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A new arrangement Featured

7:32am EDT May 24, 2005
Forget those images of symphony orchestra patrons dressed to the nines and listening to an evening of the classics.

While the classics will always be around, Simon Crookall, recently appointed president and CEO of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, has a different vision for how he wants the public to view his organization.

"We are still using a 19th century model," he says, adding that as part of his aggressive growth plan --which includes increasing the symphony's annual budget from $25 million to $40 million over the next five years -- he's set his sights on bringing the symphony into the 21st century by reaching out to a wider audience.

To do that, he recognizes that he must make people comfortable with the idea of attending concerts.

Thinking big is nothing new for Crookall, who comes to the job from an eight-year stint as chief executive of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Since he took over the Indianapolis Symphony early this year, he's been shaking things up and getting the symphony's 150 employees to look differently at their jobs and the organization as a whole.

"I like to ask the 'daft laddie' questions," he says, asking employees why they do things a certain way. And the answers often get people to look at their jobs -- and operations -- differently.

Another component to the plan includes reaching out to the schools to generate interest in the symphony among young people, ensuring future audiences.

"It would be helpful if there were a model to follow, but there isn't," he says.

Smart Business spoke with Crookall about why he came to Indianapolis and how he plans to increase funding and attract more interest in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Why did you leave Scotland?

I had been chief executive of the Royal Orchestra for eight years and worked 20 years in the arts industry in the United Kingdom. There [were] limited career opportunities for someone in my position. It was not beneficial or suitable careerwise to continue because there were no opportunities to advance or move up.

There are a lot more opportunities and it is a different environment in the United States. There are more exciting challenges. It is a much bigger company. The number of musicians is the same, and it has the same work plan, the musicians are full time.

But here, instead of managing a 5 million pound ($9.5 million) company, I am managing a $25 million company. There are more employees on staff, and we also own the performance venue. I used to run a concert hall, so I had that experience as well. I am really moving from one kind of environment to another.

How did you decide on Indianapolis?

There are only 18 full-time orchestras in the country. I didn't want to go to anything smaller in scope. And it is an interesting stretch of my skills and talents.

The complexity of the organizational model made it a good entry point to the U.S. market.

What are the Indianapolis Symphony's greatest strengths?

Obviously, you look at the artistic profile, which is high quality. The orchestra is very well directed. I was familiar with the previous conductor -- he is British -- and I knew the current director from his work in Scotland. The organization has been extremely well managed.

It is in good financial shape and has a bigger endowment than I expected. It has a good, strong staff. It also has a diversity of performance. The symphony plays classical and pop. The Yuletide Christmas Show and the Symphony on the Prairie and children's activities are diverse products and very important.

What are your goals for the orchestra, and how do you plan to achieve them?

Orchestras, in general, need to think about modernizing their approach and look forward. We need to make it relevant to audiences through our outlook and image. We need to be reaching out in new ways to attract new audiences.

We need to constantly refresh ourselves to attract Generation Xers who are in their 20s and 30s. We need to work especially hard in the areas of education and outreach, introducing the symphony to schools and the community.

We have a very strong fund-raising goal -- to increase our budget to $40 million over the next five years. That will provide us with future stability. We are tying that with our vision of where we want to take the organization; we are still working on that.

But we need to demonstrate very clearly that we have got the future in mind. No company should ever stay static.

We can be creative, we have a lot of creative people, but they can be wary if you change the status quo. The fear is destabilization. We need to be confident in taking risks and trying new things. We are in our 75th year, which is wonderful, but we need to make it relevant. We need to take where we are now and constantly refresh and look at ways to improve.

Within the organization, I think there is an awareness of this. It was a good signal that I was appointed in the first place. But I don't have very long to get a new perspective because it won't be long until I get very involved in running the organization. There are advantages to coming in with fresh eyes.

How do you get people to innovate?

I ask a lot of questions, do a lot of challenging and lighting fires. I am asking why things are done a certain way. Some are [providing] very good reasons, others are beginning to question or ask, 'Maybe there is a better way of doing this.'

We are learning from each other by challenging and questioning and seeking out new ideas through debate.

What are the differences in the music industry between America and Scotland?

The biggest difference is the funding mechanism. In Scotland, 60 percent of our financing came from the government directly. Here, our government portion is almost too small to count. In Scotland, there was more of a political structure to the job and I spent a lot of time sitting in with government officials.

Here, although the political part is important, it does not have as much direct relevance. We keep the government more at arm's length and it can't influence what we're doing. Here, we are more involved with donors and the audience, and I welcome that.

It is more of a shareholder relationship, and our task is to deliver what the donors are paying for, which is the best possible outcomes. We try to build our relationships with the audience and our stakeholders. And we are more conscious of how to include people who are less fortunate so we are not perpetuating a product for the rich. We are seeking to cross social boundaries and work with schools.

What is the greatest challenge in your job?

Building that endowment will be one of my top challenges. And being able to adapt and modernize the symphony. The generic view of the industry is slightly old-fashioned. You think of people dressing up, and older people (rather) than younger.

We want to turn all those thoughts on their heads. We are here for you walking down the street. We want to be approachable; we want everyone to feel comfortable attending concerts.

We're already looking at our programs and the venue, and there is a lot of work to be done on our global strategic initiatives. It's all experimentation. We will go out and try to see what happens. It's exciting but challenging, too.

What is your biggest personal challenge?

Besides the language barrier? I am coming into a company that is very well run and organized and seeking to put my stamp on it. It is an interesting challenge. We have 87 members of our music staff, board members and audience, and my task is bringing them together and exciting them to accomplish new levels of creativity. It is a big challenge. But it's also what makes the job very exciting.

Obviously, the context of arts companies is that we are a business and we act as a business. We are seen as not-for-profit playing at running a business. We employ more than 150 people full time, so we have to treat it like a business. We have goals, plans and the same strategies tha t we apply. I have a degree in economics, not music.

That's another aspect -- we interact with a lot of other businesses to help further our aim and help the businesses publicize themselves. Some people think that the leader running the symphony is a failed musician. On the contrary; it is a complex model that takes considerable acumen to move forward and get the respect of the community.

How to reach: Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, (317) 262-1100 or www.indianapolissymphony.org