ASO ends ‘14-‘15 on high note, with surplus, $13 million to add players

After bruising negotiations that led to a nine-week lockout of musicians, delaying the launch of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s 70th anniversary season by nearly two months, finally there is a pleasing coda.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned that the ASO finished the 2014-15 season with a surplus, reversing a slide of 11 consecutive years of deficits that caused management to take a hard line on the mounting debt.

Though final fiscal 2015 figures will not be known until later this summer when financial records are complete for the Woodruff Arts Center — the nonprofit entity over the ASO, Alliance Theatre and High Museum of Art — Woodruff spokesman Randy Donaldson said early numbers show revenues exceeding expenses by a “solid six figures.”

ASO musicians, who went nine weeks without pay during the lockout, will share 22 percent of the surplus, per the four-year collective bargaining agreement that was hammered out in November with the help of federal mediators. That is a small, if welcome, bit of business, however, compared to another big development regarding the ASO.

The Woodruff also is revealing in Thursday’s AJC exclusive report that $13.3 million has been raised in the ASO’s Musicians’ Endowment Campaign in just seven months toward its $25 million goal.

The number of musicians in the orchestra was the biggest sticking point throughout the rancorous negotiations that led to a series of passionate public protests in support of the musicians and that spread scorched sentiments against Woodruff leadership across social media.

The ASO, which was trimmed from 95 to 88 full-time players in a 2012 collective bargaining agreement that also was preceded by a lockout, started the 2014-15 season with the 77 musicians who remained after defections, retirements and other departures. Seventy-seven is the contracted number for the coming season, as well, with management agreeing to grow the “complement” to 84 by the end of year three and 88 by the end of year four.

Woodruff administrative and board leaders said they believed there was support in the community to endow the 11 positions, the strategy they settled on in hopes of avoiding further deficit operations.

The Woodruff Foundation, a longtime major supporter of the arts center but operated independently of it, donated a $7.7 million Challenge Grant to encourage early donors. And five donors have stepped forward with “leadership gifts” of $1 million or more: Atlanta couples Sally and Carl Gable and Connie and Merrell Calhoun, along with the Katz Foundation, the Kendeda Fund and an anonymous donor.

“We are very grateful and encouraged by the wonderful response by donors over the last seven months who are investing in the future of the ASO through the Musicians’ Endowment Campaign,” Daniel Laufer, president of the ASO Players Association, said in an email to the AJC. “It is critical that we restore the 11 positions lost during the lockout as soon as possible.”

The ASO already has posted audition notices for three positions. Laufer said he expects those trials to take place at the beginning of the 2015-16 season, with the hope that the roles will be filled while the season is in progress.

Interim President and CEO Terry Neal called the orchestra’s improving financial picture “gratifying” in an ASO statement.

“But more work remains to be done to achieve long-term financial stability while assuring the highest levels of symphonic music,” Neal said. “Doing so will require continuing cooperation among ASO musicians, the artistic and administrative leadership, the support of the Woodruff Arts Center and ongoing community generosity.”

From Jackson Hole, Wyo., where he is performing at Grand Teton Music Festival, ASO associate principal cellist Laufer said he agreed with Neal.

“It will take a lot of work, financial support and determination by all to restore the ASO artistically through a sound financial foundation,” he said. “There are many of us who are encouraged by the new ASO board leadership who are determined to (make the orchestra) relevant for many generations to come.”

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