The Minnesota Orchestra, mired in a disastrous lockout a year ago, continued its healing process Wednesday with a key leadership hire.
Kevin Smith, who won warm reviews for his performance since taking over as interim president and CEO in August, agreed to continue through the 2017-18 season
“It was not in my original plan, but I thought: Why not, it’ll be an adventure,” the former Minnesota Opera chief said Wednesday.
His appointment completes a year in which the orchestra settled a contract with musicians after the 16-month lockout, rehired music director Osmo Vänskä, enjoyed a spike in philanthropy and embarked on its first full season of programming since the fall of 2011.
Smith took over from Michael Henson, the former CEO who became a lightning rod for criticism during the labor turmoil and stepped down under pressure.
The board had launched a search for a new president and Smith told leaders that he did not consider himself a candidate. However, his performance was considered so extraordinary that the board asked him to stay.
Board Chairman Gordon Sprenger said Smith’s willingness to collaborate with many constituencies — board, administration, musicians, community groups — and his deep relationships in the arts community made him an excellent candidate.
“This isn’t taking second-best,” Sprenger said. “Kevin exceeded my expectations and we felt that if there was anyone who could help us find solutions, this was the guy right now.”
Smith, 63, retired in 2011 after 25 years as president of the Minnesota Opera and had been consulting with other companies around the nation when Sprenger approached him last summer.
Henson agreed in March to step down at the end of the fiscal year after his position became untenable. Vänskä had called for Henson’s resignation to help the orchestra heal from the bruising dispute that ended in January, when musicians agreed to a 15 percent pay cut.
Attractive track record
Smith developed relationships in the Twin Cities arts community and nationally in classical music circles over a quarter-century with the opera. He took an organization that had annual deficits and pushed it to solvency on budgets that reached roughly $9 million by the time of his retirement. (In comparison, the Minnesota Orchestra has a $29 million budget this year.)
Attendance nearly doubled during his tenure. He also helped to spearhead the company’s New Works Initiative, a seven-year program that dedicated $7 million to produce new or seldom-heard works. “Silent Night,” which won a Pulitzer Prize for composer Kevin Puts, was among the operas that resulted from the initiative. Others included John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” last season and the upcoming “The Manchurian Candidate.”
Smith quickly won the trust of all constituencies at the orchestra when he arrived in August. Significantly, Dianne Brennan also was hired as head of development, bringing with her 15 years of experience and contacts as the Guthrie Theater’s chief fundraiser. The organization announced in August the receipt of $13 million in donations that were targeted for endowment.
“The guy really has made a magical turn in terms of a positive influence on the entire institution,” said Sprenger.
Smith said in August that he anticipated a fiscal 2014 deficit of just under $1 million. On Wednesday, he said figures look even better now, following a strong year-end close in contributions and ticket income.
“It’s an amazingly resilient organization,” he said. Final figures will be announced Dec. 2 when the orchestra holds its annual meeting.
Challenges facing Smith include another round of contract talks with musicians, whose deal ends in 2017, and the future of Vänskä, who is signed through the 2015-16 season.
“We want to start sooner rather than later with the musicians,” Smith said. “We need to have a clear financial picture moving forward to show what we can offer. They know that, we know that.”
Principal cellist Anthony Ross, co-chair of the musicians’ Artistic Advisory Committee, said in a statement that “the musicians are delighted” by Smith’s hiring.
Smith said that he has enjoyed working with Vänskä but that the board ultimately makes the decision on whether to extend the music director’s deal. In a statement, Vänskä said he has been “impressed by Kevin’s ability to listen and to bring people together.”
Smith said the orchestra hopes to revive a recording project of Sibelius symphonies that was suspended by the lockout. Tours could be possible next year, but he cautioned those announcements are two to three months away.
“We want to get the orchestra fully back up on its feet,” he said.
Sprenger, who did not say whether he will continue as board chair, sounded almost incredulous at the journey the organization has made in the past year.
“We really have come a long way,” he said.