The Ordway Center for the Performing Arts has a new leader: Jamie Grant, 55, who got his start in Toronto and now runs a performing arts center in Austin, Texas.
When he begins as president and CEO sometime in the spring, Grant will succeed Patricia Mitchell, who steered the Ordway for the past eight years as it smoothed out relations with once-fractious tenants and added a 1,100-seat concert hall to its 1,900-seat main stage.
Mitchell, who retired Dec. 31, has agreed to stay on for a few extra months as a consultant, Ordway board chairman Robert Cattanach said Monday.
“I was really nervous about who would succeed Patricia, who has been a superstar,” Cattanach said. “But I’m really glad that we were able to get Jamie. He’s got a lot of energy, is a really good listener and is an inspiring person to lead us in our next chapter.”
Grant comes from the Long Center in Austin, which includes a 2,400-seat main stage, a 229-seat black box and a 2,000-seat outdoor venue. It opened in 2008, just as the economy was cratering, and immediately was beset by start-up problems. It was losing money until Grant was hired in September 2011.
He cut expenses and increased revenue, annually balancing a budget that grew from $7 million to $11 million last year. Audiences grew at a similar clip, to more than 400,000 patrons last year for such companies as the Austin Symphony Orchestra, Ballet Austin and the Austin Opera.
Michael Barnes, a columnist at the Austin American-Statesman, said Grant turned around the Long Center. “He’s helped it develop beyond its founding culture to reach a kind of stability to the point where it can now be innovative and face its future from a position of strength,” Barnes said.
The Ordway, which drew just under 400,000 patrons last year, has a budget of $15 million and three principal arts partners: the Minnesota Opera, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Schubert Club.
“For those of us in the field, the Ordway is a beacon and plum in an exciting community with a great focus on the arts,” Grant said.
He has broad ideas of what he’d like to accomplish — to bring more people in and tie the Ordway more deeply to a rapidly diversifying community. But first, Grant said, “you have to go and be a really good listener. There’s always a learning curve in any new opportunity and the key is to understand what the needs are and how to best serve them.”
The Ordway’s Cattanach said Grant did impressive work on the financial end, adding that “Jamie knows the importance of getting along ... . You measure someone by the personality to take us forward. He’s got a bead on issues like how to keep our core audience and build on that.”
Grant, who grew up in Toronto, said he recognized the power of live theater when, as a student at Humber College in Toronto, he played the villain in a production of “Captain Hook” that toured to schools. After one performance, some kids recognized him as he walked past the playground.
“They started throwing rocks at me,” he said. As he ran away, “I remember thinking how cool that was.”
After college, his parents gave him a small gift to get him launched in his life. He started a producing theater company in Toronto — Theatre Malton — which he ran for 4½ years.
“I learned to do everything, mostly because I failed at so much stuff,” Grant said. “But it was an incredible experience in terms of understanding what audiences want and developing a successful business model.”
It also helped him realize that his life’s ambition was “to help develop community through the performing arts.”
During 30 years as an arts leader, Grant has helped launch new venues, including the Imperial Theatre in St. John, New Brunswick, where he was the first general manager. He also served as GM of Skylight Theatre in Toronto and the Centre in the Square in Kitchener, Ontario, an award-winning arts center with a 2,000-seat hall, art gallery and studio.
A self-described “sports fanatic — the arts and sports have more in common than people realize,” Grant said he looks forward to “cheering on the Wild, the Vikings, the Timberwolves and the Twins, so long as they’re not playing Toronto.”