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Secrets of a Successful Season

Off the Cuff with the MSO’s Mark Niehaus

Dec. 20, 2016
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Photo by Tim Evans

A recent news release by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO) announced that its 2015-2016 season was “one of its most successful on record,” surpassing “both sales and attendance records from the 2014-2015 season.” We thought this warranted some attention; after all, the economy hasn’t exactly been robust of late. How’d they do it? Off the Cuff asked MSO President and Executive Director Mark Niehaus about that, as well as about the status of the ongoing search for Maestro Edo de Waart’s replacement.

The MSO has had a great deal of success over the past two seasons (in particular). To what do you most attribute this success?

Hard work. Diligence. Being willing to make the tough decisions. The reality is we, too, faced our struggles, but together with our board and musicians we chose to face them head on. Since 2009 we decreased our expenses by over $1.3 million and had to reduce the size of our orchestra and professional staff. But never along the way did we lose sight of our musical integrity and the responsibility that comes from being our state’s largest and arguably most visible cultural institution. Knowing you can’t cut your way to sustainability, we also deliberately invested in new programming and took creative approaches to engaging new audiences. We revamped our sales tools and engaged donors to walk this journey with us. And the results are now speaking for themselves. We had 20 sold-out performances and reached over 200,000 patrons last season, including over 5,500 households who were new to the MSO. The result of this and more was our third consecutive balanced budget and meaningful annual increases in ticket sales. 

Many arts organizations struggle mightily—often unsuccessfully—to break even year after year, let alone make a profit. What helpful advice, born of experience with the MSO, would you offer such ensembles and performance companies?

It’s not easy, that’s for sure. But there are a few things that benefitted us tremendously. First, the MSO and its musicians are truly in it together. Throughout the aftermath of the recession, the MSO, like many others, was impacted by declining sales and donations. Yet the entire organization came to the table to work together for the greater good. Second, we have tremendous benefactors who believe deeply in the power of music and the importance of the MSO in our community. Many of them were willing to walk alongside us when things were challenging and continue to invest in our future today. Third, we have an amazing board. Top among the advice I’d give any arts organization is to make sure you have an engaged, working board who understands your business model. At the end of the day, while our product is the arts, we also have to manage a complex business. Having that level of expertise on our board was and remains invaluable.

This is Maestro De Waart’s last season as principal conductor of the MSO. What can you tell us about the status of the search for his replacement?

Edo De Waart has been an instrumental part of the MSO for eight years, and filling his shoes will be a tall order and a great privilege. The great news is that he will still be part of our family when he becomes conductor laureate after the 2016-2017 season. The search for his replacement is underway, and the talent we are attracting is a testament to how Edo helped raise the profile of the MSO globally. Early on I remember him saying that the MSO needs to emerge from being the “best-kept secret.” Thanks in part to his leadership, we are doing just that.

Yaniv Dinur has just finished his first season with the MSO as its assistant conductor. How’s he doing? Will he be sticking around?

We love Yaniv. He is immensely talented and has made tremendous contributions to the MSO in his first year. As assistant conductor, he’s been responsible for conducting the MSO’s many youth, family and community concerts throughout the season, and he is owning this role. The assistant conductor position can be a more behind-the-scenes job, at times, but it requires long hours and boundless energy. I’ve been very impressed with his willingness to contribute and step up when needed and hope he’s with us for a long time. Earlier this season, he had to step in at the last minute and conduct a performance featuring the world-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman, and he will conduct a classics subscription weekend during the 2017-2018 season.

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