Atlanta boss gets a bonus for the jobs he cuts

The musicians have been out on the picket line today in Atlanta, Georgia, boosted by free coffee and doughnuts from members of the public.

atlanta musicians

Behind the scenes, the ASO and its president ‘Dr Stanley E. Romanstein, PhD’ are digging in for a protracted lockout. Romanstein needs the stoppage to last a long time because he’ll never get another job in music once it’s over. And here’s one reason why.

The violinist Emily E. Hogstad, who provided brilliant insights into the Minnesota dispute in its time, has been reading the balance sheets of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. What she has come up with is a couple of nuggets of pure gold (you might use an earthier noun when you’ve read her discoveries here).

Emily reports that two years ago – the last time ‘Dr’ Romanstein ransacked the musicians’ pay packets and threatened their jobs, the president was awarded a $45,000 bonus by a grateful board. That is money you might think would have been better spent building a stronger orchestra. You might think that; we couldn’t possibly comment.

But Romanstein’s reward is Jimmy Carter peanuts when set beside the annual bonus paid to his predecessor, Alison Vulgamore – a bonus of $169,101 on top of her annual salary, bringing her total take-home to $600,000.

And this was paid to her at a time the orchestra was running a deficit the size of a small oil well.

Alison hightailed it soon after to Philadelphia, leaving behind a black hole and a grim tradition of giving undeserved rewards to failed executives. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is in a helluva mess. None of it is the fault of the musicians, who are being made to pay.

And there’s no sign the ridiculous ‘doctor’ plans to take any of his own medicine in cuts and sutures.

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  • It’s as though there is a surgical procedure undergone by CEOs that completely removes the conscience…I can’t imagine how they’d sleep at night if they had one.
    Accepting even one dollar when you’re trumpeting deficits and locking out employees is immoral to the bone.

  • Radical surgery: cut out the CEO and board, if necessary. For the ASO: hand in mass resignation, and start a new entity from scratch. Will be interesting to see whether Atlanta’s citizens are interested in having a symphony orchestra in their community. I know this sounds unrealistic, but nevertheless I like to entertain this scenario, however fleetingly. A friend of mine and I had dinner a few nights ago, and we discussed the ASO lockout. My friend suspects, given the eerie similarities to Minnesota and the recent battles at the Met, that there is a certain management consulting firm advising performing arts organizations’ boards – with the disastrous outcomes for all to see (or deny). Is there any evidence for such a thing? I can’t rule it out entirely. If this is the case, then more terror will emerge as time goes by, in many more places. Grim indeed.

    • Part of the issue with resign/reform is coming up with a place to perform. In Atlanta, the hall is owned by the Woodruff, and I don’t think they would like rent it to a reconstituted Atlanta orchestra. So then the issue is finding a hall that will be available often enough for the orchestra to have a decent season. Maybe a smaller season with a smaller group at a cheaper price-wait-that’s what the Woodruff/ASO board is asking for!

    • Well, the SAME “New York” law firm advised two orchestras (MN O and SPCO), a pro hockey team, and a large agricultural firm on their simultaneous lockouts here in Minnesota. And there was plenty of communication between Detroit (scene of an earlier lockout) and Minneapolis, and perhaps between Minneapolis and Atlanta recently. No surprise there.

    • Who has the connections to the money? The donors? Some frequent audience? As terrible as this board is, the orchestra still needs it. Can you imagine how chaotic an orchestra would be if it was self run? I don’t think breaking away would be a great idea- I think efforts need to be made immediately to repair relations with the board members. Efforts need to be made so that everyone is on the same page – I honestly believe that it can be done.

  • What I wonder is why the musicians themselves don’t have more control over the way their orchestra is run? I see it as an organizational flaw, that these bonuses can be awarded without the knowledge or consent of the musicians. I’m sure the donors are none too pleased that this is where their money is going, too. It’s parasitic.

    If these people were doing a first-class job of raising money for the orchestra, then I could see them reaping the benefits of a job well done. But how can they get paid so much to fail so miserably? And then balance the budget on the backs of the musicians? Sick. Truly sick.

  • According to the Woodruff Arts Center’s 2011 tax return, Romanstein was the third-highest compensated employee of the Center. His $380,344 in reportable compensation only trailed that of Michael Shapiro, Director of the High Museum, and Robert Spano, the Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony. This information can be found through the public database on guidestar.org. A free user account is required to view this information.

    It’s noteworthy that the Woodruff Arts Center had a substantial deficit in 2011: $17.9 million on revenues of $102 million.

  • Whatever Romanstein’s role in this and whether he was right or wrong to accept his bonuses, the arrows should be aimed very firmly towards the orchestra’s utterly ineffective Board that no doubt has little interest in protecting the orchestra’s future. Are there no sanctions that can be brought against Board members who fail so spectacularly in their stewardship?

    • Not sure what you mean, Nick. The board members draft their own bylaws. They’re in charge of measuring their stewardship’s success or failure. Therefore, they have to be publicly addressed en masse. (Behind the scenes and off the record, however, is where progress can be made.)
      As for Romanstein: he was specifically morally wrong to accept one dollar of bonuses. Wrong. Fresh off a lockout and preparing for another, he was wrong to do it.

      • My comment about Board sanctions was more a desperate hope than a realistic one!

        In the USA Board membership of a high profile arts organisation like an orchestra is a much sought-after position. It affords members considerable social perks within their communities. In return, in addition to contributing cash, those who agree to join should surely be made to sign some form of agreement whereby they acknowledge that the orchestra is of paramount importance in that community. It therefore should be their direct responsibility not just to draft policies and engage suitably qualified individuals as CEO and Music Director, but also to supervise and monitor their activities to ensure that they protect the interests of the key employees – the musicians.

        Any Board that has permitted deficits to occur for 12 years in a row, despite significant salary reductions and dropping 10 weeks from musicians’ contracts, is clearly hopelessly irresponsible. Vulgamore should have been fired long before she elected to leave and Romanstein is obviously hopelessly ineffective as the replacement CEO. I wonder if any of that Board actually realise this!

  • It’s not just orchestra boards that are turning against their institutions. Just last month a judge allowed the Corcoran Gallery of Art in DC to commit suicide as the board of directors wished. There must be some kind of venture capitalist “conspiracy” to stuff these boards, make tons of money in the process, and kill off the host. Just like in the corporate world. Just like Romney did with Bain Capital. Mergers and acquisitions, poison pills…it’s all coming to an arts organization near you.

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