ASO musicians: Woodruff board chief Hertz willing to ‘break the backs of employees’

Woodruff Arts Center Governing Board Chairman Douglas Hertz. CONTRIBUTED BY WOODRUFF ARTS CENTER.

Woodruff Arts Center Governing Board Chairman Douglas Hertz. CONTRIBUTED BY WOODRUFF ARTS CENTER

The heated words between leaders of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players’ Association and ASO and Woodruff Arts Center management took a harsh turn on Friday, with the musicians’ union releasing a statement sharply critical of Woodruff Arts Center Governing Board Chairman Douglas Hertz.

The statement, included in its entirety below, charges that Hertz is more interested in cutting full-time ASO musician positions than he is “in securing financial stability or in preserving the high artistic standards of the institution he has a duty as a steward to serve and protect.”

The Woodruff responded shortly with a statement by its president and CEO, Virginia Hepner. “We are saddened that they are attempting to disparage the reputation of Doug Hertz, our chairman,” she said in the statement, also  included in its entirety below. “He is widely recognized as one of the most successful and generous leaders in Atlanta and we feel extremely fortunate to have his ongoing support.”

In addition to his Woodruff role, Atlanta native Hertz, president and CEO of United Distributors, a beverage distribution company, is a board leader or member for organizations including Camp Twin Lakes, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and the Westminster Schools.

The volley of statements could be the final dissonant notes between the two sides for a while.

The U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service announced later Friday afternoon that it would provide mediation services in the contract dispute and musician lockout that has spanned four weeks.

Typically, mediators move quickly to make both sides save their words for the negotiating table and to stop staking positions in the press and on social media.

The statement by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players’ Association:

ASO Players' Association president Paul Murphy.

ASO Players’ Association president  Paul Murphy, ASO associate principal viola.

“During the many months of negotiations that preceded the present lockout of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Musicians by the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC), numerous sources within the WAC shared with the Musicians several long-term strategic plan ideas for the ASO that were being quietly discussed among WAC Governing Board members.  If implemented, these plans would permanently downsize the Grammy award-winning Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, destroying the prestigious reputation it has earned through decades of professional excellence. 

“During the summer of 2013, it was suggested multiple times both by Stanley Romanstein, the recently departed President and CEO of the ASO, and Virginia Hepner, the WAC’s current President and CEO, that the number of full-time tenured musicians of the ASO should be permanently reduced, and resulting vacancies could be filled with alumni from the ASO’s Talent Development Program (TDP), who would perform in an “internship” capacity.  This suggestion was meant to replicate the design of the New World Symphony – a program dedicated to preparing highly gifted graduates of distinguished music programs for leadership roles in professional orchestras and ensembles around the world.  In addition to elevating the TDP – and capitalizing on the funding that educational programs such as the New World Symphony and TDP sometimes enjoy – this proposal was designed to reduce musician expenses; the WAC/ASO expected to give these “interns” a small stipend for their efforts, instead of salary and benefits at all commensurate with that of full-time ASO Musicians. 

“In March of 2014, ASO Board Chair Karole Lloyd suggested to the ASOPA committee a two-tiered salary system, relegating all new members of the ASO to a severely reduced compensation package for the duration of their “probationary” periods with the Orchestra.  Unlike in other professions, orchestra musicians are not hired with the expectation that they will grow into their jobs; a musician unable to consistently perform at the highest artistic level will likely not even win an audition, let alone achieve tenure.  To demand that one musician be paid substantially less than his or her colleagues, all while performing the same work under the same intense pressure, exposes a profound deficit of understanding of professional musicianship on the part of the ASO’s Board Chair, Karole Lloyd. 

“Numerous ASO staff and Board members have told us that these ideas seem to have originated with the leadership of the Woodruff Arts Center Governing Board, including Board Chair Douglas Hertz.  Mr. Hertz, who has a fine record of philanthropic work, also has an unfortunate history of trying to eliminate tenured positions within a workforce to reduce expenses.  

“Douglas Hertz was serving on the Tulane University Board of Administrators when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005.  In response to the financial problems the hurricane caused, Tulane then-President Scott Cowan proposed to eliminate tenured faculty at the university, and replace existing faculty members with less expensive, non-tenured new hires.  This action was supported by the Tulane Board of Administrators, including Douglas Hertz, and the despite numerous lawsuits that ensued, notifications of release were issued to approximately 200 faculty members in December 2005.  This action led to the immediate censure of Tulane University by the American Association of University Professors.

“Mr. Hertz’s Tulane University scenario is strikingly similar not only to the two strategic plan ideas described earlier for the ASO, but it also foreshadows one of the conditions of the “Last, Best, and Final Offer” that the WAC/ASO emailed to ASO Musicians on September 5, 2014.  In this offer, the WAC proposed a “voluntary retirement incentive” in the amount of $150,000 to any Musician who had given over 30 years of service to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.  This offer, in conjunction with the WAC’s refusal to stipulate any minimum number of players – or complement size – required by the ASO, is a thinly veiled attempt to reduce the size of the orchestra, and reduce the costs associated with more established, longer-serving Musicians.  This element of the WAC’s proposal also paves the way for the creation of the “internship” orchestra that was suggested earlier; by steadfastly adhering to the need for a “flexible complement,” as the WAC has done in every one of its proposals, it is entirely possible that the WAC Governing Board Leadership is laying the foundation to replace seasoned Musicians with less experienced, less expensive “interns,” similar to what Mr. Hertz helped to do with the professors at Tulane University.  Lastly, if every eligible Musician were to accept this buy-out, it would cost the WAC $3.75 million, which well exceeds the amount necessary over the expired agreement to fund the Musicians’ proposal of September 6th in its entirety. 

“Additionally, Douglas Hertz has taken pains to remind the community that the ASO has been posting deficits for twelve consecutive years, and that the ASO “cannot have what it cannot pay for.”  However, those deficits cannot be attributed to the Musicians, whose compensation has historically come in UNDER budget.  It is the job of the ASO & WAC Boards and their staffs to raise the funds to support the ASO.  Have the fundraising goals been raised to meet the needs of the ASO?  The Musicians’ job is always to perform at the highest level of artistry, which has been demonstrated year after year.  Furthermore, the Musicians have made tremendous sacrifices over the years in efforts to mitigate the institution’s financial problems.  In 2004, the Musicians negotiated six months early to relinquish a contractual raise, which resulted in the extension of the then-current wage for an additional year and a half.  In 2009, the Musicians volunteered a 5% cut in compensation.  In 2012, the Musicians agreed to a 15% reduction in annual salaries, a reduction of full-time Musicians, and a reduction in the length of our season. 

“If the WAC and its Governing Board Chair Douglas Hertz are truly only interested in achieving a balanced budget, the Musicians have demonstrated through their previous actions a willingness to be a part of the solution.  In contrast, Douglas Hertz’s previous actions demonstrate a willingness to break the backs of employees to achieve further financial concessions.  The past and present actions of Douglas Hertz suggest that he is more interested in reducing the number of professional musicians in the ASO than he is either in securing financial stability or in preserving the high artistic standards of the institution he has a duty as a steward to serve and protect.”

The response from Woodruff Arts Center president and CEO Virginia Hepner:

Woodruff Arts Center CEO Virginia Hepner. KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Woodruff Arts Center president and CEO Virginia Hepner. KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

“The protracted financial challenges at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra are very serious and threaten the health of the entire Woodruff Arts Center.   The ASO has had 12 years of accumulated deficits, a severe reduction in its endowment and an annual operating gap that we cannot afford to continue. Over the last eight months, our team has proposed many potential scenarios to the musicians in an attempt to find a solution to the problem. We continue to ask the musicians for constructive ideas to help us address these challenges and we are frustrated that they have turned a deaf ear to the situation. We are saddened that they are attempting to disparage the reputation of Doug Hertz, our chairman.  He is widely recognized as one of the most successful and generous leaders in Atlanta and we feel extremely fortunate to have his ongoing support at The Woodruff Arts Center. Our fervent hope is that a federal mediator will bring calm to the protests, picketing and petitions and get us back to meaningful progress at the negotiating table.”


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