Atlanta’s a great city. Ninth-largest metropolitan area in the US. We hosted the Olympics, won a world series, built a kick-ass aquarium. We’re home to some big industry leaders: Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Delta, CNN. We’ve been in the news a lot lately because we have the resources and the balls to treat ebola patients flown in from Africa.
We have chefs that win Food Network competitions, we’re rich in Civil War history, we have greater tree coverage than any other major city (36%, compared to the national average 27%). We have more streets with “Peachtree” in their name than we can handle.
I’m a bit biased; I’ve made Atlanta my home since 1994, which according to some, makes me a native. Or at least a local. I love Atlanta. Safe to say that the overwhelming majority of my ATL Symphony colleagues feel similarly.
I don’t mind visiting other cities, of course. But there’s nowhere I’d rather make my home than here. Not Denver, Baltimore, Cincinnati, D.C., Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Minnesota, Seattle, Asheville, Memphis, Boston, even New York.
These cities have their charms, and there’s something else they have: our musicians. See, since this reprehensible lockout perpetrated by the Woodruff Arts Center, parent organization of the Atlanta Symphony, the fine orchestras of these (and other) cities have been calling my colleagues to come and play, for a week, or a month, or a season. And we’re grateful for their offers, since here in Atlanta, we’re not being paid, we’re not getting the opportunities to bring great music to our community, we’re apparently not wanted by the very organization charged with nurturing and sustaining us. They won’t even let us in the building.
I know these orchestras (and others) have been calling, because as chair of the Concert Planning Sub-Committee, I’ve been trying to sign my colleagues up to play benefit concerts. And all of them tell me they’re eager to play – if they’re in town. But when your employer refuses to let you work, you do what you must to make ends meet. I don’t begrudge my colleagues a bit. When your skills are as specialized as ours, it’s not like you can just call a corporate headhunter and find something local.
So, what is it about these other cities that give them the resources to support a major symphony orchestra, while Atlanta allegedly cannot? Are they wealthier, more philanthropic? No, according to a 2012 Atlantic Cities Magazine study, Atlanta ranked 10th on their list of the 30 wealthiest U.S. cities. Atlanta ranks sixth in the nation in GDP. According to Charity Navigator, we rank 15th in total contributions to charity. We are the 17th largest economy in the world.
And our leadership claims that this city can’t support a major symphony orchestra?
Or is it that the Woodruff Arts Center doesn’t want to support a major symphony orchestra, an orchestra that has won 27 Grammy Awards, has made some of the most definitive recordings of some of the greatest works of musical art ever composed, an orchestra that brings culture and beauty and solace and exhilaration to thousands each year? Is it that coping sensibly with the ASO’s debt isn’t the best use of the WAC’s $103,000,000 of unrestricted net assets?
Is the WAC really so willing to let our treasured artistic talent migrate to other cities? Are they satisfied with the cultural contributions of Real Housewives and Honey Boo Boo? Those pillars of culture turn a profit, at least.
Is that why the WAC is so hostile to the symphony? Because great art isn’t worth supporting? Because we aspire to mediocrity? Because our city strives to be provincial, rather than “world-class”? After all, to borrow a phrase from WAC CEO Virginia Hepner, it’s up to anyone to decide what’s world-class, and what a great city should be.
Well, without a sea-change in leadership, Atlanta will keep losing its most talented musicians to orchestras with leadership that aspires to greatness. They’ll leave slowly at first, a week here, a week there, while the WAC steers the Titanic straight for the iceberg, because it’s much easier to pilot a lifeboat than an oceanliner. Before long, our musicians will find greener pastures, and the cities that hire them will be richer for it, and my city, my home, will be impoverished by their loss. And the WAC will have gotten their wish: an orchestra they don’t have to raise a dime for, or negotiate against, or ever worry about again.