Change the music

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in concert at Carnegie Hall, conducted by music director Robert Spano.
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in concert at Carnegie Hall, conducted by music director Robert Spano.

The labor dispute between the ASO and its musicians needs to play its final notes soon. Maintaining a great orchestra is a vital part of this competitive city’s quality of life and economy.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.

Think of the arts as a form of economic development.

Seen that way, the stalemate between the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the musicians who make it go just might be easier to nudge toward a resolution both sides – and the rest of the Atlanta metro can live with.

Toward that result, we’re pleased that federal mediators announced Friday afternoon that they will begin working to help the ASO and its musicians reach an agreement. That’s great news for this metro area that needs its symphony orchestra up and running asap.

It’s pretty broadly accepted that arts organizations like the ASO, its mates under the Woodruff Arts Center banner and other groups around town perform a starring role in metro Atlanta’s quality of life. That makes Atlanta similar to most any city that wants to be seen as an attractive place to live, work and play.

That’s the qualitative side of the ledger. We’d suggest too that the arts play a quantifiable role in strengthening local economies.

First, there’s the direct impact that even nonprofit groups have in terms of payroll dollars, revenue and the like. That money flows back and forth across the community at large.

There is also a strong, yet more-indirect economic role performed by arts organizations. Summed up, the arts help make cities exhilarating, happening places to be. We’d suggest vibrant arts enclaves matter a lot to the people whose capital and smarts fuel the innovation and intellectual effort that creates and sustains enterprises and the jobs they create.

As Atlanta’s economy continues along a jagged, less-than-spectacular recovery, that’s precisely why it’s important that the standoff between the ASO and the musicians’ union quickly come to an end. It’s a distraction, and a nationally visible detractor that we don’t need.

We won’t take sides here in what’s, at essence, a classic management-labor dispute. It’s up to experts like the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to parse the merits of details contained in this offer or that. It is worth noting that recent years have seen both the ASO and its musicians accept reductions in wages, worker headcount and operating budgets.

That reality makes for tough prospects of moving off of the status quo. But that’s exactly what needs doing here.

Here are a few points worth keeping in mind toward that end.

For starters, although the players’ union disputes some of the Woodruff’s accounting, it does seem the ASO needs to gain more-solid financial footing. A dozen years of deficits aren’t a sustainable pattern. Long-term, losses threaten the very future of the music that the ASO’s performers have devoted their careers to keeping before the public.

This fiscal realization has to be a powerful motivator for the Woodruff and ASO boards.

And the task of shepherding the ASO to fiscal health cannot be theirs alone. It should be shared by all Atlantans – at least those who desire to see this region prosper.

That includes the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players Association. Their grievances are familiar. Wages. Health care costs, etc. Building the symphony’s financial strength seems be the surest path toward safeguarding musicians’ pay and benefits. They know that. But labor talks historically aren’t settled by either side ceding a lot of ground too quickly. That’s worth remembering here.

Moving around the negotiating table, we believe it’s worth considering too the familiar name that’s in the background here. Woodruff.

Its presence today speaks to a legacy of civic and business involvement that saved the arts community here after a tragic jetliner crash in 1962. In the wake of the air accident in France that decimated the ranks of Atlanta’s arts patrons, the Robert Woodruff Foundation stepped up in a large way – the Arts Center’s own history calls it “astounding.” The Woodruff Foundation contributed $4 million to help keep Atlanta in the arts business.

Adjusted for inflation, that gift today, rounded off, amounts to $31.5 million-plus and 16 cents. Seen that way, the ASO’s $2 million deficit in fiscal 2014 comes into a different focus, we believe.

And it’s worth asking, for the sake of our region’s future, where are the additional organizations and individuals today who can write the checks and buy sponsorships, or even single tickets, to help carry the financial ledgers of the ASO and the Woodruff to the place befitting a city of our stature.

Given scant government funding of the arts here, it’s for now at least up to the private sector and arts patrons wealthy and otherwise to help span the gap. Doing so would offer a strong statement of belief in the power of the arts to transform, sustain and entertain metro Atlanta.

That, paired with a new, mutually equitable labor agreement, would transform the ASO into the stronger, higher-quality organization that both its musicians and fiduciary guardians want it to be.

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