THE BLOG
09/25/2014 05:45 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2014

Atlanta Symphony Lockout Is Enforced Silence

More than a year ago, the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, which would become the longest such anti-labor action in modern musical history, prompted many in the music world who weren't used to public comment to become involved. Community organizations and blogs were created and played a meaningful role in the dispute, its resolution, and the rebuilding process that continues in Minneapolis.

Because I took a modest part there, it seems important to take part in the discussion of the current Atlanta Symphony lockout. I have much more at stake personally in Atlanta: the Atlanta Symphony Music Director, Robert Spano, is also Music Director of the Aspen Music Festival and School, where I am CEO; I have good friends and valued colleagues both among the musicians in Atlanta and in its administration.

The only place to begin is by affirming that the tactic of a lockout is wrongheaded. Wrongheaded not because it cannot "work" -- the previous Atlanta lockout two years ago might be said by management to have worked.

Just after that earlier Atlanta lockout, I was backstage at Carnegie Hall after a concert given by the Atlanta Symphony. I was struck by the enmity shown to Atlanta's CEO by virtually every musician. It was a chilling example of the outcome of a lockout.

It doesn't bring about a shared sense of participation in the mission of the organization. It doesn't emphasize the respect that all parties in such a mission ought to have for each other's contributions. It doesn't build for the future. In Atlanta it did bring about concessions and prepared a platform for future similar actions, in Minneapolis and now again in Atlanta, for instance.

It's like saying war clearly works, by looking at the model of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles.

A strike is a tactic in which passionately partisan people sacrifice their own incomes and family well-being for what they believe. I have not liked any of the strikes we have seen, as the tactic is so peremptory.

But a lockout is very different: it is a tactic by which those in power -- both governing boards and management -- deprive others, not themselves, of a livelihood as a way of imposing their beliefs. It depends on might making right. It negates the mission of the organization, which is to make music. To make music, not to make money, not to perpetuate a political view of culture, not to produce social cachet, though all of those might be interesting by-products.

We need negotiations that do share participation in the mission, that do incorporate respect for differing views of what is best for the organization and for its constituents, and that do leave the door open for future working together. In many recent high-profile negotiations, both sides trampled on these principles (often by proxies or representatives of musicians rather than the players themselves). When, over a number of years and through different economic situations, an orchestra has a continuing deficit, something indeed must change. San Diego Opera and the Met are working out hybrid solutions: cut costs in all areas, maintain a vital artistic presence, renew the commitment of existing donors, and bring new energy to fund raising. A negotiating stance that pins all the problems on one part of the budget, whether that's labor costs, ticket sales, or contributed income, is not likely to succeed and damages the credibility of those advancing it.

In an old-fashioned business model, all arts organizations run at huge deficits all the time, because the sales revenue of the product has never come close to matching its cost. People talk about fund raising as if it were a spigot that turns freely -- I myself have heard the comment "Well you just didn't raise enough money!" (I felt like knocking my head and saying, "Oh, that's what I was forgetting!") Raising money is not a simple transaction; it depends on belief and confidence.

It's important to differentiate the goals of a board, in this case the board of the Woodruff Center for the Arts (a board not primarily committed to music) and the management of the orchestra. The Atlanta Symphony's president, Stanley Romanstein, is someone for whom I feel much friendly regard. I am persuaded that he is in his position because of his love for music, and that he wants the orchestra to succeed.

That doesn't make reasonable or correct his adherence to tactics perhaps dictated by the boards to whom he reports. The tremendous majority of board members I have known in the non-profit world -- and I have known a great number, and have served on numerous boards - are in it for true philanthropic reasons. Even if they are not able to be the most important donors, they can make essential contributions. If they are business people, they can bring significant value in their knowledge of marketing, of outreach, of financial best practice, of investment expertise. If they are able to make large donations, they reasonably expect to help in the direction of the organization as well.

This doesn't mean that non-profits should act like corporations. They should, through thick and thin, stay true to their missions.

Friends in the arts world, for whose opinion I generally have respect, have disappointed me by taking a harsh view of all administrators. There is a disdain, which can almost feel like hatred, for the very role of administrators. We (because, even if I appear to be a traitor to my class, I am through and through an arts administrator) are vilified for doing nothing and being paid too much for nothing.

There is a serious problem when a board, especially one at a remove from the artistic mission, dictates operating policy. To require success, measured in deficit reduction or audience size, for instance, is a reasonable charge to an executive, who will stand or fall on the result. To require success based on breaking a union is not a reasonable charge.

But not many months ago, a local Aspen official (for whom I feel much respect, apart from this), told a local group that non-profits whose administrators were paid more than, say, five figures, should not be supported, because talented management should serve for the public good of it. This is really the same reasoning that leads people to say that teachers shouldn't be paid much, since they do it for love. A non-profit operating at a world-class level, and such is the Atlanta Symphony, needs world-class administration.

Of course, it also needs world-class musicians, and that will and should also be a significant cost.

When non-profits are not led by philanthropists, but are guided by misapplications of business models, trouble is inevitable. A watchword in Atlanta is "a sustainable business model," and that seems inevitably reasonable at first. But the heart of a great orchestra's business model should be an investment in great musicians and a belief in their work, supported by essential pillars of earned and contributed revenue. The flaw in Atlanta's business model is not the expense of great musicians, but rather the structure of revenue support. If its leadership does not believe they can persuade the community to support the orchestra, the answer may be as stark as losing the orchestra, or losing the leadership.

I was part of board meetings at a different major American orchestra that chose to have earnest debate on this very question: "Do we really have to be this good?" It was absolutely right to confront all opinions. The upshot was a strong new commitment to the role a first-class orchestra plays in a city committed to high-tech, medical, and academic industries.

There are two sides to this. To say that the orchestra must have 106 full-time positions at a nationally competitive salary, or 96, or 86, may or may not be right. To say that any compromise along this axis is the end of the orchestra is surely wrong. But it is the essence of the importance of a collective bargaining agreement that it should ensure the voice of the musicians in decisions about the size and scope of the organization.

In Detroit, as in Minneapolis, there were important voices saying that it didn't matter if leading musicians left the orchestra. To say that any loss of musicians decimates the orchestra would also be wrong. Orchestras are constantly renewing themselves, and even the most legendary players leave, and become part of a legendary history. But there is a fulcrum, and when too many are leaving, the seesaw flips with a vengeance. Robert Spano has had a particular genius for finding the best young brass players, and orchestras including the Chicago Symphony and the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics have consistently recruited from Atlanta. This is a healthy thing for an orchestra in Atlanta's position. If the top young talent cannot be recruited, because they understand that Atlanta might no longer be the perfect place to incubate their skills, then something infinitely precious is being squandered.

It's hard to have faith that the leadership of the Woodruff Center understands any of this.

What is needed, in Atlanta and everywhere, is the recognition that all sides play a part. It's how philanthropy works -- a partnership, an investment, a shared good. It's how artistry works. Dare I say, it's how excellent management works.

A lockout is an enforcement of silence. It doesn't work.