PSO gets gift to support raises for musicians

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The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra received a $1.2 million donation from Michele and Pat Atkins to support wage increases under the musicians' new contract, the orchestra announced Monday.

A gift restricted to musicians' salaries alone appears to be the first of its kind for the PSO and symphony orchestras more broadly.

"I think that the Atkins' gift was unprecedented in terms of its uniqueness and the fact that it hasn't been done anywhere else, to my knowledge," said James A. Wilkinson, president and CEO of the PSO.

The labor agreement reached in June included salary increases, but it wasn't clear how the PSO would pay for them since it was projecting a deficit. This gift will not make up for the entire deficit but is part of the orchestra's efforts to balance its books and offer competitive salaries.

The restricted gift will be distributed over the next three years. Under the new contract, negotiated a year early, the musicians will receive a 4 percent wage increase in 2013-14, a wage freeze in 2014-15 and a 3 percent increase in 2015-16.

The increases will make up for some of the 9.7 percent in cuts the orchestra members took under the previous contract. This year's base salary will be approximately $104,000.

Mr. and Mrs. Atkins, who live in Point Breeze and are longtime PSO concertgoers, decided to direct their gift to the musicians after learning that they had taken the salary cut and donated $200,000 over two years to the PSO's annual fund.

Mrs. Atkins said that, on learning about the musicians' gift to the orchestra, "we turned to each other and said, 'We have to help these people. They have to be recognized for what they've done.' " .

They decided to donate an amount that would replace one year of what the musicians, members of Local 60-471 of the American Federation of Musicians, had lost -- $1.2 million, by the couple's calculation.

The couple originally moved to Pittsburgh in 1972 from Texas, when Mr. Atkins, 71, started work as a consultant at Alcoa. He became the company's director of environmental affairs, and they briefly moved to New York in 2000 before returning to Pittsburgh in 2006. He now works as an operating partner at Pegasus Capital Advisors, a private equity firm in New York.

Mrs. Atkins, 68, has a career in nonprofit management, having served as the president and CEO of the regional Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Braddock-based Heritage Community Initiatives, with which the PSO has worked on previous volunteer projects.

The early contract settlement and large donation are a bright spot in a series of tense negotiations and financial belt-tightening at orchestras across the country. In the last few years, symphonies from Philadelphia to San Francisco have undergone bankruptcies, strikes and lockouts that have interrupted seasons and strained labor relations.

The PSO is in the midst of a capital campaign to make up for an approximately $3.5 million deficit on a roughly $31 million budget in the last fiscal year, although Mr. Wilkinson believes that deficit estimate to be high.

The orchestra had cultivated a relationship with the Atkinses for a long time, said Jodi Weisfield, vice president of donor relations. But when Mr. Wilkinson arranged a meeting with them, "it was actually to ask for a gift that was much smaller to our annual fund," he said.

"It was their initiative. This was the type of gift they wanted to make to reward the musicians for everything they do for the orchestra and the community," Ms. Weisfield said.

The Atkinses did not want the gift to directly influence labor negotiations, Mr. Atkins said. While they offered to donate the gift directly to the musicians, the orchestra members opted to have the PSO manage it.

"It was the basis for us to be in a position to grant a wage increase at this time," Mr. Wilkinson said.

The gift will support the PSO's efforts to move out of the red by 2015. If it balances its budget by 2015, it will receive the "sizable carrot" of a $5 million gift from the Heinz Endowments, Ms. Weisfield said.

Additionally, if the PSO achieves a balanced budget for three years in a row, it will become eligible to receive the last $12 million of a $29.5 million gift from the Simmons Family Foundation, given to the PSO in 2006.

To make up the rest of that deficit, the PSO plans to increase revenue rather than cut expenses, including selling more tickets, raising ticket prices, increasing annual fund giving and making money on tours.

"We're very definitely approaching the future as one that's revenue driven," Mr. Wilkinson said.

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Elizabeth Bloom: First Published July 8, 2013 7:15 PM


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