Another sad weekend for the beleaguered Atlanta Symphony Orchestra that has been locked out of Symphony Hall by the management of the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC), the overlord to the ASO. From the news reports AMC has read, the ASO is inseparable from the WAC and, in fact, the symphony is really the WAC dba the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. So if the community is to begin apportioning blame for the red ink the symphony incurs, it should probably begin with a close inspection of how the WAC does business and how its losses are apportioned to the symphony. Truth is that the Woodruff Art Museum is a middling institution at best, while across the street the ASO is top-tier. Where should the emphasis be placed and what is the WAC doing overall to reduce it operational costs?
Another place the community can look to apportion blame is Stanley Romanstein, the ASO's President. The ASO musicians contend that he has not held up his end of the bargain when they took large cuts two years ago in exchange for increased fundraising efforts. Maybe, just maybe, in his fundraising efforts, he has asked donors to fund based upon an agreement that the ASO have a balanced budget. Again from news reports, he has said donors are requesting such a contingency. We may never know- but emergency situations require emergency strategies. Romanstein's strategy seems to be "burn the house down" rather than asking for money to maintain the size of the orchestra and to pay the ASO musicians a decent wage as part of a long-term financial strategy. It reminds AMC of the movie "Team America" where the policy was that in order to save something, you must destroy it.
Relatedly, the ASO staff responsible for social media marketing should have fingers pointed at them. The ASO has one of the most meager social media presence of any major symphony orchestra. AMC has a Google update about the ASO and it shows articles and news releases about the orchestra are frequent only when the financial situation is in focus. One need only compare the ASO's media presence to that of the Pittsburgh or Cleveland Orchestras to seem how lame it it. Maybe social media will not result in more donations, but if you don't try you will never find out.
Another place the community can look at is the mirror. Atlanta, whose citizenry like to think of a a "world city," has a population of 5.5 million people and is the ninth largest in the country. It GDP is sixth in the nation. Atlanta and Georgia governments can support money for stadiums, and tax-breaks for movie productions, but apparently can not find the wherewithal to find some additional tax dollars to support a world-class orchestra, which may be one of the few actual world-class institutions in the city. And donors can't really donate more? Really? Maybe the best that Atlanta can do is "The Real Housewives," which is probably made with some of those tax-breaks. Sometimes the attendance at the ASO concerts is well, sparse. Shame on music lovers who don't attend.
So what blame should be apportioned to the musicians- in a word- none. They are extraordinarily talented, they work many hours not only in the weekend performances but during the week in rehearsals and doing special concerts such as those for children. The must practice to keep their skills at their peak. So they are asking for wage increase after having taken a large pay cut two years ago. Is that outrageous? AMC doesn't think so. So they are asking to increase the number of full-time musicians. Is that outrageous? AMC doesn't think so. Contract musicians who may be used from time to time will not enable the ASO to maintain the uniformity of its sound and level of outstanding performance. But the musicians are almost being forced to hold out against the machinations of management. If they give in, after having given in two-years ago, will confirm that they are a paper tiger.
So what's to be done? Its easy to suggest fixes, based on wishes rather than fact, but maybe its time to create the Symphony Orchestra of Atlanta that is free from the WAC, Yes it would be tough, and yes, it could be unstable in the short rum, but so is the current ASO. Maybe there are venues that are cheaper than Symphony Hall- maybe not. But AMC's advice is to start looking, if it hasn't already been done. Maybe an employee-owned symphony is the way to go with each musician sharing profit and loss. That's what the musicians are doing now except they shoulder more of the loss than the profit. But if AMC was in a position to be a large donor, AMC would be hesitant to give to the WAC or to the ASO as currently constituted because of the train wreck that is the WAC and ASO management that allowed a cumulative debt (that is said to be in the mid $20 million), without developing a response other than cutting musician salaries, hours, and health care coverage.
What a sorry situation in this relatively wealthy town. AMC hopes for the best but is anticipating the worst. AMC is sure that the musicians are also.