Just two years ago, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra declared itself in such dire financial straits that it locked out its musicians for nine weeks, delayed the opening of the season and said the number of ASO musicians had to be cut to 76. And then the orchestra’s president resigned under fire from the people he was hired to lead.
What a difference a couple of years can make.
The ASO announced yesterday that it closed the 2015-16 fiscal year with a budget surplus for the second straight year. ASO spokeswoman Tammy Hawk said the final budget numbers won’t be released until a final audit is complete. In addition, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Musicians’ Endowment Fund has raised over $20 million and is expected to reach its $25 million goal this year.
“We are grateful for the community’s extraordinary response to the Musicians’ Endowment campaign,” said ASO executive director Jennifer Barlament. “To have reached this milestone so soon creates tremendous momentum and a resounding vote of support for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s mission and impact.”
During the 2014 lockout — which now seems like a distant, distasteful memory — the ASO’s financial problems led many to question the city’s commitment to high culture and the arts. In an interview with The New York Times, music director Robert Spano described the lockout as a “dire and critical juncture” for the city of Atlanta: “If the 10th-largest urban economy in America is incapable of sustaining its cultural jewel, what does that signal about our country?”
The 2014 lockout was the second in two years; the orchestra had experienced budget shortfalls for 12 straight years and amassed a multi-million dollar deficit. Its leadership said the ASO could not sustain itself without major concessions from the musicians, most notably a reduction in the orchestra’s size. The musicians balked, contending the very integrity of the orchestra itself was at stake. Both sides eventually embraced a federally mediated agreement that held the minimum number of musicians at 77, with the ASO’s intention to rebuild it to 88 over time through the endowment fund.
Last season was bolstered with a year-long tribute to former music director Robert Shaw in honor of his 100th birthday.
“In a few short weeks, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will begin its 72nd season and it is incredibly gratifying to start the season with this positive moment,” said Kirk Jamieson, chair of the ASO’s board of directors. “We enter the final phase of the campaign with confidence that the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will be a vital part of the community for generations to come.”