Friday, September 12, 2014

What Atlanta Deserves

Two years ago, I wrote a number of posts for this blog. In the name of efficiency, this time around I merged all the possible topics into one very long piece. It’s very long. It’s a call to Atlanta’s movers and shakers to provide leadership and philanthropy on the same level as what the Atlanta arts scene saw in the 1960’s after the Orly disaster, with the first task being to re-organize and resuscitate the ASO.

The executive summary is as follows:
1 – Atlanta has the economic power to support the arts at a world-class level. We also have potential arts leaders who have both business sense and an uncompromising standard of excellence.
2 – The financial stability and growth of the orchestra is inherently limited by the structure of the WAC. The WAC-supported ASO administration has failed at every level to perform its responsibilities in advancing the interests of the orchestra and earning the trust and support of the community.
3 – The solution to the downward spiral requires an independent philanthropic organization to come forward in the near-term and for the WAC to work with them to transition responsibility for the ASO, without any further damage to the artistic integrity of the institution, or deterioration in the ASO’s and WAC’s relationship with this community.
It’s time for the ASO to separate from the WAC. If you agree we have come down this old country lane as far as we can, and that it’s about to turn into a cow path that ends in a cliff, please read on.
What Atlanta Deserves
Is this the future of the fine arts in Atlanta?
This beloved Atlanta theater company, which has tried to do everything right, artistically and financially, and to which founder/artistic director Richard Garner has given his talent and energy for thirty years, is on the edge of the abyss. In the very honest letter on their home page, they state: “We frankly believe that support must come from larger gifts.”
It’s not that GA Shakes is in any way trivializing the smaller donations it receives from its loyal audience: those $50 and $500 and $5000 gifts add up, and they are a crucial component in any arts organization’s budget. But many small donors do not always equal a large donor, and that equation becomes increasingly difficult to balance as the size of the organization and the scope of its activities increase. To grow the “product offering”, to improve the artistic level, to expand the reach into the community – all this entails increased costs. And the larger the budget – the more substantial are the gifts that must be obtained.
For financial pragmatists – such as many of the WAC’s board, whose success has come in the world of for-profit business – the idea of a charitable organization being sustained by charity, in denial of market economics, is uncomfortable, if not unacceptable. But the arts have always required support over and above what they are able to charge for any given creative “product”. To grow an arts organization, let alone to sustain it at a certain level, there must be bedrock donors whose contributions ensure the stability of the organization over the long haul. This brings to mind names like Carnegie, Rockefeller, Woodruff. These individuals shared a value system that impelled them to return some part of their monetary success to their communities, often relinquishing personal control over the specifics of how their gifts were used. These individuals and families recognized the importance of community cohesion (Rockefeller Center); education (Goizueta Business School); academic research (Nobel prizes); and most of all, the arts (Carnegie Hall, where the ASO will be noticeably absent this season).
Are there still true philanthropists of this caliber? In the second decade of the 21st-century, we must speak now less of individuals in this role – although there are many here who have generously shared with the ASO, the High Museum, and other area arts organizations. But in 2014, financing performing arts at the highest level requires, more than ever before, corporate and civic philanthropic involvement. But this is Atlanta, not New York. Where could such support come from? Is there that type of corporate money in Atlanta?
What about state and city involvement? This is a necessary element not only because of the resources they can bring to the table, but because for many large donors, commitment of government support legitimizes their own investment. There never seems to be a question of opening the doors to the vaults if a sports team or sports association (e.g. NASCAR) comes knocking. But these guys are not just leveraging high-profile athletes and events in their quest for funding; they aggressively seek out and build productive business relationships with those that can help them. So it’s a no-brainer that the ASO President and the WAC Chairman – whoever they may be at the moment – should be on first-name terms with Gov. Deal and Mayor Reed (or their successors) if they want their organization to flourish. Our elected officials, who are elected to SERVE, need to be sold on the professional arts, just like on professional sports. After all, they are using the Grammy-winning, “world-class” ASO to attract new business investment, and new tax-paying residents, to Atlanta and Georgia:
Atlanta needs to reinvigorate the concept of philanthropy – corporate, civic, and personal – if it truly aspires to be an international city. We are lucky and certainly very grateful for our stalwarts like Delta and Coca-Cola, but their numbers to be increased. We are missing some high-profile corporate names, some of whom are disaffected from events long in the past. We need to bring them, and other bedrock donors, back into the fold. Those who are making money in Atlanta, need to be encouraged to return it to Atlanta in a manner that both benefits the community and provides a larger legacy to the donor.
However, bedrock donors won’t contribute if they don’t have confidence their money will be managed wisely. I’m convinced that there are substantial sums of money up for grabs in this town, but those agencies are not willing to dump it down the black hole of the WAC’s convoluted allocation system – and who can blame them? No one trusts this organization (meaning, the ASO component of the WAC, and by extension, the WAC) to be a responsible fiscal steward. This is not an organization that produces any credible financial data – and, in their defense, they may not know how to do that. If you have a loss, you have a loss – that’s part of business. But you better be able to show that you understand how and why you had the loss, and what your plan is to avoid a re-occurrence.
The ASO administration loses money, without explanation. They rob the endowment because fund-raising and expanding the donor base is hard work (and how can the advertised amount siphoned from the endowment have reduced it by an equal amount in a period of stock market growth? When indeed my own meager investment in stock over the same period quadrupled (thank you, Delta!)? Does somebody have time to run the numbers based on what’s been reported? The numbers are either wrong or the financial management of the endowment is extremely poor). Oh, and that annoying little embezzlement imbroglio has been addressed elsewhere, but if you think it’s gone away:
But regardless of the warnings posted by the Charity Navigator (intended primarily for individual giving), the ASO is not an organization that confidently reaches out to the business community for support. For starters, in order to do that you have to know and believe in your product at least as well as your prospective patrons know and believe in theirs. These people don’t know the product, and they don’t know their potential donors’ positions. The administrative wing of the ASO consists of many younger, inexperienced personnel, with inexperienced managers providing inadequate guidance. They are well-intentioned, and some perhaps care about the arts, but they flounder in an attempt to learn on the job, and they are certainly not compensated at a level that would induce them to care very much whether the organization succeeds. You could replace them with knowledgeable, proficient personnel at a ratio of 1:3. The salary expense would be the same, but the results would be so, so different.

We must accept this reality: currently, the WAC/ASO is a manufacturer with a product they do not believe in, have little knowledge of, and do not know how to market. Ticket sales are poor, and the solution is to reduce the quality of the product, which now will have even less marketability (the “downward spiral”). The marketing “strategy” (AKA “Sex in the Symphony Hall)”), has failed to galvanize a younger, less affluent audience – they can find similar images in a lot of other venues without paying for a night out at the Arts Center – and confused and diluted the brand.
But most critically, for a non-profit that must constantly be presenting its case for viability to the larger audience of the metro Atlanta area, what is absolutely clear is that within the administrative organization itself, there is no passion. There is no vision. And most fatally, there is no leadership.
That this nadir has been reached during the tenure of Romanstein, Ph.D is not entirely Stanley’s fault. He accepted a job he thought he could do. He overpromised and underperformed: this happens when, through inexperience, you do not correctly assess the scope of the task; the available resources, and the engagement of the community itself. At the time he interviewed, Ph.D may have been promised support that did not subsequently appear, and he may have been given to understand the financial situation and prospects of the orchestra as something other than what they actually were. But it wasn’t his first time around the block either. He knew at some level what he was stepping into. And his employers hired someone who had no demonstrable experience, successful or otherwise, as head of an organization the size and stature of the ASO. But whatever the terms of his hire, or the consequences of his on-the-job training, his job performance – so often denigrated in the blogosphere – has met the expectations of his most important critics – his management.
If Ph.D was not accomplishing his annual job objectives, he wouldn’t have been re-hired for another 3-year tour. If comparable to his sign-on pay, his recent 3-year extension totals around $1M. That’s not out of line for a person in an executive position, but it’s certainly at a compensation level that begs analysis of the ROI.
From the public perspective – well-articulated across the Web – the consensus is that Ph.D has accomplished only Shermanesque devastation of the Atlanta professional classical music scene. From the regrettably consistent typos in the concert programs, to the inept handling of public communications, to the dwindling concert attendance, all inexorably leading to the insanity of the lockouts – it’s been a debacle. All the experienced hands at the higher levels of the ASO administration left within a year of Ph.D’s  arrival. To fill the voids, he promoted from within those who were not ready to be promoted, and hired cheap labor for the rest of the vacancies, in the process, growing a staff that did not need to be expanded and at one time threatened to have as many administrators as there were orchestra members. Additionally, without experienced mentors and any clear leadership vision, the work ethic and the strategic course of the organization began to falter. This was apparent to anyone in front of or on the stage of Symphony Hall over the last several years.

And so we staggered to the present day, where an inexperienced, uncertain CEO is supported by an inexperienced, uncertain staff, and the ship they are supposed to steer is headed into the rocks. But the imminent shipwreck apparently serves the purposes of those who offered that contract extension to Ph.D. Someone is getting their money’s worth.
But it ain’t Atlanta, at least not the Atlanta where I came to start a new life a decade ago, which deserves better than this – whether Atlanta knows it or not. That Atlanta deserves “world-class” – in the aspirational sense that enabled the wild success of the 1996 Olympics and its heady aftermath. And yes, Virginia, “world-class”, when you advertise it to the world, had better be backed up by the objective assessments of those who are trained and experienced in the relevant subject. Succeeding in your own sphere does not automatically confer the knowledge or ability to determine what is “world-class” in another. All it does is give you a forum from which to euphemistically declare the status quo “good-enough”.
 “World-class” is objectively defined by people who are paid to know what is excellent, because they are at the top of their profession, and in a position to make that judgment. People like NYT music critic Anthony Tommasini; our music directors, Robert Spano and Donald Runnicles; our own Atlanta-based composer/critic Mark Gresham; and the guest artists who come here to perform. Yo-Yo Ma, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Garrick Ohlssohn, etc., do not need our concert fees. They don’t need to go on stage with a second-rate back-up band in order to tick the box on another performance. Their on-going presence on our concert schedule indicates they believe in the artistic merit of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra as well as this city’s cultural identity. If those values disappear, so will they, along with all the fruits of decades of arts patronage, arts education, and painstaking development of the orchestra from a part-time regional symphony to an acknowledged contender for the top tier of U.S. orchestras.
The ASO does not deserve to be throttled back into a decent regional orchestra, and Atlanta does not deserve to be returned to the status of a second-rate, “good-enough” city. But it will take the will to be “world class” along with the acknowledgment that this is not a subjective valuation, but a descriptor bestowed on deserving institutions by the international community they exist in.
And it will take, undeniably, and inevitably, money. Lots of money. But if there’s enough money in Atlanta to move the Braves to the suburbs; if there’s enough money to build the Falcons a new stadium; there’s enough money to underwrite an independent, restructured Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
Because the largest obstacle to the future of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and its role in this community, is its status as a component of the Woodruff Arts Center. No other major symphony orchestra operates under the kind of constraint the ASO now experiences as a ward of the WAC. This was not always the case, of course. In the wake of the Orly tragedy, the magnificent vision of the Memorial Art Center’s founders created within a few years a seminal arts campus. That vision brought the fine arts in Atlanta to maturity through a coordinated strategy to house and promote music, theater, and visual arts. It was a powerful and successful tribute to those who were lost in Paris.
But that is a half-century ago, and the organizational model which served very well at the time of the M/WAC’s founding never evolved as the component organizations evolved. It ceased to work entirely at the point the ASO became not just a very good regional orchestra, but achieved an artistic level where it was recognized internationally. With multiple Grammys, an ever-expanding body of recordings under Maestri Shaw, Levi, Spano and Runnicles, the ASO was headed to the top tier of American orchestras (i.e., among the best in the world – and how I hate to use the past tense).
At that point – to get to that next level – an orchestra requires a substantial investment (to promote touring, to provide or appropriate performance venues, to endow chairs, etc.); an efficient and effective fund-raising mechanism; a constructive and productive rapport with government at the local and state level; and a passionate, competent support organization that can set financial goals and achieve them, while providing the artistic directors the freedom to create and execute a plan to raise the very fine, “good-enough” music-making to artistry that is acknowledged and applauded around the U.S. and the world. There has to be passion. And vision. And leadership.

So, finally, there is really only one solution to the latest phase of this organizational debacle, and that is for the ASO – the orchestra and its necessary administrative structure – to be liberated from the WAC. Theirs has become a dysfunctional relationship in the last several years, independent of the cast of characters that has cycled through the WAC and ASO managements. Liberation can happen in several ways: (1) the ASO can simply shut down and escape this vale of tears through an ignominious death – although, if you have read this far, you probably don’t want to witness that outcome; (2) the ASO splits off from the WAC in an acrimonious melt-and-repour operation (for recent precedent, please see:; or, (3) in conjunction with a philanthropic entity or entities, the ASO and the WAC proactively work to transfer financial and organizational responsibility of the ASO in an orderly manner to an independent group (for precedent, see every other major symphony in America). The adversarial environment which is corroding and threatening to destroy the classical music community in this town needs to be eliminated through mutual admission that the WAC-ASO relationship has run its course.
This path, if it can be mapped out through the leadership of business and civic leaders, allows a win-win solution: the ASO is given a fresh start with the opportunity to charter its own destiny, and the WAC partisans that are hard over on fiscal responsibility can gracefully withdraw to the sidelines without losing face. Assuming all parties can behave like adults and work toward a mutually beneficial resolution, Symphony Hall could still be used, at least in the near-term, thus preserving the benefit that the ASO brings by attracting audiences to the surrounding restaurants and to the Alliance and High. The endowment could be transferred into financial management that is free of any motives except the growth of the funds to benefit the ASO in perpetuity.  And the bedrock donors would have the transparency they should rightly enjoy regarding the allocation of their financial support.
The WAC’s own statements say the ASO is a liability to the umbrella organization; consequently, the WAC can’t lambast the costs of the ASO for hitting their bottom line, and then complain if they will lose income if the ASO departs. They have to conclude (and I believe they would) that the best chance for both the WAC and the Orchestra to prosper is to amicably part ways. The High will continue to prosper: people, including myself, will die off and leave their art to swell the collection. The Alliance will always be the first stop for theater in this great theater-town. It is the ASO – simply because of what it is – a large performing arts organization with huge recurring expenses and a constantly evolving product offering – that doesn’t fit the mold any longer. We can remain neighbors and friends, but not relatives.
The dissolution has to happen quickly – the fruit is dying on the vine. I don’t intend to minimize the effort and resources involved in this type of transition – it’s a massive undertaking. But if Atlanta really wants a world-class orchestra, with all its ramifications for the Atlanta arts community, the metro area, the region, and the state – this is the only way to get there.
Nothing guarantees success. There has to be money. There has to be will. There has to be vision. There has to be, most of all, leadership. And even with all those elements, there may still not be success.
But there is no possibility of success in the current environment.
I’m writing this on September 11th. Yes, our little labor dispute dwindles in significance to the problems in the world that began engulfing us on that terrible day. We can’t solve those problems. But we can bind the fraying ties of civilization a bit tighter if we work to maintain the societal values that were attacked on 9/11. We can make the preservation and sustenance of our cultural heritage, at this particular moment manifested in the destiny of our great orchestra, a priority. We can make this part of our world, world-class.
OK, I’m just one of the multitude of $50 donors (maybe hitting $100 on an optimistic day). I can’t do a damn thing to save the ASO except argue as eloquently as I can to convince those who do have the resources; who do believe that great institutions make a great society; and who do value the standard of excellence to which professional artists aspire; to come forward and lead – now, in this critical hour.
Where are Atlanta’s philanthropists of the 21st-century? Where are those that have the passion, the vision, and the desire to lead this city beyond its decades-long inferiority complex to take center stage on an international platform? Where are those dedicated – like the Atlanta Arts Alliance in the 1960’s  - to be a part of a legacy that, yes, it will bear your names, but it will also be something larger, something that will be here long after you depart, enriching your children’s children, and their children? Step up, Atlanta, shake hands with Ph.D, Virginia, and their fellows, and let them gracefully exit the stage while you take the wheel to steer us into a new direction where there are calm seas, and a prosperous voyage.
Step up to the plate, and give Atlanta what you, the ASO, the arts, and all of us – deserve.

Laurie Cronin
ASOC Alto I #361


  1. Laurie,
    Thank your for this thoughtful, wise, compelling tour de force.

    Andrew Gee

  2. Outstanding. Please send this to the WAC Board.

    John T. Ruff

  3. Thank you so much for this work and this passion.

  4. Excellent. I could not agree more. Thank you.

  5. Beautifully, eloquently stated. So proud of you!

  6. Laurie, thank you for teaching me so much that I did not know, nor could
    have found out. Very thought-provoking. How much would it cost to buy
    space in the AJC for publishing it there ? It belongs before the eyes of
    those potential philanthropists, and CERTAINLY before both Boards.