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New SPCO president knows the neighborhood

Proximity has its advantages. In the case of Sarah Lutman, the new president and managing director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the advantages she brings from proximity are particularly propitious.

For nearly two decades, Lutman has worked within the same four-block area in downtown St. Paul. Starting in 1990 she spent almost a decade with the Bush Foundation, which means she is well-versed in the funding networks that nonprofit organizations like the SPCO depend upon to pay their bills.

Then from 1999 onward, Lutman skipped a few blocks over to Minnesota Public Radio, where she eventually became senior vice president of content and media for MPR and its national programming brand, American Public Media. In case you didn’t know, American Public Media is the largest broadcaster of classical music in the country. Talk about connections.

In December, Lutman replaces the SPCO’s beloved administrative chief, Bruce Coppock, who had to step down last summer because of illness. Under Coppock’s decade-long watch, the orchestra eliminated an $800,000 debt, doubled its endowment to about $40 million and increased its attendance.

Sarah Lutman
St. Paul Chamber Orchestra
Sarah Lutman

It also demonstrated that it could function — and, indeed, thrive — as a kind of collective system without a grand pooh-bah music director who calls all the shots. Instead, orchestra musicians serve on an “artistic vision” committee, collaborating with five artistic partners (right now they’re conductors Roberto Abbado, Douglas Boyd and Nicolas McGegan, pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and soprano Dawn Upshaw). The orchestra also has a number of artistic and administrative staffers and a traditional board of directors.

But the difference in the way the SPCO functions can be seen visually at every concert. Unlike orchestras that shuffle on stage, tune up and then wait for the maestro to come out to applause, the 35 members of the SPCO march onto the stage as a group — as if to say, “We ARE this band.”

Lutman is very familiar with how the SPCO functions — “from the outside,” she said.

“Now we’ll find out what it’s like on the inside,” she added.

Coming full circle
And I think it also helps that she’s a washed-up musician. During an interview, we joked about the similarities in our musical “careers.” In my case, I abandoned the graduate school of music at Indiana University after I realized that the world could function adequately without another mediocre musician trying to turn into a musicologist.

Born in Michigan, Lutman was a bassoonist in San Francisco when she had a similar epiphany. “I discovered that people who made a living (as performers) were better at what they do than I am,” she said.

At the time, however, she was organizing small ensembles and putting on concerts. In other words, she was creating jobs for herself and other musicians. “I found out that I was pretty decent at it,” she explained. “That’s how I got into administration in the first place.”

Her career since has included a number of milestones. In San Francisco, where she was executive director of the Fleishacker Foundation, she co-founded and edited Grantmakers in the Arts, a journal for the national arts grant-making community. At MPR, she earned two Peabody Awards for programs she produced in collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony. She also played a major role in launching MPR’s alternative music station, 89.3 The Current, in 2005.

So why take on the SPCO, now celebrating its 50th season? “For me, it’s coming full circle in my career,” Lutman said. “I started out as a musician and now it’s back to management in music. It’s a homecoming of sorts.”

And she added, “Obviously, I’m coming back into music administration with some experiences that I hope will be really creative and interesting.”

She’s also excited about what she calls the SPCO’s “inspiring and concise strategic plan.”

“They have big goals,” Lutman said. “One is to create a distinctive artistic profile. That may not sound that big on the surface, but think about what is required to do that on the global landscape.”

Another goal is the creation of new audiences to replace gnarly old people like me when the time comes. To do that, the SPCO launched an “access program” that provides $10 tickets for patrons 17 or younger and $20 tickets for those who are 30 years or younger. Moreover, the orchestra’s longtime “Music on the Go” programs have emphasized concerts in neighborhoods as well as the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.

It seems to be working. “Attendance is up and that’s not exactly the national trend for most of the country,” Lutman said.

But challenges are always looming, Lutman said. Indeed, she takes over the SPCO at a time when it is just as vulnerable as most other nonprofits to the impact of worldwide financial turmoil. Besides, the art world always is characterized by bumpy rides.

“That’s what makes it worthwhile,” Lutman said. “It’s exciting to be part of an organization that knows what it wants to do and is willing to take some risks to get there.”

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