By Kyle MacMillan
CHICAGO – The Minnesota Orchestra’s acrimonious labor battle and the New York City Opera’s spectacular collapse last year crystallized the challenges of keeping a major arts organization healthy in a time of faltering attendance and uncertain arts philanthropy. One group that appears to have avoided such pitfalls and remained on course is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which in the last decade has boosted its endowment fund from $180.6 million to $256.6 million, slashed its annual deficit from $2.3 million to $169,000 and increased annual ticket sales from $19.6 million to $22.3 million.
Such success helps explains why the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., selected Deborah Rutter, 57, to be its third president, the same position she has held with the Chicago Symphony since August 2003. In its December article on the appointment, the Washington Post called her new position “one of the most singular, daunting and well-paid arts jobs” in the country – an assertion that Rutter did not dispute. “That’s the challenge and excitement of this – you can impact every aspect of the performing arts world,” she said. Although she does not officially take over until Sept. 1, she has already been meeting with Kennedy Center staff even as she rushes to tie up loose ends before leaving the Chicago Symphony at the end of June.
As she embarks on this new stage of her career, Rutter plans to follow the same leadership approach she has employed throughout her career – one she believes is essential to running any arts organization. It starts, she said, with having “really big ears.”
“If you think you know what you’re going to do and what should be done, that’s your first mistake, because you have to listen to what other people have to say and you have to have enough of an ability to sort of absent your own preconceived notions about things,” she said. Leaders are supposed to act decisively, Rutter said, but action should only come after charting a road map about which everyone involved can be enthusiastic. “It requires enough capacity to wait until you know when that moment is. It takes patience and willingness to live through some messiness along the way to actually develop a road map like that.”
One of Rutter’s first priorities in the nation’s capital will be overseeing the completion of a privately funded $100 million expansion to the 43-year-old Kennedy Center – a free-standing building south of the current well-known marble structure. The design, which is already well along, is being overseen by Steven Holl Architects, which was responsible for the much-lauded 2007 addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo.
Rutter has already had meetings with senior managers about configuring the space so that it best serves the center now and into the future. “It’s about: How do we continue to engage audiences?” she said. “How do we offer them more programming and different programming? We are trying to think about that space as: What will audiences be doing in the 21st century? So, there are a lot more non-traditional kinds of spaces that we’re looking at.”
Just as Rutter did when she moved from the Seattle Symphony to the larger Chicago Symphony, she is taking a big step up when she takes over the Kennedy Center. The arts center presents 2,000 performances a year and has a $200 million annual budget, nearly three times that of the Chicago Symphony in fiscal 2013. Just as significant as the scale of the performing arts center is its scope. Unlike the Chicago Symphony and the other orchestras where has worked previously, she will serve as both artistic and administrative director of the Kennedy Center, whose reach takes in theater, dance, and chamber music, and oversee the National Symphony Orchestra and Washington National Opera.
Rutter said she is a consumer of all the forms with which she will be dealing, but she acknowledges that she has a learning curve ahead of her with some of them. “At 57,” she said, “I need more opportunities for learning, and having the opportunity to work in some of the art forms with really great staff people in Washington will be exciting for me.” In addition, because of the prominence of the Kennedy Center and its location in the nation’s capital, Rutter’s new position carries considerable prominence, and she likely will be called on at times to act as a kind of a national spokesperson for the arts.
As Rutter prepares to say good-bye to the Chicago Symphony, she leaves behind an array of accomplishments. Among the most visible was her recruitment of famed Italian maestro Riccardo Muti as the orchestra’s music director in 2008, snatching him away from the New York Philharmonic, which had been courting him for its music directorship. Indeed, after the appointment, the New York Times quoted one Philharmonic musician asking, “I don’t know what Chicago has that we don’t have.” It has been a good marriage, with critics, musicians, and audiences all singing Muti’s praises, and the orchestra recently extended his contract through 2020.
At the top the list of things Rutter is most proud of is the Chicago Symphony’s establishment of the Institute for Learning, Access and Training, which provides opportunities for more than 200,000 people of all ages and backgrounds to engage with music. “I believe that every single person needs and deserves to have music in their life,” she said. If she has a regret as she leaves, it’s that she was not able to see through an initiative to restore music education throughout the Chicago Public Schools. “I want every child who wants to hold any instrument to have that opportunity, and we just haven’t gotten there yet,” she said. “We’re headed in that direction, but I wish we could have been able to move faster.”
Rutter also oversaw a diversification of the orchestra’s offerings which, in turn, was designed to help diversify its audiences. Under her leadership, the orchestra began such programs as CSO at the Movies, in which the orchestra performs film scores live as movies are screened; Afterwork Masterworks, abridged early-evening versions of certain subscription programs, and Beyond the Score, an in-depth look at important classical masterworks with narration, actors, and multimedia. “I had the germ of an idea, and, as with everything good around this place, the germ of an idea came to life and became Beyond the Score, and it was really fabulous from my perspective,” she said.
In addition, the orchestra is now presenting festivals every season, such as last year’s “RIVERS: Nature. Power. Culture,” in which the orchestra collaborated with a broad range of community partners. “I believe,” she said, “that an institution like an orchestra needs to be really firmly, deeply rooted in its community. That you can find whatever kind of music you like in this building one way or another and that we are a resource and a partner when important things are happening in our community.”
Such efforts have helped the orchestra buck the negative attendance trends that much of the classical music world has faced. According to a 2008 National Endowment for the Arts study, the number of people attending classical events fell by 12 percent from 2002 to 2008. Some experts have attributed at least part of the drooping numbers to the increasing ease of accessing classical music via iTunes, Pandora, and an array of other Internet sources. But Rutter disagrees. “Being able to listen to the ‘Eroica’ at home,” she said, “does that keep you from wanting to hear it live? No, in fact, it inspires you to want to come and hear it live.”
Although the New York City Opera folded last year and the Minnesota Orchestra was crippled by labor strife, the success of the Chicago Symphony during Rutter’s tenure shows that it is possible for such large-scale arts institutions to thrive in today’s tough financial climate. The key, she said, is making sure that the board, management, and performers remain in close sync and that they “really understand and passionately listen to each other.” All three have be focused on the long-term survival of the organization and the art form.
“If you are absolute about that,” Rutter said, “then you shouldn’t have these problems. It may be that you have to make very challenging decisions one way or the other, but it’s about the art form continuing into the future. Whenever [the organization] gets out of balance, it gets into trouble.”
Kyle MacMillan recently marked his 25th anniversary as a music critic and reporter. After serving 11 years as fine arts critic for the Denver Post, he is now a free-lance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and writes for such national publications as Opera News and The Wall Street Journal.