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Back from the Brink: How Phoenix Symphony Got its Groove Back
By Mike Saucier
Phoenix was once edging toward the day the music died.
Just seven years ago, Phoenix Symphony was a week away from bankruptcy, spending more than it could take in. The musicians had taken a 19 percent pay cut (and had been promised a restoration payment, or snapback, the following summer). Meantime, Jim Ward, a former president of LucasArts where he was responsible for the business growth of the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” franchises, had just finished an unsuccessful campaign to represent Arizona’s 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Ward was called in the Symphony to, as he said, “kick the tires for a couple days to get a feel for what was going on there.
Those two days turned into six years for Ward. The tires long ago kicked, the Symphony’s president and CEO restored a cherished Phoenix institution from the inside out.
“There was no grand expectation or objective coming in,” Ward said. “When I came into this organization it was a week away from bankruptcy. So the immediate objective was survival. The immediate objective was to keep music alive in this community not only for the aesthetic value of it but to help bolster a cultural economy that can attract and retain the kinds of businesses that we need for economic development.”
The climb back would be steep. The organization had to be right-sized. Ward began the process with the musicians, who, he said are the “real heroes of this story.” They had already taken a significant pay cut, the largest of any American orchestra up until that time. Ward had to ask them to forgive the “snapback” or restoration payment they had been promised.
“Their choice was to either walk and go on strike, which, frankly they had the right to do, or take a giant leap of faith on someone who would had never run a nonprofit, had never run a symphony, and who, in full disclosure, ran as a Republican and busted unions” at LucasArts, Ward said.
The musicians did something that is considered rare in American unions today, Ward said, which “is they put the needs of the community before their own needs and they forgave that snapback in order to give me enough runway to turn around the symphony.”
With their sacrifice, the musicians, Ward said, kept music alive for the community.
Aside from the financial concerns of the Phoenix Symphony, the mission was somewhat askew. Basically it came down to misplaced aspirations to become the L.A. Philharmonic.
“There were three fatal flaws with that,” Ward said. “The first was it suggested to our musicians that they weren’t as good as the L.A. Philharmonic. Whether or not that’s correct, and it’s not, that’s no way to motivate a creative workforce. Secondly, the previous regime had gone out into our communities saying we want to be the L.A. Philharmonic and the problem is that it fell on deaf ears, because this community is about Phoenix and Arizona, not L.A. And finally, the organization began to spend like the L.A. Philharmonic, which is the financial mess that I inherited.”
The prevailing dialogue in the Valley, Ward said at the time, has nothing to do with the arts, let alone the Symphony.
“The dialogue in this community is all about our inability to diversify our economic base to attract and retain the kinds of businesses that we need,” Ward said. For the Symphony to get traction and a seat at the table, he said, they would need to align their needs with the needs of the community.
“We have to be part of a solution,” he said.
So Ward and the Symphony’s Board of Directors worked with musicians to come up with a vision, which is intact today: To be Arizona’s largest arts leader in the revitalization of Arizona. That means doing its part to help solve the issues that the state has in terms of growth.
“Our mission,” Ward said, “became to leverage what’s unique to us, which is the joy of music, in three distinct ways: to continue to feed the soul of the community aesthetically; to bolster a cultural economy because we know a cultural economy is critical to that economic growth; and to help educate the next generation the creative workforce so we have the human capital to drive that economic growth.”
That mission became the linchpin from which everything flowed, allowing the symphony to go into the community and rebuild tarnished relationships and basically turn it around, Ward said.
Fast forward to today.
The Symphony, now celebrating its 70th year, recorded the highest attendance in its history last season, accompanied by the highest earned revenue sales in its history.
The Symphony under Ward’s leadership has been able to take the earned revenue side of its model, subscriptions and single ticket sales, and grow them exponentially. They’ve been smart about how they market by creating programming that attracts a broader and diverse and younger audience.
One smart move, for example, was bringing Harry Potter into Phoenix Symphony Hall.
“Obviously there’s magic in franchises and certainly in the franchises that I used to run, ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Indiana Jones,’” Ward said. “I brought Steven [Spielberg] and John Williams here for a concert and we’ve been mining there (franchises) for many years, with audiences enjoying it. Clearly the world of Harry Potter is one of those,” he said. “We began by having one of our family shows a number of seasons ago — Harry Potter themed around Halloween. And that was just a really fun show. That grew into a regular audience show, ‘Halloween at Hogwarts,’ and we had two to three years of sold-out performances.”
Warner Brothers made all eight of the Potter films available so now audiences can see the film while the Symphony is playing the live score underneath it. Knowing the popularity of the Harry Potter series, Ward leapt at the chance to run the films and will continue to grow the audience of Potter enthusiasts.
Younger audiences have also responded enthusiastically to the Legends Series, where the Symphony performs the music of bands such as Led Zepplein, Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones.
The turnaround of the Phoenix Symphony is even more surprising in light of a tough environment for the arts in Phoenix. The Symphony cannot count on government support and Phoenix does not have the corporate base that many cities across the country do in terms of Fortune 500 companies per capita. What carries the water for the arts, Ward said, are foundations and individual donors.
It also helps to have a music director, Tito Munoz, who is young and who has, Ward said, “that new energy and just being able to be smart about what we offer the community.”
Munoz, 33, who previously served as Music Director of the Opera National de Lorraine and the Orchestre Symphonique et Lyrique de Nancy in France, took the baton in Phoenix in 2014.
“When you have someone come in who has a vision and can implement it, that’s great,” Ward said. “And so Tito does a number of things for us. First of all you know he inspires our musicians, which is the most important thing and he makes, what we say, ‘the band as tight as it can be.’”
Ward said Munoz also shares his passion for community impact, particularly in education.
Also important, said Ward, is that Munoz is of a generation that understands and digests media in a much different way.
“As we proceed our business plan of what we call Symphony 2.0, which is nothing less than creating a 21st century orchestra that’s sustainable, he is critical in helping us understand how to do that, particularly to a younger generation,” Ward said. “He’s done an amazing job. We’ve begun to program young American composers. There’s great talent in this country. They produce fresh ink in terms of great compositions that just don’t get played because they’re young and new. Tito knows a lot of them personally.”
Ward spent over a decade working with legendary film director George Lucas in a private-sector creative environment so the idea of running the non-profit Phoenix Symphony represented a new turn in his career.
“This is primarily an entertainment business in a different form,” he said. “I love working in a creative environment and I’m working with 66 professional, Julliard-trained musicians who are phenomenal. So that transition wasn’t really hard. Naiveté is always a good thing because I just know how to run things, which is to run it like a business and so that’s the approach that we’ve taken here right now.”
Ward believes in artistic vibrancy. He said he wants people to experience an emotional impact at the Symphony, even if it is negative.
“We want them to experience the craftsmanship of an art that has been performed for hundreds of years,” he said. “But we want to deliver it maybe in a new way that stimulates them to think in different ways. There are a number of different kinds of experiences one can have but at the end of the day we want an emotional and engaged impact. And we also want an interactive one. We don’t want it just to be passive.”