Minnesota Orchestra’s next president and CEO is an Iowa native with a collaborative style. Michelle Miller Burns, former chief operating officer for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, will lead the state’s largest performing arts organization starting Sept. 1, the orchestra announced Tuesday.
Members of the search committee that unanimously picked Burns described her as a star executive with a style similar to Kevin Smith, the orchestra’s outgoing CEO. Board members, musicians and audiences credit Smith, who’s retiring Aug. 31, with mending divisions between musicians and management after a bitter lockout.
“She was the only candidate who had a concertmaster as one of her references,” noted Marilyn Carlson Nelson, chair of the orchestra’s board. Her background in development “gave us confidence that she could help us in fundraising,” she continued. Burns’ boss praised her administrative skills. And “the recommendation from the musician gave us confidence that she knew the musicians, worked with them and could be a collaborator with them.”
Burns, herself a violinist who played with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, praised the orchestra’s “Minnesota model, with collaborative decisionmaking and leadership structures that really appeal to me,” she said by phone Tuesday. “It is so consistent with my own leadership and management style.
“This is really what I want to be doing,” Burns added, “and it’s where I want to be doing it.”
Orchestras face increasing pressure to build revenue, increase diversity and attract younger audiences. Burns’ five-year contract with the orchestra means that she will likely lead the organization through a pair of big personnel challenges: The search for the next maestro, as music director Osmo Vänskä’s contract expires after the 2021-22 season, and the renewal of the musicians’ contract, set to expire in 2020.
At the Dallas Symphony, where Burns is executive vice president for institutional advancement, she also briefly served as interim president and CEO.
During her eight months at the helm, the orchestra finished the 2016-17 season with a balanced budget, “achieved an aggressive annual fund goal and ratified a new three-year contract with the orchestra’s musicians,” according to an article in the Dallas Morning News.
She has held key fundraising positions with the Chicago Symphony, where her administrative career began, and the Newberry Library.
Burns, 49, was born in Iowa and grew up in the Chicago area. Her parents live in Waterloo, so working in Minneapolis will bring Burns closer to them, “which makes my heart sing,” she said.
Burns will succeed Smith, a former Minnesota Opera leader who came out of retirement to become president in 2014. Under Smith’s leadership, the orchestra has touted three consecutive years of balanced budgets. Just as importantly, he’s helped the nonprofit build a culture that administrators and musicians say is more cooperative.
“I really respect the work that Kevin Smith has done,” Burns said, “and how he has just been such a catalyst for good and for healing. He has moved the organization forward in really positive and productive ways.
“It’s an honor to succeed him in this role.”
In August, Burns will join Smith and the orchestra for its five-city tour of South Africa as it becomes the first professional U.S. orchestra to tour that country.
Burns will become the second woman to lead the Minnesota Orchestra as its president. The first, Deborah Borda, led the orchestra from August 1990 to May 1991 after launching her career as CEO of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. She left Minnesota to run the New York Philharmonic in the 1990s, later making the Los Angeles Philharmonic the envy of the orchestra world before the New York orchestra recently lured her back.
A search committee of seven board members, five musicians and three staffers picked Burns from 50 candidates, eight of whom they interviewed. “We promised ourselves at the beginning that if we weren’t unanimous, we’d go back to the drawing board,” Nelson said. “We felt it was so important to have the support of all three groups.”
After winnowing the group to four finalists, who visited Minnesota for in-person interviews, the committee took an informal straw poll.
“And everyone wrote down Michelle,” Nelson said. “We were startled and pleased.”
Burns struck the committee as being open, transparent and easy to talk to, said Greg Milliren, a musician and member of the search committee. Thanks to Smith’s leadership, the orchestra is in “a revived state, a healthy state,” said Milliren, associate principal flute. He compared it to a bow and arrow, aimed at its target.
“He’s pulled the arrow back ... it’s up to us to release it.”