Your Source For The Arts In Atlanta

Robert Spano conducts the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 2012. (Photo by Chris Lee)

Robert Spano conducts the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 2012. (Photo by Chris Lee)

Ever since Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians were locked out of Symphony Hall a month ago after failing to agree with management over the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement, critics have wondered who is calling the shots.

While ASO president and CEO Stanley Romanstein, who resigned last week, bore the brunt of musicians’ and the public’s ire, many have suspected his moves were dictated by the orchestra’s parent company, the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC).

Criticism of the WAC is now mounting as the stalemate between musicians and management reaches its second month. In an interview with ArtsATL, a longstanding ASO board member voiced his anguish at the WAC’s “takeover” of the orchestra, claiming WAC officials seemed more interested in balancing the budget than maintaining the ASO’s reputation as a world-class ensemble.

“I am very disappointed to see the Woodruff Arts Center so glibly and so willingly allow the quality and prestige of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to go down the tubes,” said Dr. John W. Cooledge, a retired pediatrician who joined the ASO board in 1976 and now serves on the board of counselors, an advisory tier of the body. “Right now the feeling of the symphony board is frustration and anger and sadness. The ASO board no longer seems to have any power,” Cooledge said, noting that he had very little input in the lockout negotiations. “WAC is calling all the shots.”

Virginia Hepner

Virginia Hepner

The ASO is in the unusual position of being controlled by the Woodruff Art Center, the 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that also serves as the umbrella organization for the High Museum of Art, the Alliance Theatre and the Arts for Learning program. With the ASO operating on an annual $2 million budget deficit, Virginia Hepner, WAC’s president and CEO, has argued that musicians must adopt a more “flexible” attitude to balancing the company’s financial and artistic priorities.

On Monday, Hepner said that Romanstein’s resignation did not signal any shift in management’s approach to negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. Karole Lloyd, ASO board chair, also noted that interim CEO Terry Neal, a retired Coca-Cola executive, will not be involved with negotiations, but will focus on day-to-day operations. 

After greeting the news of Romanstein’s departure with relief, the musicians are now focusing their criticism on the orchestra’s parent company. On Friday, the ASO Players’ Association released a statement that criticized the leadership of the WAC governing board. They reserved particular scorn for Douglas Hertz, chairman of the WAC board, whom they claim is responsible for attempts to reduce the number of full-time tenured musicians and introduce a two-tiered salary system that would offer new musicians a reduced compensation package.

Hepner responded to the musicians’ claims with her own statement Friday afternoon that asserted the ASO’s financial challenges — 12 years of accumulated deficits, a severe reduction in its endowment and an annual operating gap of $2 million — were “very serious and threaten the health” of the entire Woodruff Arts Center.

“We continue to ask the musicians for constructive ideas to help us address these challenges and we are frustrated that they have turned a deaf ear to the situation,” Hepner said. “We are saddened that they are attempting to disparage the reputation of Doug Hertz, our chairman. He is widely recognized as one of the most successful and generous leaders in Atlanta and we feel extremely fortunate to have his ongoing support at the Woodruff Arts Center. Our fervent hope is that a federal mediator will bring calm to the protests, picketing and petitions and get us back to meaningful progress at the negotiating table.”

Hertz declined an interview request from ArtsATL.

Next week, Allison Beck, acting director of the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, will travel to Atlanta to offer services to ASO musicians and management in an attempt to try to reach a resolution to the lockout that began September 6.

Federal mediator Allison Beck

Federal mediator Allison Beck

The division, however, is not just between musicians and management. It extends to the ASO and WAC boards, and which governing body has ultimate control of the symphony. Last month, one of the ASO board’s newest members, Ron Antinori, stepped down from his position in protest of the lockout. Antinori said he had no idea that management was locking musicians out until just two days before the contract deadline. After organizing an informal meeting of board members to discuss solutions, and raising $830,000 in pledges to the ASO in two hours, he said Lloyd and Hepner would not waver on the lockout.

There may be more resignations in the near future, Cooledge said, but for now ASO board members are weighing their options.

“At this point the ASO board feels at an impasse and doesn’t know where to turn in terms of asserting its control,” Cooledge said. “Resignations very may well occur as board members realize they’re wasting their time, but that would be later. Not now.”

While many board members declined to speak publicly to ArtsATL, the ASO board’s longest-standing member, Betty Fuller, expressed unease with the current situation, noting that her connection with the symphony has been one of the greatest joys of her life — until now. “We’ve had hard times, and this is the darkest,” said Fuller, a Life Director who joined the board in 1965 and has previously served as chair of the board. Without being a member of the negotiating team, Fuller said, she was not privy to details of the contract negotiations. But she found it inconceivable that Atlanta, one of the wealthiest cities in the United States, could not figure out a way to maintain a high-caliber orchestra.

“We have to continue to build and we just can’t let this wonderful orchestra go down the drain,” she said.

In nearly four decades as a board member, Cooledge said he has experienced considerable pride as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has grown not only in size, but in technical accomplishment and richness of sound. Under music directors Robert Shaw, Yoel Levi and Robert Spano, the ASO has toured the world, produced 27 Grammy Award–winning recordings and created a legacy as one of the finest orchestras in the world.

That era, he said, now appears to be over. Management is refusing to commit to any fixed plan on the size of the orchestra — a move that would break with standard orchestra practice across the nation and, critics say, decimate the quality of the symphony.

“I don’t think anyone thought we’d plunge to hiring musicians off the street when we needed extra players,” Cooledge said, referring to management’s plan to reduce the size of the orchestra and fill more vacancies with part-time freelancers. “If the High Museum got into financial difficulties, would the WAC board sell off its most treasured artworks?”

ASO music director Robert Spano took the unusual move of commenting on labor negotiations. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

ASO music director Robert Spano and some ASO board members fear the orchestra’s standing is at risk. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

Throughout the ASO’s history, the ASO board had a considerable amount of autonomy, Cooledge said, with the WAC standing by as a benign presence, its principal function to maintain the physical facility and to raise money that was given to component parts.

Yet, as Hepner noted, the ASO’s poor financial health has had a negative impact on the WAC’s bottom line. Last year, Moody’s Investors Service, the credit rating agency, changed WAC’s rating outlook from stable to negative, largely on the basis of the symphony’s accumulated budget deficit of $5 million.

Gradually, Cooledge said, WAC has moved to exert more control. Within the board, he said, there’s a growing awareness that the WAC, rather than the symphony board, dominates proceedings. 

“When we go into board meetings now, it’s a very tightly controlled situation,” he said, noting that the board chair, Karole Lloyd, sets strict timetables to meetings. “The agenda is very carefully set. The president of the board doesn’t really allow much in the way of discussion of where we ought to be going.”

In 2011, the WAC board implemented a major reorganization, installing an 18-member governing board with the fiduciary responsibility to oversee day-to-day operations. This meant that the overall board of 80 members no longer has legal responsibility for decisions and only provides guidance and advice.

This smaller governing board, Cooledge said, started taking over authority from ASO and making its own demands. “They have gradually taken over all authority for running the symphony,” he said.

Karole Lloyd, ASO board chair.

Karole Lloyd, ASO board chair

The musicians have also targeted the WAC governing board, claiming that it is responsible for a number of recent proposals that would permanently downsize the orchestra. In the summer of 2013, the musicians said, Romanstein and Hepner suggested that the number of ASO’s full-time tenured musicians should be permanently reduced, with vacancies filled with alumni from the ASO’s Talent Development Program, which identifies and develops musically gifted African American and Latino students in preparation for careers as professional classical musicians. In March 2014, musicians claim, Lloyd suggested a two-tiered salary system that would relegate all new members of the ASO to a “probationary period” with a severely reduced compensation package.

Such developments would cripple the orchestra’s national and international standing, the ASO Players’ Association said. “Unlike in other professions, orchestra musicians are not hired with the expectation that they will grow into their jobs,” ASOPA said in a statement. “A musician unable to consistently perform at the highest artistic level will likely not even win an audition, let alone achieve tenure. To demand that one musician be paid substantially less than his or her colleagues, all while performing the same work under the same intense pressure, exposes a profound deficit of understanding of professional musicianship.”

In her statement Friday, Hepner did not deny the musicians’ assertions about the proposed changes. “Over the last eight months, our team has proposed many potential scenarios to the musicians in an attempt to find a solution to the problem,” Hepner said. 

These ideas, the musicians claim, seem to have originated with the WAC’s governing board and, in particular, board chair Douglas Hertz, whom they said had an “unfortunate history of trying to eliminate tenured positions within a workforce to reduce expenses.” The musicians noted that Hertz served on the Tulane University board of administrators when the university moved to eliminate tenured faculty members at the university, replacing existing faculty with nontenured hires after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005. 

WAC board chair Douglas Hertz.

Douglas Hertz, chair of the WAC governing board

The makeup of the ASO board has evolved over the years, Cooledge said. In 1976, when Cooledge joined the board, he said it consisted largely of ardent music lovers, “people who knew each other and worked in harmony.” Now it comprises corporate executives from Atlanta’s leading businesses: Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola, King & Spalding, Alston & Bird, Verizon Wireless, the Atlanta Hawks and Philips Arena.

“There was some lamenting a few years ago that some people were taking positions on the board primarily to put on their resumes,” Cooledge said.

While he acknowledged that the ASO board could have been proactive in asserting control — or, as he put it, “preventing a final takeover” — he said there had never, until recently, been any clear realization that WAC could move the orchestra into a second-rate organization. 

 “We thought the WAC was acting in the best interest of all its divisions,” he said. “We were caught napping.”

While there has been some discussion among board members, Cooledge said, that ASO separate from WAC and become an independent entity, the consensus is that there is no easy way out. The WAC has complete control of the symphony’s endowment. “I’m pessimistic about finding an easy solution,” Cooledge said. “We’ve sold ourselves to Woodruff.”

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