these same corporate donors asking for money. The ASO was told “we have already given our share.” This epic blunder, to my knowledge, was never adequately addressed in public, but had serious repercussions later in 2013.
c. During this time, the administrative staff of the ASO grew steadily. We (some of us who have been working in support of the ASO Players) have learned that, on average, 40% of the total budget of U.S. symphony orchestras goes to players salaries and benefits. The figure last year for the ASO was 25%. Clearly the ASO has become administratively top-heavy with no measurable benefit from the standpoint of the financial health of the Symphony itself. 75% is a MASSIVE overhead and it needs to be asked whether reducing the size of the administrative staff would free up sufficient funds to help pay musicians salaries and benefits.
d. In the Spring of 2014, the WAC and the ASO management moved to cancel the Carnegie Hall performance of the ASO/ASOC because of financial shortfall. The story of Robert Spano’s courageous and dramatic intervention is now well-known to those who have been following the story, and has been reported in the national press: Maestro Spano put $50,000 of his own funds on the table, then worked with a few others, telephoning across the nation, to raise the money needed. Two things stand out from this story: One is that Maestro Spano had to make the case to management and the Board about the importance of this performance not only for the ASO but for the City of Atlanta. The second is that the money was raised in a short period of time, underscoring the weakness of the efforts of the WAC and the ASO to raise money.
e. Here, a judgment more than a fact, but a judgment based on extensive conversations with other patrons and subscribers: The marketing for the ASO the last years has been an embarrassment, packaging performance of classical music in terms of what seem to be assumed needs and drives of the public (sex, wine, and hedonism generally). Why not talk about the way in which classical music differs from these human drives? There has been no evidence that the people who are in positions of marketing and development at the ASO have any experience in the arts or any real interest in the music itself.
In sum: The events between 2012 and 2014 showed a) large financial rewards for administrators whose chief work had been to cripple the ASO; b) no broad-based public efforts to raise funds for the ASO or to raise public awareness about the problems; c) a substantial growth of administrative staff and administrative overhead, likely to the detriment of the ASO musicians; d) inept and/or misguided fund-raising and marketing. All of these were indicators that the promise made to the players in 2012 could not, and would not, be kept, something the players feared during this interim period.
4. The current 2014 Lockout:
The promise to the ASOPA in 2012—that that the deep cuts, both financial and with regard to orchestra complement, made then was a “one-time” correction—was broken at the beginning of the period for contract negation. As in 2012, the ASOPA was again presented with an aggressive take-it-or-leave-it package requiring de facto cuts in pay because of higher medical costs; a further cut in the number of players from 88 to 78; and, most crucial, conceding future control of complement to the President of the ASO which meant, de facto, to the WAC Governing Board. The tactics used in this second public battle were similar to those used in 2012: Public statements that regularly obscured and misled by referring to “work-stoppage” rather than a “lockout”; to negotiations which were in fact not taking place; claims by Doug Hertz in public interviews that “we want to work with them” when in fact the WAC and top ASO management had refused even to met with them. I have detailed most of this in the body of the letter.
As I write, mediation is underway. It is not at all clear that the WAC genuinely intends to engage the mediating process. Having first made public statements welcoming the mediation as a solution, we have learned from several sources (including an email from the ASOPA to the ASO Board and others) that after the first meeting with the mediators, Virginia Hepner and her colleagues left the table indicating that she and her team had no proposals to offer and did not have the authority to negotiate a deal. There has now been a prolonged pause in the negotiations, with no explanation from the WAC. So, questions abound: Was the WAC serious about mediation? Or was this another attempt to create a public impression of being ready to negotiate, then not doing so? Was the WAC so in the dark that it did not know what was expected in the first sessions of a mediating session? If Virginia Hepner does not have the authority to negotiate a settlement, who does? And why was she there? What game is being played?
It is not possible to know the outcome if the mediation does continue. But if the WAC gains the concessions it is demanding, or if the WAC simply lets the lockout continue without entering into mediation, it will be a catastrophic blow to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and its Chorus.
We can not let that happen!
In the above “Supporting Material” for my letter, I have tried to rely on factual reports from many sources. It is possible that I have erred in places and I welcome corrections. The interpretations of the facts are, of course, mine.