Cecil C. Conner, Jr. thinks it's time. After 17 years as the managing director of the Houston Ballet, Conner announced Thursday that he will be retiring in February.
He will pass the reins to the dance company's general manager James Nelson, who will step in as the top dog with a new executive director title.
The announcement wasn't unexpected. The 69-year-old Conner had been telling people that his "swan song" was overseeing the successful opening of the ballet's new $47-million downtown building — the Houston Ballet Center for Dance.
"I'm going to continue to work with the ballet in an informal way, helping with fundraising," Conner told CultureMap. "We've built the new building but we still need to raise money for it. So I'll be helping with that. I'll be working on planned gifts in particular.
"I plan to travel without having to look at my Blackberry every 30 seconds. I look forward to being able to take three-week vacations instead of nine days, without having to respond to email."
His tenure is marked with many achievements, including helping the company transition artistic directors in 2003 (Ben Stevenson served from 1976 -2003 with Stanton Welch succeeding him) and upping the nonprofit's endowment three-fold to about $57.6 million.
Conner came to Houston via The Joffrey Ballet in New York City. A lawyer by training turned arts administrator, his passion for supporting art endeavours extends beyond the Houston Ballet, with Conner serving on the board of the Cultural Arts Council of Houston and Harris County and as chairman of the Texas Institute for Arts in Education's board. He is currently on the board of the Houston Downtown Alliance.
Inspired by Patricia Schultz 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, Conner plans to continue to check off items from his must-do, must-see list.
On Dec. 2, Houston Ballet's "Jubilee of Dance" will honor Conner's accomplishments.
"Every time the curtain goes up, I feel thrilled that I had something to do with what's happening on stage," he said. "I know that the company will continue to grow, and hope that Houston, the country and the world recognize the Houston Ballet as a major international ballet company."
As a former dancer and the general manager since 2000, Nelson has a holistic view of the nonprofit's operations. He is in charge of 52 dancers, 61 musicians and 180 employees while managing a $19.2 million budget. Nelson has a BBA in finance from the University of Houston and participated in former Mayor Bill White’s Economic Development Mission to China.
Conner says that selecting Jim as his successor was a logical choice as Jim had taken over a good bit of C.C.'s day-to-day operational duties as he focused on getting the Dance Center built.
"Jim and Stanton have a great relationship," Conner added. "And it's really important in this kind of institution where you have a two-headed monster running the thing that you have two people that can work together well. You've got to have that relationship."
The 47-year-old has tough ballet shoes to fill. Though his promotion is endorsed by many — including Glenn McCoy, executive director of the San Francisco Ballet, and Houston Ballet Foundation board chairman Joseph Hafner — it is uncharacteristic for an international arts group of Houston Ballet's size and scope to make such a move without a formal, national search.
Conner's retirement is the latest in a wave of leadership changes at Houston's major art institutions.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is still mourning the loss of Peter Marzio and searching for his replacement. Houston Grand Opera had to quickly restructure its current leadership in response to Anthony Freud's move to Chicago's opera house, going to an insider (Patrick Summers) like the Ballet. And just last year, Mark Hanson took over as Houston Symphony's CEO.