The CultureMap Interview

Symphony Scores: New CEO Mark Hanson's plans for a 21st-century orchestra

Symphony Scores: New CEO Mark Hanson's plans for a 21st-century orchestra

Running and swimming are solitary sports. They're ones that Mark Hanson loves because it gives him time to think without distraction.

"I like to be in my own thoughts and try to digest what happened earlier in the day or on a prior day," he explained. "If you really want to escape from this world, go for a swim because you don't even have the street noise — or go to a symphony concert."

Having just arrived in his new job as the Houston Symphony's new executive director/CEO, Hanson has a lot to think about.

With one month left in its fiscal year, the symphony will likely run a deficit — "it could be anywhere between zero and two million dollars," Hanson said — and to balance the budget, the organization will be forced to seek out "special help" from a select group of donors. A new orchestra contract must be negotiated by October and past efforts have been fractious.

In order to thrive, Hanson insists the symphony must attract newer, younger audiences while serving its traditional core and find new contributors with deep pockets. That's a tall task at a time when even the most financially secure arts organization are cutting budgets in the sluggish economy.

But Hanson is excited about the opportunity. During a luncheon interview in the Houston Symphony conference room in the basement of Jones Hall — Hanson's first sit-down interview since he took the job — the orchestra's top business manager seemed so eager to talk that he didn't touch his turkey sandwich. Throughout the hour- session, he spoke extensively, but carefully, about the challenges and opportunities facing Houston's oldest major performing arts organization as it approaches its 100th anniversary in 2013.

"I do not believe that the Houston Symphony is in any way bloated. We are a lean, mean fighting machine," Hanson said. "But we need to figure out ways to work better, smarter and more efficiently."

Familiar with Houston

Hanson, who was previously executive director and president of the Milwaukee Symphony, is familiar with Houston. His wife, Christina, is a cellist who studied at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music. (They have two young boys, 4 and 18 months.) In 1998, Hanson worked at the Houston Symphony as part of the League of American Orchestras’ Orchestra Management Fellowship Program, a year-long leadership program.

In the intervening 12 years, Hanson believes the symphony's artistic quality has changed for the better.  "Nothing has been lost even though the Houston Symphony has been through some of the most challenging times in its history," he said, citing flooding from Tropical Storm Allison, an orchestra strike and financial problems. "What gives me so much hope for the future is that the artistic quality has continued to improve. That underscores the level of commitment."

However, he warned, without a larger endowment and bigger audiences, the symphony's long-term survival is threatened.

"We need to reverse a 10-year decline in annual fund donors and inspire both new and longtime supporters to give as generously as possible," he said. "If we don't strengthen the financial health of the institution, if we don't attract a larger audience and donor base, if we don't do a better job of listening to the community and our customers, we may find it difficult to maintain this level of performance. If those things don't happen we may need to downscale our institutional ambition.

"That's what I'm the most excited about, figuring out how we can attract more supporters to the Houston Symphony family to generate the financial resources we need to have a brighter future."

Symphony officials are convinced they've found the right leader in the 36-year-old executive, who turned around daunting situations in Knoxville and Milwaukee. During a six-year stint with the Milwaukee Symphony, Hanson doubled annual contributions, increased average capacity (from 58 percent in 2004 to 70 percent in 2009) and balanced the budget. He negotiated two orchestra contracts, convincing members to take less pay during the economic downtown, and created a groundbreaking Internet agreement in which the Milwaukee Symphony became the first American orchestra to release live recordings on iTunes.

The Houston Symphony is larger, with an annual budget of $24 million, compared with the Milwaukee Symphony's $17 million budget. But many of the challenges are similar. Just as Milwaukee replaced a longtime music director during Hanson's tenure there, Houston will seek a replacement for music director Hans Graf, who will leave at the end of the 2012-13 season.

Only in his new job a little more than a week, Hanson said it's too early to talk extensively about his plans. But he offered some tantalizing hints of his vision for the symphony.

Hanson acknowledged contract negotiations will set the tone of his tenure but is glad they are occurring soon because it provides an immediate opportunity to sit down and debate the issues "behind closed doors to come to a consensus to what we, the Houston Symphony family, want to accomplish both in the short term and the long term," he said.

He isn't bothered by the limited amount of time for negotiation. "Successful negotiations can occur over a week or a year. You have to work that much harder if you only have a couple of months."

While he said he has to find a "middle ground" between the symphony's aspirations and its budget, he hinted that he won't be asking orchestra members to take a huge pay cut or layoffs.

"I don't think we will be successful if we look to the orchestra or staff for significant concessions. We've been there. We've done that. I don't think we have too much leeway in that respect," he said. "I don't think a Houston Symphony we can all be proud of and excited about can be run with significant less of an investment from the community."

More revenue needed

Hanson said a top priority will be creating a five-year-plan to raise revenues by two-to -three million dollars a year, so the organization won't have to constantly go hat-in-hand to a small group of donors for a bailout.

"Over the next couple of years, we need to go from 3,000 annual donors to 5,000 donors on our way to closer to 10,000 donors," Hanson said. "I think we can do that. There was a time when the Houston Symphony had close to 10,000. I think most would agree the city of Houston is bigger, healthier and more vibrant than it was back then. So we should be able to convince that many if not more music fans in Houston to support the Houston Symphony, which by all accounts is a cornerstone cultural institution."

To attract more subscribers and increase single ticket sales, he will examine the mix of performances. The symphony currently offers 170 performances in several series, which sometimes seem confusing to the potential ticket buyer. "Could we be attracting a larger audience base by performing more frequently or by performing a slightly different mix of concerts? Perhaps. That will be a really fun question to debate internally and discuss with our audience," he said.

What seems more intriguing to Hanson is the idea of offering 10 or more non-traditional concerts, such as the successful The Planets — an HD Odyssey, to attract a new audience.

"It's clear to me that there are music fans here in Houston and elsewhere who will find a Houston Symphony performance with visual elements more appealing than a traditional concert," Hanson said. "Because we perform so frequently we can fit in those enhanced projects — perhaps not as grand as The Planets, but ones that use interesting lighting, videos or other art forms from visual, dance or theater to enhance what's already happening on stage.

"The trick of course is to find those enhancements that don't detract from what's happening on stage, but bring even more life to what the orchestra itself is doing."

In Milwaukee, Hanson doubled the number of full-orchestra performances away from its concert hall. Would he consider doing that here?

"If there are opportunities to take the full orchestra in all of its glory outside of Jones Hall, we will seriously explore those opportunities," he said. "I'm a big believer in, whenever possible, visiting people in their own backyards. There may be people who will never venture down to Jones Hall. I don't want those people to never have the opportunity to hear the Houston Symphony. So we need to think perhaps more seriously of how we can get closer to them."

And he's all for using digital media to attract more attention. He hopes to make Houston Symphony live performances available for download. In Milwaukee, the iTunes link "allowed us to introduce ourselves to music lovers around the world and create a lot of buzz locally," Hanson said. "The more we can do to make ourselves available to fans around the world, the better."

He also looks forward to celebrations honoring Graf's tenure and the 100th anniversary as great opportunities to attract attention and revenues. He is convinced  the symphony can be more successful by showcasing a unique experience.

"What we do night in and night out is needed by people who are working their tails off but need their batteries recharged," Hanson said. "(They) need to be reminded that, as important as it is to advance one's career and earn a living and try to achieve a comfortable lifestyle, it is as important, if not more important, to be a part of a community — to experience cultural events as a audience member.

"That collective experience can really rejuvenate and energize and make one's life better."

News_Mark Hanson_Houston Symphony
Among Mark Hanson's goals: Increase the Houston Symphony endowment and attract more donors and subscribers. Photo by Bruce Bennett
News_Houston Symphony_symphony_orchestra_musicians
Hanson says upcoming contract negotiations will provide an immediate opportunity to reach a consensus on goals for the symphony. "Successful negotiations can occur over a week or a year. You have to work that much harder if you only have a couple of months."
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Hanson cites the recent symphony performances of "The Planets - An HD Odyssey" as an example of ways to attract new audiences Courtesy of JPL & NASA
Places-A&E-Houston Symphony-Hans Graf
A celebration of music director Hans Graf's legacy will be on tap. Hanson will be in charge of finding a new music director after Graf's final season in 2012-2013. Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau