The scion who brought the Minnesota Orchestra to Cuba last year will soon lead its board.
Marilyn Carlson Nelson, former CEO of the hospitality giant Carlson Cos., will become the orchestra’s board chairwoman, the state’s largest performing arts organization announced Monday. Her two-year term starts in December.
The move follows years of rebuilding after a bitter labor dispute and lockout in 2012-14 — progress marked by last year’s historic trip to Cuba, the first by a major U.S. orchestra since relations thawed. Carlson Nelson and her husband, Glen, who died earlier this year, funded that trip’s nearly $1 million cost.
“The orchestra’s experiencing a renaissance,” she said by phone Monday. “It’s an opportunity to do some really wonderful things we couldn’t have done before.”
Carlson Nelson will help lead the orchestra during a “critical period,” said Kevin Smith, president and CEO. “We have rebounded fully and quickly from the lockout period. … Now we need to solidify that growth,” building the organization’s endowment, balancing the budget and expanding programming.
Smith added: “It’s a perfect match at a perfect time.”
Carlson Nelson, 77, currently co-CEO of Carlson Holdings, has a long history with the orchestra. She joined its board in 1973, and in 2006 was named a life director. At one point, Carlson Nelson was set to become the orchestra board’s chairwoman, but her father, Curt Carlson, the company’s founder, asked her to become its CEO. It was impossible to do both, she said. “In a way, this is unfinished business in my life.”
During the 16-month lockout over the musicians’ contract, Carlson Nelson played a key role, spearheading an effort to raise money for $20,000 bonuses in a proposal that musicians ended up rejecting.
“We all learned from the lockout,” Carlson Nelson said Friday. “It was just extraordinary that we were able to somehow come through and see each other with new eyes.”
These days, relations between board members and the orchestra’s 78 full-time musicians are strong, according to many. After the settlement in February 2014, Gordon Sprenger led the board, followed by Minneapolis attorney Warren Mack, the current board chairman.
Mack “has just gone above and beyond to really strengthen the bonds and the ties that Gordy worked to forge,” said violist Sam Bergman. “We’re at a place where our board members greet us with big smiles, and we do the same.”
Carlson Nelson is “the first one backstage” after each concert, talking with the musicians, Bergman said. He respects the work she’s done with Twin Cities arts institutions. “You could make an argument that without Marilyn ... the orchestra would not be what it is,” Bergman said. “We’d just be another midsize city with a midsize orchestra.
“Because of this dedication she and others have had to creating this outsized cultural scene ... we are the beneficiaries.”
He added: “We would not have gone to Cuba without Marilyn.”
Smith had come up with the idea of jetting to Cuba to perform, which “sounded a little wild and crazy at the moment.” But he knew that Marilyn and Glen were “the type of people who love ideas, who love to make things happen that are out of the ordinary,” he said. They also had a deep understanding of the orchestra and international travel, he added.
“We had about 24, 48 hours to come up with a million dollars to make that happen,” Smith said.
Word that Chicago and New York’s orchestras were vying to be first got the couple’s competitive juices flowing, Carlson Nelson said. “We needed to be able to say, we’re coming and we’re funded,” she said. “That would settle that.”
There, she witnessed musicians playing alongside young people, reminding everyone “how the orchestra can make a difference in people’s lives.”