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Minnesota Orchestra names new president and CEO

Michelle Miller Burns will arrive in August and will officially join the orchestra on Sept. 1; her initial contract is for five years.

Michelle Miller Burns will join a growing group of women who head major symphony orchestras in the United States.
Photo by Tracy Martin

The Minnesota Orchestra has a new president and CEO. Announced this morning by board chair Marilyn Carlson Nelson, chosen by a 15-member search committee led by Nancy Lindahl and Warren Mack, her name is Michelle Miller Burns, and she’s originally from Iowa by way of Chicago and Dallas. So she won’t mind the Minnesota weather.

Burns will join a growing group of women who head major symphony orchestras in the United States. Others include Deborah Borda, who became president and CEO of the New York Philharmonic in 2017 (Borda was CEO of the SPCO from 1987–89 and led the Minnesota Orchestra from August 1990 to May 1991); Kim Noltemy of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra; Jennifer Barlament, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; Melia Tourangeau, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; and Marie-Helène Bernard, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. 

Burns is currently the Dallas Symphony’s executive vice president for institutional advancement and chief operating officer. She previously served as interim president and CEO of the Dallas Symphony, held a senior fundraising role with the Newberry Library in Chicago and multiple positions with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Born in Marengo, Iowa, she began violin lessons at age four and later played with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra. She’s been with the Dallas Symphony since 2015. During her term as interim president and CEO, the symphony ratified a new three-year contract with its musicians, achieved its contributed revenue goal of $24 million and completed its 2016-17 season with a balanced budget.

“I am impressed by the artistry of Music Director Osmo Vänskä and the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra,” Burns said in a statement. “It is clear that they have a strong relationship with their audience and the community. There is a great spirit of collaboration throughout the organization, which is very appealing to me. The collaborative model that has been embraced by the Minnesota Orchestra reflects my own leadership style, which is transparent and open to a wide range of perspectives and input.”

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Said Vänskä, “Michelle understands where we have come from as an organization and she shares our vision for where we want to go. She cultivates strong relationships with musicians and collaborators, and I look forward to partnering with her as we plan for the Minnesota Orchestra’s future.”

Burns succeeds Kevin Smith, who will retire as president and CEO on Aug. 31. She will find the orchestra much different from when Smith joined it. When he first signed on as interim president in May 2014, lured out of retirement, the orchestra had just emerged from a 15-month lockout so bad that the New York Times dubbed it a “near death experience.”

Burns will arrive here in August, just in time to join the orchestra on its history-making, five-city South Africa tour. Her official start date is Sept. 1, and her initial contract is for five years.