The tricky art of planning for succession at arts organizations

Speight Jenkins sets 2013 for his retirement date and vows to help with a textbook transition at the Seattle Opera. At the symphony, indecision about whether it's time for a new conductor seems to have been resolved in favor of keeping the long-running Gerard Schwarz act.
Crosscut archive image.

Speight Jenkins, general director of Seattle Opera. (Seattle Opera)

Speight Jenkins sets 2013 for his retirement date and vows to help with a textbook transition at the Seattle Opera. At the symphony, indecision about whether it's time for a new conductor seems to have been resolved in favor of keeping the long-running Gerard Schwarz act.

Few things tie arts organizations in worse knots than succession planning. Sometimes it's easy, as when the artistic director moves to another job or simply reaches retirement age. But what happens when the board, or the audience, or the critics, think it's time for a change and the artistic leader does not? Not a pretty picture. Years of fighting and indecision can split an organization, embitter the losing side, and throw the arts group into a long tailspin. In Seattle, the recent transition to new leadership at Pacific Northwest Ballet is an example of a very successful shift of artistic reins. Longtime and widely beloved leaders of the ballet, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, had signaled long in advance when they planned to leave, and a grateful board spent several years putting together funds for a generous retirement. The new artistic director, Peter Boal, is both highly respectful of the Balanchine traditions he inherited from his predecessors and full of good new ideas for an enriched choreographic repertoire. The ballet is now riding very high, possibly the most exciting major arts organization in the Northwest. Seattle Opera, brilliantly led by general director Speight Jenkins for 24 years, seems also about to follow the textbook in its succession question. Jenkins has quietly announced that he will depart after his new production of Wagner's Ring in the summer of 2013, though possibly staying through the 2013-14 season, which will be the Opera's 50th anniversary year. Jenkins says he will be part of the selection process for his successor, and he has told the board to make the choice by Jan. 1, 2012. In 2013, Jenkins will be 76, "leaving time enough to do something new," as he says, madly energetic as ever. Opera, with a long lead time in planning productions and booking stars, should have a lengthy period for searching for a new leader – letting him or her oversee productions as a guest director – and fully surveying the field. "No opera company in history has ever made this pleasant," says Jenkins, noting how new opera directors almost always bring along ideas for dramatic changes. He vows, as part of his remarkable career, to be the first opera company to have a smooth transition, five years hence. He might just do it, though he won't be an easy act to follow. The next "Speight Jenkins" will probably be two people, as Jenkins is the rare general manager who oversees all aspects of the music and the production and the marketing of the $22 million annual operation. Also, opera is possibly undergoing a radical transformation, and that might require a very different kind of general manager. The wild card is live telecasts of the Metropolitan Opera into movie theaters, introduced last year to great public acclaim. Traditionalists like Jenkins worry that audiences will become acclimatized to the souped-up production values (closeups, dramatic camera angles, controlling voice levels from the sound board) of telecasts, as well as the amplified voices. The result could be as bad for opera as heavily amplified productions have been to the once-glorious American musical-comedy traditions. Over at the Seattle Symphony, music director Gerard Schwarz, 60, is under contract to 2011 and says he is "in every way happy and content." Schwarz has been at the symphony's helm since 1985, which makes him one of the longest-serving maestros in the country. He shows every sign of wanting to stay on the job and is deeply rooted in the community. "Seattle is my home," he says. Schwarz has many musical admirers, was key in building the new and widely admired Benaroya Hall, in upgrading the quality and pay of the musicians, and in cultivating many major donors such as Jack Benaroya and Charles Simonyi. The orchestra says it is doing no succession planning and is guarded about what may happen in 2009, when it must decide whether to extend Schwarz's contract or tell him that the current one will be the last. Schwarz will only say that he's thrilled with the new leadership team at the symphony, "the envy of the nation," and that the next four years of improving the orchestra is "all the planning I do." Board chair Susan Hutchison, who is also executive director of the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Science, says there is no search committee or any activity on that front. She emphasizes how Schwarz is "a huge member of the community, with lots of new ideas," as evidenced by the Dale Chihuly-adorned recent production of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle. Hutchison also cautions about the costs of changing maestros. Schwarz, rare for his breed, has great loyalty to one orchestra and one city. That contrasts with "suitcase maestros" in many other cities, where conductors have multiple orchestras and stay only a few years, and command huge salaries. Asked whether it is an open question about extending Schwarz's contract in 2009, Hutchison will only say, "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it." Even so, might it be time for a change? Orchestras in many cities are hiring much younger conductors, hoping to stir things up and atrract younger audiences. Los Angeles's newly named conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, is an astonishing 26 years old. The New York Philharmonic has just announced the hiring of Alan Gilbert, 40, as its new conductor, starting in 2009, after several years of search. "Elder statesmen of the podium are a diminishing breed," comments Daniel J. Wakin of The New York Times. "The classical music world is in the grip of a debate about its relevance to society, with the corollary concern that younger audiences must be reached." Seattle Symphony musicians last year came perilously close to open revolt when, to their surprise, Schwarz's contract was extended to 2011. There have also been a few board members favoring a change at the podium, though most of these dissidents have left the board. The succession question has threatened to split the board and may have produced turnover at the top staff level. "When boards get political like this and fight with each other," observes one veteran arts leader, who notes that political wrangling has marked the symphony board for decades, "they stop doing what they should do, which is just raise money." Whatever the causes, the result has been that, at a time when highly motivated boards like the Seattle Art Museum are out raising close to $200 million from this exceedingly affluent community, the symphony has been an underachiever, failing to meet goals for an endowment and producing a few years of deficits. During the past year, the symphony's board chair, former Boeing executive Ron Woodard, has been mostly absent dealing with some family issues, executive director Paul Meecham abruptly departed last summer (he now heads the Baltimore Symphony), the orchestra is still looking for a new concertmaster, and the organization struggled through many months without a permanent development director. But in recent months, a new leadership team has emerged. Hutchison, despite being a relative novice in symphony matters, has been a much-needed jolt of serious leadership as the new board chair. The symphony, after a difficult search, now has a new executive director, Tom Philion, who seems a much more comfortable partner with Schwarz than the previous two staff leaders. The board has been firmly told to stop bickering (some have left, reducing it from 56 to the current 47 members) and get on with the overdue fundraising for the endowment. The season just ended, instead of being in the red by an anticipated $2 million, the Seattle Symphony instead will have a balanced budget. (To be sure, the SSO had to resort to some unusual maneuvers, deferring about $900,000 in pension payments to the musicians, if the IRS concurs, and taking some windfall profit from the endowment rather than staying with the ordinary 5 percent annual return.) Accordingly, the odds seem to have swung dramatically toward betting that Schwarz will continue waving his baton in Seattle beyond 2011. Giving notice of non-renewal in 2009 would come right in the middle of the $70 million endowment drive, 2008-11. Given the three to five years required to find a new conductor these days, a two-year scramble after 2009 seems unlikely to be enough time. Schwarz is also the finest fundraiser in the organization, which naturally makes the board anxious about changing horses when symphonies are in such financial peril all over the country. Longevity of artistic directors seems to be a trait, for good and for ill, in Seattle. Perhaps there are geographic reasons for this? Artists out here are not in the East Coast mainstream, where they get more notice that leads to tempting offers from other cities, and Seattle groups, aside from the ballet, do not often tour to major cities. Being still in the formative stages, these organizations can be shaped by powerful leaders into the kinds of institutions that couldn't be matched by moving to another city. The symphony's low-cost recording fees, for instance, enabled Schwarz to make many recordings, something that would not have been possible if he went to another city. Also being new, these organizations are financially fragile, with small endowments. Worrying to many boards are cautionary tales of the way, in a smallish city, awkward departures can lead to years of bad feelings and strained dinner parties among the financial elite. That happened when SSO conductor Milton Katims was moved on after two decades at the helm, angering the Jewish community for years. Glynn Ross of the opera was toppled by a board faction unhappy with his artistic compromises, though that transition was far less traumatic. So add to the indigestion of succession planning another source of local discomfort: growing pains.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors