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Still no contract between ASO, musicians; orchestra’s financial woes aren’t unique

Romanstein hopes the empty orchestra seats are filled once again.
Romanstein hopes the empty orchestra seats are filled once again.
ASO President Stanley Romanstein says the orchestra's future is at stake.

As of late Wednesday afternoon, no new collective bargaining agreement had been announced between the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the union that represents its musicians.

The previous agreement expired Saturday, and both sides announced that negotiations would continue. Since then, neither the ASO nor the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players Association, which represents the musicians, has said anything publicly.

The musicians union has said the orchestra wants the musicians to accept approximately $20,000 a year each in salary reductions. The last public union counterproposal, on August 15, called for musicians, management and staff members all to take 11 percent pay cuts. Neither side has spoken publicly about specific contract terms since then.

The ASO says it has reached a financial crisis, with accumulated debt that is estimated to reach $19.8 million by the end of the fiscal year, and must lower costs.

In addition, the orchestra’s endowment has fallen from a high of $98.5 million in 2007 to about $73 million in February, more than a $25 million drop. “It is down because of the volatile stock market of the last five years,” the ASO says in a statement posted on its website. “We’ve already had to borrow from it to cover our growing deficit.… Having borrowed over $14 million from our endowment by the end of [fiscal year] 2013, we will have exhausted our capacity for any such borrowing in the future.”

ASO President and Chief Executive Officer Stanley Romanstein has warned that the orchestra’s future is at stake. “The reality for us is [that] we’re not talking about a way to improve our balance sheet; we’re talking about a way to make sure that we’re still here in five years or 10 years,” Romanstein recently told ArtsATL. “It’s not like there’s an enormous pot of money around and [we’re] sitting and deciding how we can best use it. The reality is that the pot’s empty.”

The financial issues that face Atlanta’s symphony orchestra are reflective of a much larger national narrative. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra are also in the midst of intense labor negotiations.

One of the major issues that arose earlier in the ASO deliberations was a proposal to cut back musicians’ contracts from 52 to 42 weeks. According to the Indianapolis Star, the orchestra there has made an even more dramatic demand. Musicians would go from a 52-week to a 36-week contract, along with a reduction in weekly pay. According to the FAQ page on the ISO Musicians’ website, under the current contract the base scale wage is $78,000. That contract is scheduled to expire September 2.

Adding to the difficulties of the Indianapolis negotiations, the Star reported that the orchestra’s leadership is in turmoil. Three of its top management positions are vacant: president and CEO, development director and vice president of marketing and communications.

Current contracts for both of the Twin Cities orchestras will expire at the end of September. While no information about specific concession demands is coming from either of those orchestras, the Minnesota Orchestra players’ website says the union and management will meet Thursday, August 30, for the first time since July. The current base salary for its musicians is $111,566.

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra players’ website states that their last negotiation session, on August 1, was held before a federal mediator and that no changes in position took place. Their next sessions are scheduled in September.

The Philadelphia Orchestra, like the Atlanta Symphony, is a “major” or “Group 1” orchestra, a classification based upon annual operating budget. In April, the Philadelphia Orchestra became the first major U.S. orchestra to file for bankruptcy, emerging from it at the end of last month. The bankruptcy was negotiated under the leadership of Philly’s president and CEO, Allison Vulgamore, who assumed the position in January 2010 after having served in the same capacity at the ASO for more than 15 years.

By contrast, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, which was described as near bankruptcy at the end of 2011, has tackled its financial problems with a major development and fund-raising campaign and announced last month that it had “balanced its budget and exceeded all key financial goals.” The DSO had previously expected a shortfall of $6.5 million for 2011-12.

Several smaller orchestras have shuttered during the country’s extended economic downturn. At the end of 2010, the 110-year-old Honolulu Symphony Orchestra folded. The 80-year-old New Mexico Symphony Orchestra entered Chapter 7 bankruptcy in April 2011 and announced that it would cease operations and existence. That same month, the 50-year-old Syracuse Symphony did likewise, although its musicians had made salary and benefit concessions the previous summer after being assured that that would ensure the viability of the orchestra’s 50th season. Nevertheless, the orchestra’s board voted to dissolve, blaming outstanding pension liability.

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