Atlanta Symphony dreaming of new home
With the era of deficits and labor strife over, the Atlanta Symphony is dreaming of a new home
By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on March 8, 2019
As the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra prepares for its 75th anniversary season in 2019-2020, it is in sound financial shape – enabling the ASO to dream about a future home. There is growing momentum and consensus that it’s time to either build a new concert hall or drastically refurbish the existing Symphony Hall at the Woodruff Arts Center.
“There’s been a real turnaround – a tremendous transformation,” said Jennifer Barlament, executive director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra since 2016. For the past five years, the ASO has been operating without a deficit – a strong contrast to the period between 2000 and 2013. “The ASO was in the red for 14 years. Those were challenging years.” Those challenges included cutting the numbers of musicians, labor disputes and even a strike that delayed the start of the 2014 season.
The turnaround was aided by the Woodruff Arts Center $100 million capital campaign, which actually raised $112 million and was completed two years early. The campaign included $25 million to endow chairs for 11 ASO musicians.
“When we started the campaign, the orchestra was at 77 fulltime positions,” Barlament said. “At the end of the campaign, we had 88 positions.” Doug Hertz, immediate past chair of the Woodruff Arts Center who is president of United Distributors, chaired the last campaign and was in the middle of trying to resolve the dispute between the ASO and the musicians five years ago. “We had to make some very tough decisions, and most of those have worked out,” Hertz said. “There was a lot of trust that needed to be rebuilt and earned. The musicians deserve a lot of credit.”
The Woodruff campaign also included funds to completely transform the Alliance Theatre space. The High Museum of Art, which doubled its space in 2005, has completely reinstalled its permanent collection. And over the past decade, the Woodruff Arts Center has revamped its governance structure and its relationship with its three divisions.
“It’s time to consider the future of the symphony space,” said Doug Shipman, president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary. “The ASO staff and board are taking a close look to see what makes the most sense. We want to come up with the right answer for the Symphony.”
The Center is working on a new strategic plan that will include a new or refurbished home for the symphony as well as improvements on how the campus connects to the community. Shipman said the Center is in the planning stages for the next capital campaign to cover those improvements.
“You are much better off thinking about your hall when you are coming from a place of stability and have a stable business model,” Shipman said. “All the arts partners are stable.”
Both Barlament and Shipman talked about creating a Symphony Hall that was inviting to the outside world. Once recent example is the New World Center in Miami, where the concert hall includes an outdoor space where patrons can experience music in a laid-back way.
“It uses architecture to democratize the art form,” Barlament said. “Our imagination takes us to lots of places. We want to create greater transparency into the building. We would love for it to be more open and more welcoming.”Shipman said that’s a theme that’s running throughout the Center’s campus.
“When this place was built in 1968, it was trying to protect itself from the neighborhood,” Shipman said. “Now that’s the last thing we want to do. We want to make sure it interacts with Peachtree.”
Barlament said its important they propose a solution that has a high chance of success. Back in 2002, the ASO had commissioned Santiago Calatrava to design a new Symphony Hall between 14th and 15th streets between the Peachtrees. The elaborate design included architectural wings and was estimated to cost at least $300 million. Those plans were scrapped as key leaders believed it actually would cost much more and questioned whether Atlanta could afford such a hall. The Symphony’s poor financial state cast even greater doubt on the project.
Over the years, the ASO has received great critical acclaim. Yet the acoustics in the existing Symphony Hall inhibits the orchestra from sounding its best.“It’s time for the orchestra to have a better place to play,” Barlament said. “We need to either build a new hall or comprehensively renovate the existing Symphony Hall. We are running down all the options. It will probably be answered in the next six months.”
Hertz, however, is not convinced Atlanta needs a new Symphony Hall, believing the acoustics can be fixed by refurbishing the existing hall. But he said the decision should be up to the musicians and the ASO’s board.
“The major reason it hasn’t been done in the past was because there wasn’t financial stability in the operation,” Hertz said. “Why would you want to increase the deficit to build a brand new Symphony Hall. I can’t imagine any philanthropist wanting to invest in an operation that consistently runs significant deficits. Hopefully that paradigm has changed.”
Yoel Levi, who was ASO’s musical director from 1988 and 2000, was delighted to hear that Atlanta is reconsidering the possibility of building a new symphony hall.
“Atlanta deserves it, and the orchestra deserves it,” said Levi, who has seen new concert halls elevate the stature of cities around the world. “At the end of the day, it would be a great statement for Atlanta. You have an incredible stadium. Now it’s time to think about other cultural aspects of the city. But Atlanta’s concert hall needs to be exceptional; otherwise we are missing an opportunity. It needs to be at a level where it can compete with any hall in the country.”