The Association of British Orchestras was founded in 1948 as the Orchestral Employers' Association, primarily to negotiate with the Musicians' Union and other bodies on behalf of its membership, which consisted almost entirely at that time of those orchestras receiving annual funding from the newly established Arts Council of Great Britain. It changed its name in 1973 to the Association of British Orchestras. The ABO continues to negotiate the ABO/MU Freelance Orchestral Agreement with the MU and represent its membership in discussions and negotiations with a number of other national and international organisations.
The past decades have seen a substantial development in the organisation in terms of its size (an increase from 35 in 1989 to over 175 organisations in membership today) and its role, which has expanded to include a diverse range of activities designed to support the development of the UK's orchestral life. The ABO now has an extensive programme of events from Specialist Managers Meetings to Courses and Seminars and the Annual Conference
In past years, the Association of British Orchestras has developed a role as co-ordinator of various national projects, including major initiatives involving the participation of a large number of member orchestras. As a champion of the education and community work of the UK's orchestras, one of the ABO's key objectives has been the support and development of this core area of work. A series of nationally co-ordinated education projects over the past years resulted in a well established Orchestras in Education programme, which existed to promote the education work of member orchestras and to develop the relationship between schools, teachers and orchestral players.
The Association of British Orchestras has also mounted a number of research initiatives, with a series of important industry reports being produced, such as regular statistical surveys of the UK's orchestras, and highly influential reports on environmental sustainability and noise damage to musicians.