The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has joined the growing list of arts institutions that have locked out (or threatened to lock out) its artists unless substantial wage concessions can be obtained. In each case, management believes that large deficits will only be erased if costs are reduced substantially.
But the situation in Atlanta is different and far more instructive than the ones at the Metropolitan Opera, the Minnesota Orchestra and the other well-publicized sites of labor/management strife.
Because the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra went through the same thing just two years ago!
In 2012, the management of the Orchestra locked out musicians for almost one month until a new agreement could be reached. In that instance, the musicians agreed to accept a 15 percent cut in salary, the number of musicians was reduced to 88 from 95, and the season was reduced by 10 weeks. It was a painful settlement but the musicians agreed to these cuts to save the orchestra.
And now the management is, once again, asking for cuts.
This is both shocking and also, unfortunately, not surprising in the least.
It is shocking because one must expect that after locking out its musicians, the management of the Orchestra (and its parent, the Woodruff Arts Center) had some idea of the size cut that would be required to balance the budget. Why would one lock out artists and then settle on a contract that would not stabilize the institution for even two years? Was there so much pressure to settle the lockout and open the season on time that an agreement was reached that solved only a piece of the problem?
It is not surprising because cutting salaries rarely if ever solves the fundamental problems of troubled organizations. It is the sustained creation of new revenue that is the only way to protect an arts institution over time. Cutting salaries and the number of musicians is a one-time band aid; it does not protect the institution as inflation and increased competition from other forms of entertainment play havoc with the income statement. And it makes many potential donors and subscribers question whether they want to support an organization in turmoil.
When one's only strategy for fixing a financial problem is cutting expenses, of any sort, one only cheapens the product and makes the organization even less competitive than it was before. This virtually ensures that cuts will be necessary again and again. And when does it stop? When the organization ceases to be interesting? of quality? competitive?
Does anyone really believe the challenges facing the Metropolitan Opera are now solved after the recent settlement that resulted in far lower cost savings than had been demanded? I am as pleased as anyone that the Met opened its season on time and that its artists are back at work. But I don't think anything was "settled" and I am waiting for the other shoe to drop.
If you disagree, look southward and observe the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.