Stanley Romanstein has resigned as president and CEO of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, effective immediately, the latest casualty of the acrimonious relationship between the orchestra musicians and its management, which led to a lockout that has lasted almost four weeks so far.
“I believe that my continued leadership of the ASO would be an impediment to our reaching a new labor agreement with the ASO’s musicians,” Romanstein said in a press release.
The executive committee of the ASO board has appointed Terry Neal, a current ASO board member and a retired executive of the Coca-Cola Company, to serve as president of the ASO on an interim basis. Neal will manage the day-to-day operations of the orchestra until a permanent replacement can be found. Romanstein will be available to the organization through the end of October to assure a smooth transition.
The symphony musicians responded to Romanstein’s resignation late Monday afternoon, saying they hope it will lead to an agreement and an end to the lockout that was imposed on September 6. The ASO canceled the beginning of its 70th season through at least November 8 due to the lockout.
The ASO Players’ Association said they hope “the ASO Board will seek the help of a proven and experienced symphonic arts leader with an outstanding record of fundraising, marketing, and innovation.”
The musicians union also cited a quote from Dr. Charles Glassick, former president of the Woodruff Arts Center, on its 25th anniversary on November 8, 1993: “It was never a part of Mr. Woodruff’s vision that we would reach a plateau and then level off; it was never a part of Mr. Woodruff’s dream that we would achieve a certain level of quality, and that would be good enough for Atlanta. No, today as in the past the Woodruff Arts Center is on a continuous search for quality, where excellence is our only yardstick. And we invite you to join us on that quest.”
In the weeks since the lockout, officials from the ASO and the Woodruff Arts Center have increasingly come under public fire, and Romanstein has borne the brunt of much of that criticism. The ASO shut down the comments section of its Facebook page when fans used the forum to vent their ire at the ASO’s management, and Romanstein in particular.
ASO music director Robert Spano took the rare step of interjecting himself into the labor dispute when he and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles coauthored a letter before the lockout that warned, “There are artistic lines that cannot and must not be crossed.” Spano also showed up in support of a musicians protest Thursday night outside the Woodruff Arts Center, an evening when the ASO season had been scheduled to begin.
Runnicles told the British newspaper the Guardian that the lockout is about “punishing” the musicians. “And what on earth has that punishment got to do with two invested parties in a discussion-finding consensus?” Runnicles said. “It’s a one-sided attempt to force the orchestra to its collective knees. It also paints the orchestra as this intransigent group of musicians. But in fact they have shown extraordinary willingness to come to a common agreement, as what happened two years ago proves. The fact that it should have come to a lockout again is simply devastating.”
Last week, ASO board member Ron Antinori resigned, saying he felt powerless and had come to the conclusion he could do more to resolve the current standoff as an adviser for the musicians.
“I didn’t feel that my voice and my opinions as a board member had much of an effect on what was happening,” Antinori told ArtsATL, noting that he did not know that management was planning to lock musicians out until just two days before the deadline for contract negotiations. “I am not privy to what WAC’s motivation is. That’s the elephant in the room. All I know is what I’ve heard: ‘We need to balance the budget.’ Am I suspicious? I honestly just don’t know. There does seem to be a mentality of ‘We don’t care if we destroy the orchestra as long as we balance the budget.’”
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has also called on the two sides to return to the negotiating table and reach an agreement. “A protracted lockout is not good for the ASO and not good for Atlanta,” Reed said.
Two issues remain sticking points between the musicians and ASO management. A key obstacle in the increasingly bitter stalemate — which neither party seems willing to negotiate on — is management’s refusal to commit to any fixed plan on the size of the orchestra and health-care costs.
The company will not specify in the contract that the ensemble remain a certain size — a move that would break with standard orchestra practice across the nation. While musicians seek to increase the number of players from 88 to 89 by the fourth year, management will not commit to any fixed number at all. Management has also demanded sole power to determine whether to replace musicians who leave the orchestra, an issue that is traditionally addressed in the collective bargaining agreement.
The company is also insisting on reserving the right to change any aspect of musicians’ health-care plan at will, rather than have health-care benefits as a part of a negotiated agreement.
Management argues that the company’s annual $2 million deficit, amid the uncertain economic climate, necessitates a more prudent and “flexible” approach. “These are the unfortunate economic realities we face,” Romanstein said in a press release last week. “If we are to have a strong future, we must take care of our business now to make sure we stay in business.”
Romanstein’s resignation comes two days after the ASO issued a press release Saturday at 9 p.m. that announced the musicians had accepted its offer to bring in a federal mediator. “We are pleased that after weeks of an open offer, the musicians’ union has accepted mediation and we’re looking forward to getting back to the negotiating table,” Romanstein said in the release. “We are ready to resolve our differences and start the ASO’s 70th Anniversary Season.”
The musicians quickly responded that there was no agreement in place to use an outside federal mediator; all they had agreed to was to speak with the mediator to discuss their options.
Virginia Hepner, president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, said Monday that Romanstein’s resignation does not signal any shift in the key issues being addressed in the collective bargaining agreement process. She did, however, urge musicians to resume negotiations. The musicians have said the ASO has yet to respond to its last offer, and that ASO management has insisted it has made its best and final offer.
“The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is a treasured part of our community,” Hepner said. “We want to make sure it can continue to flourish in the future. To do that, we need to find ways to broaden our base of patrons and supporters and address the deficits we’ve had for 12 consecutive years. All of us at the Arts Center are committed to working with the musicians to find a solution.”
The ASO also locked out musicians in 2012. With the company facing a projected $5 million annual budget deficit at the time, management persuaded musicians to accept a 15 percent cut in salary, drop the number of full-time musicians from 95 to 88 and reduce the length of the season from 52 to 42 weeks.