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Interim CEO describes changes in programming, staff and culture at Minnesota Orchestra

Kevin Smith was at Southdale Library for the second of two public sessions. He spoke with refreshing frankness about the orchestra’s past, present and future.

Interim Orchestra president and CEO Kevin Smith addressed a crowd of 50 at Southdale Library on Wednesday.
MinnPost photo by John Whiting

“Today was a big day for the Minnesota Orchestra,” incoming interim president and CEO Kevin Smith told a crowd of about 50 at Southdale Library last night. First came a meeting with Michael Kaiser, outgoing president of the Kennedy Center and consultant to various arts organizations (including Penumbra Theatre). Kaiser had asked to address a representative group of board members, musicians and staff members. “Originally, this was going to be at the Minneapolis Club,” Smith said. “We moved it to the stage of Orchestra Hall, which was really interesting. It was the first time such a large group of musicians, staff and board members had gotten together since Tony Woodcock [Michael Henson’s predecessor], when Osmo first joined the orchestra, and that would have been nine years ago. Getting everybody together was really moving … . There’s a very positive spirit about the organization that, quite honestly, I wouldn’t have seen a month or two ago.”

Then came the news about the $10 million leadership gift from a donor who wishes to remain anonymous, announced at a board meeting later that day. Earlier this summer, the orchestra received gifts totaling $3.2 million from three additional donors. In July, a grassroots CommUNITY Challenge netted $285,000 from 750 individual donors.

For an orchestra that suffered a horrible 15-month labor dispute, lost musicians, staff and board members, lost (and rehired) its artistic director, and has seen big changes in management, the gifts are votes of confidence in the way things are going under Smith and new board chair Gordon Sprenger. And it’s not just donors who feel that way. As Smith said, “Optimism is taking over the culture of the orchestra.”

New openness

Smith was at Southdale Library for the second of two public sessions hosted by Save Our Symphony Minnesota (SOSMN). He spoke with refreshing frankness about the orchestra’s past, present and future, taking questions from the audience and listening to comments from people still stung by recent events. That he agreed to the sessions signals a new openness and transparency that didn’t exist before or during the lockout. “The culture of the organization was a little enclosed and always worried about who was going to say what and what we should say,” he said. “We’re opening up intentionally and sharing information.”

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Smith shared both financial and organizational information in broad terms. The orchestra had less of a deficit this year than previously anticipated and stronger ticket sales for both the classical concerts and Sommerfest. Robert Neu has resigned as general manager, and Smith has restructured the artistic department as a single working unit. “The programming for the organization is going to be holistic. We’re not going to pit the classical programming against the pops programming.” On Sept. 6, the day after the gala benefit concert with guest artist Renée Fleming, orchestra staff, musicians, artistic director Osmo Vänskä and consultants with expertise in artistic planning will meet to plan the 2015–16 season. “We’re trying to put a whole team together, we’re trying to get everybody to work together, and we’re trying to do the artistic planning and the financial planning in a way that is not threatening.”

In response to questions, Smith addressed other issues including programming, marketing, branding, and getting audiences excited about coming to the orchestra. Here are some highlights from the 90-minute meeting:

A shift back to classical

The shift away from classical toward more pops concerts, which rankled a lot of people, has been halted and reversed. The business plan before the lockout called for 16 weeks of classical subscription concerts. It’s now 24. “The matrix we’re using moving forward is 24 subscription weeks. In addition to that, a touring week, and probably a recording week.”

The marketing budget has been increased. “You are going to see a visual outdoor image that you haven’t seen before.” Starting next month, watch for orchestra ads on buses, at transit stops, and on banners around downtown Minneapolis.

The new branding will be tweaked. “It’s very nice, very clean, very professional, but we’re missing something. Where’s the art? Where’s the joy? … Throughout the season, you’ll see a transformation. More visual impact from the ads. A focus on Osmo and the musicians. We’ll try to get away from this corporate, institutional view.”

What about the healing that needs to take place between musicians and board after months of acrimony? “It’s a big issue. Three or four times a week, something happens that reminds you how deep the emotions are. It gets better every day, but there’s a lot of work to be done.” Sprenger has put together a Liaison Committee of board members, musicians, Smith, and [development VP] Dianne Brennan for the purpose of in-depth, heart-to-heart discussions. “Once board members hear the musicians tell their side of the story, they often go, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that!’ A lot of this is just a matter of communicating. These are good people who, I’m convinced, wanted good things to happen, but it just didn’t go too well.”

Search is on for new CEO

Does “interim” really mean “interim”? It does. A search committee and two search firms are already working on finding a new president and CEO. Plans are to begin interviewing potential candidates before the end of the year. “I imagine that I’ll be around for most of this season. I’m here on a month-to-month basis and I’ve said I’m not a candidate for the permanent position, but I certainly want to fill in until the right person is there. This could take a while, and it kind of scares me, because I’m getting kind of old for this. But it is moving forward.”

And what about the lobby, which some have found too corporate and sterile?

“When you go to Orchestra Hall,” Smith said, “I want you to walk into the lobby and have the lobby look different, feel different. I want you to be surprised now and then. The experience needs to be much more alive, more inventive and invigorating …We’re talking about new lighting systems to provide color and shape. Cut-outs of musicians. All sorts of things. Maybe a couple of plants.” At this, the audience laughed.