Things are changing fast at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts. That claim may surprise Kathleen Missall van Bergen, the new CEO and president who is at the crux of all the change.
To van Bergen, 35, “fast” is cruise speed.
Already she is re-instituting “rush” tickets, the practice of selling some last-minute seats at a discount. (“We need to give people entry points at all ends of the spectrum,” she reasons.) She’s set dates to meet leaders of other arts organizations — including Opera Naples, long at an impasse with the center’s last director — and talk about the potential for collaboration. A chat with Thomas Smith, a fellow freshman in his Opera Naples managing director position, has already been scheduled for the coming week.
Yet it’s quiet, quiet in the glass-doored third floor office since van Bergen moved in Sept. 1. Van Bergen speaks in hushed tones, the kind of reassuring voice you hope to hear in a hospital and wouldn’t be able to hear at a hockey game. However, van Bergen instills confidence that her work won’t take her either place.
As director of the Schubert Club in St. Paul, Minn., for the last three years, van Bergen forged broad partnerships: the James Sewell Ballet; Minnesota Opera; the Flint Hills International Children’s Festival; and Music in the Park, which ultimately came under the club’s wing this year. She’s optimistic about similar experiences here.
“Some of the most wonderful calls I received in the first few weeks were from our sister arts organizations,” remarks van Bergen of her first two weeks here. “I’m hoping there are opportunities for good partnerships. Two organizations can do things so much bigger and better and with more intersections for their strengths than you can have on a solo effort.
“But there has to be a reason for partnering. And there has to be a goal. I’ll be looking for those as well,” she continued. “In some things we can let creativity take its course. In others, we may want to allow things marinate a bit.” “It broadens and deepens the group of people who celebrate what we do,” van Bergen explains. “It’s one thing to bring people in to hear music, and that’s good.
“But when you have the chance to learn the history and the people around that music, through art or theater or discussion, it enriches that whole experience and makes it even more memorable.”
Still top priority, she says, is to find a new director for the Naples Patty and Jay Baker Museum of Art, a three-story, 30,000-squarefoot space with 15 galleries. In its 11 years of existence, it has had three directors and a chief curator, all gone now. Despite impressive contemporary signatures — gates by sculptor Albert Paley, a lobby-swallowing sculpture from Lois Nevelson and multistory glass hangings by Dale Chihuly — it is rudderless.
“Obviously, my background is in music, so I will rely on people around me who are knowledgeable. I’m going to be open to those with expertise who are willing to offer help,” van Bergen says candidly.
John Hallmark Neff, who held the director position for a record two-plus years, would not discuss the Naples museum in particular. But as an art historian and a director for three other institutions, he offered a firm piece of advice for any search: Find a person who knows art — “the full range of arts, not just the last 10 or 15 years of it. Whatever artists are working on now, the director has to be able to see what they are really bringing to the arena.” Neff concedes he’s not excited by many museums now because of their reliance on safe and simple touring shows: “An outstanding museum director isn’t doing what is popular, but is doing worthwhile things and making them popular.”
Neff did add in a later email that whomever van Bergen hires is getting an institution with potential because of this community’s financial resources.
“Naples is in the enviable position of being able to create new models for both its programs and operations. It can leap frog into a more exciting and efficient relationship with art and audience without merely repeating the fading corporate model that is familiar to boards but not necessarily the best for art museums,” said Neff.
With her violin performance degree from Eastman School of Music and an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, van Bergen is in a much better position to assess another of the center’s gaping holes: the post of music director. She has been through two searches in her positions as vice president for artistic administration or planning with both the the St. Louis Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
If she worries about not knowing the art component of a museum director search, knowing the music component of the orchestra position makes van Bergen just as worried about finding the right one.
After Jorge Mester’s contract was not renewed December 2010, a committee of board members and musicians has met and targeted four candidates. Two of them conducted last season, and two more will conduct this season. Van Bergen, however, says the search is not closed.
“We do not have a set list of candidates. Anyone who comes in here is a possible candidate.”
“The Naples Philharmonic Orchestra plays an incredible variety of music,” she continues. “To be part of it you need the art of a great classical performer, including chamber ensemble works. It was a thrill to hear four different ones, all from this orchestra, in the Sunday afternoon (chamber concert) performance.” “But then they have to have the vigor and spark to play exciting pops concerts. And they also are part of the opera performances here.
“This is going to be one special person,” she observes of the music director. “If we find that person and when we find that person, there’s a chemistry that will happen. This is not a timeline that’s controllable.” Much less public, but just as critical is the final opening: director of development. The Philharmonic Center aleady is nesting a $47.4 million endowment fund. However, van Bergen told WGCU interview Amy Tardif last week that her dream is the ratio of operating fund to endowment at the Schubert Club in St. Paul, Minn., her previous presidency. Its nearly $2 million budget had the support of a $12 million endowment, six times its expenditures.
With the Philharmonic Center budget of $26 million, that’s about a $121 million challenge for the next director of development. No slackers need apply.
Van Bergen, 35, is single again after marriage to trumpet player Christopher van Bergen, and mobile enough that she moved here with “not even a pet,” she laments. But that leaves her free to develop her interest in container gardening year round and explore Southwest Florida. One of her immediate loves has been the Gulf of Mexico; she has taken to the beach at least once a week since she arrived. If that regimen is a small sample of van Bergen’s style, she’s ready for the rigors of the CEO position. She already has a broad-brimmed hat and a skin regimen supplied by a helpful sister.
There’s a utilitarian component to her sojourns, van Bergen concedes: “I also like to cook,” she says with a smile. “And I like to eat. So I need to walk the beach.”