Grand Rapids Symphony unveils Five-Year Strategic Plan

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GRAND RAPIDS, MI., May 27, 2016 – The Grand Rapids Symphony, which soon will name a new music director to guide the ensemble and its artistic growth into the future, has unveiled a new strategic plan to map the way there.

The GRS Board of Directors at its annual meeting approved a five-year plan to attract new audiences, to serve an increasingly diverse community, to branch out into innovative new areas such as health and wellness, and to strengthen its financial position to accomplish its goals.

The Grand Rapids Symphony, which sold out four of its five concerts in DeVos Performance Hall in May, ended its 2015-16 season last week.

But behind the scenes, board members, musicians, staff and community leaders spent months working with Michael Kaiser, chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, to build upon past successes and craft a sustainable path leading to artistic growth and greater excellence.

The strategic plan calls on the Grand Rapids Symphony to continue to expand collaborations with other arts organizations; to explore technological advances to reach people in new ways; to serve a wider audience across the region; and to prepare for major milestones such as the orchestra’s 90th anniversary season in 2019-20.

“With the leadership of our board and the support of visionary community leaders who have continued to demonstrate incredible passion for our orchestra, we have made remarkable progress,” said President and CEO Peter Kjome. “This visionary five-year plan will help us sustain and advance our exceptional symphony, superb musicians and programs that reach thousands of people each year.”

A goal of the strategic plan is to reflect the dynamism of the city of Grand Rapids and become an even more energetic organization that embraces the youthful spirit of the city’s leadership in design and technology.

“As a city consistently recognized nationally as one that is vibrant and growing, I count the Grand Rapids Symphony as one of our greatest cultural assets,” said GRS Board Chairperson Kate Pew Wolters. “Our board, musicians and staff will move forward together, guided by a shared vision of growth and sustainability that reflects our city and region.”

One year after launching LiveArts, a multimedia, multi-genre, entertainment extravaganza with more than 1,500 performers that drew more than 7,100 people to Van Andel Arena in April 2015, the Grand Rapids Symphony successfully negotiated a five-year collective bargaining agreement with its musicians and recently completed a $40 million Legacy of Excellence Campaign to build its endowment.

“It’s a very exciting time, and it is indeed a crossroads period for the symphony,” said Michael Kaiser, who spent more than 13 years at the helm of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. before becoming president emeritus in 2014.

The Grand Rapids Symphony is weeks away from selecting its next music director to succeed David Lockington, who was appointed Music Director Laureate in May 2015, and is about to begin a new era of artistic development.

“I was ecstatic about Michael’s repeated insistence on long-term, artistic planning – three to five years,” said musician Ruth Bylsma, assistant principal flutist with the orchestra. “He also called for two-to-three big events a year. These do not have to be on the same scale as LiveArts, but noteworthy nonetheless.”

It’s a challenging time for orchestras across the United States, with many facing declines in season subscriptions and increasing competition from other forms of entertainment, including electronic substitutes.

An aging donor base and greater demands to provide arts education in the face of declining opportunities in K-12 education are among the hurdles many orchestras across the country are wrestling with.

“The real focus of this plan was how we start to build a stronger financial base,” said Kaiser, whose career with Kansas City Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theatre, and the Royal Opera House in London resulted in a track record of leaving each in better artistic and financial shape than they were before his tenure

The Grand Rapids Symphony’s new five-year contract with its musicians, represented by the Grand Rapids Federation of Musicians, provides for seniority pay for current musicians and sets forward a plan to raise more money to support additional full-time musicians to its roster of 50 full-time and 30 part-time musicians.

“There are important issues that will attract and retain the next generation of talented musicians who will continue our legacy,” said principal percussionist Bill Vits, who also serves as a musician representative on the Grand Rapids Symphony’s board of directors.

In April, the orchestra wrapped up its $40 million Legacy of Excellence Campaign. Beginning with a $20 million commitment from longtime supporters Rich and Helen DeVos, the Grand Rapids Symphony secured another $20 million in cash, gifts and future commitments including planned giving and estate provisions. Once fully realized, the $40 million for the orchestra’s endowment is expected to produce about $2 million per year for annual operations.

Kaiser, author of “The Cycle: A Practical Approach to Managing Arts Organizations” among other books, said he’s optimistic about the future of Grand Rapids, which he describes as a vibrant city with a rapidly growing economy, increased downtown living, strong civic leadership, and a large base of family-owned business that support the community.

Grand Rapids is one of three American cities he’s especially bullish on. The other two are Orlando and Miami, both in Florida.

“You have a downtown that’s actually getting busier, and that’s unusual,” he said about Grand Rapids. “In all three cities, I come, and there’s a sense of expectation that things are growing and are going to be bigger and better and more exciting next year than this year.”

In other business, the Grand Rapids Symphony Society, at its annual meeting on May 19, elected three new members to its board of directors, Barbara A. Gordon, Richard A. Roane and Tom Welch; elected a trustee to its Endowment Fund, Kathleen Vogelsang; and named Linn Maxwell Keller, founder of the Grand Rapids Bach Festival, as an honorary board member.

The Grand Rapids Symphony’s Board of Directors in turn selected Kate Pew Wolters to continue as its chairperson, Charles Frayer as chairperson elect, Anette W. Estrada as treasurer and Karen Henry Stokes as secretary. Immediate past chairperson is Peter M. Perez.

About the Grand Rapids Symphony

Organized in 1930, the Grand Rapids Symphony is nationally recognized for the quality of its concerts and educational programs. Led by Music Advisor Larry Rachleff, Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt and Associate Conductor John Varineau, nine concert series are presented, featuring a wide range of music and performance styles. More than 400 performances are given each year, touching the lives of some 200,000, nearly half of whom are students, senior citizens and people with disabilities all reached through extensive education and community service programs. Affiliated organizations include the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus; Grand Rapids Youth Symphony and Classical Orchestra; and Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Choruses. GRS sponsors the biennial Grand Rapids Bach Festival and provides the orchestra for performances by Opera Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Ballet.

To learn more about the Grand Rapids Symphony, please visit the Grand Rapids Symphony’s website or follow us on the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Facebook page.


This activity is supported in part by an award from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.