Can Richard Dare save the Brooklyn Philharmonic?
Several months ago, Richard Dare, a globetrotting financier who'd made a packet founding his own company, the corporate air service WestJets, and selling it to Warren Buffet, suddenly found himself hanging out in New York City with not much to do. He was visiting his wife, Kitty, who's here pursuing her master's degree in art history at Columbia University.
For the better part of a decade, he’d traveled back and forth to Japan and Dubai as head of Pacific Rim Partners—a private investing firm that builds and controls U.S. brands in Asia. In Tokyo he had brands to develop, businessmen to meet, a new language to master. And now he was bored.
Dare, who still keeps a residence in San Francisco’s Nob Hill, knew nothing about Brooklyn and hadn't set foot there. But he’d heard great things, the way a person like him hears about the Indian food in Jackson Heights or Rao’s in Harlem.
And he was a student of classical music, searching the internet for information on how he could fill up his free time taking in all the performances the city had to offer.
Looking up the Brooklyn Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, though, he could only find dour stories, of which there were plenty; no concerts or dates.
Soon enough, he found himself whipping up an email to Jack Rainey, a senior vice president of TD Bank who in January was elected chairman of the troubled Philharmonic's board, asking to meet.
At the time, Rainey saw in Dare a potential new member for the board. But when they met for lunch in Manhattan along with fellow board member Tim Gilles, it became clear Dare could do more with a bigger role. The board had already picked the plucky Alan Pierson, who was well known as artistic director of the avant-garde chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound, as artistic director, and the creative face of the organization. (Pierson will remain in the role at Alarm Will Sound while working for the Philharmonic.) In May, Dare was named chief executive, a role that's been far less public but is arguably just as essential.
“During our search process for a new C.E.O. we were looking at candidates from a traditional arts management background,” Rainey said. “When Richard came along, he came with a different approach, an entrepreneurial vision.
“When faced with a non-traditional person, one asks why he would want to be C.E.O. of the Brooklyn Philharmonic,” Rainey said. “He was able to articulate his vision, and his idea of something we could not only sustain but build. It wasn’t a short-term thing, but a five-year plan.”
"THIS IS A GREAT LABORATORY," DARE SAID. He meant Brooklyn, the whole borough, but Dare's real everyday laboratory is in a two-room office space steps from the Manhattan Bridge in DUMBO, over which subways run incessantly, giving a distinctly urban backdrop to his pitch. And it was a pitch.
At 47, Dare comes across a lot like Alec Baldwin’s husky Jack Donaghy from "30 Rock": The businessman with no experience in art who suddenly parachutes in from corporate America into a once-proud 154-year-old franchise that has fallen hard. Very hard. He quite literally is the guy in the suit (“It’s the only clothes I own,” he says by way of explanation) among a staff that commonly takes off its shoes entirely at work, even with a reporter present.
Dare was explaining how he's going to get the Phil "out of the hole," to use a term he repeats often. Other terms he uses while describing his plan, and what he sees as the future of the ailing nonprofit arts scene: Strategic partnerships. Value. Strangest of all, profitability.
“How do you create value with something like this for our partners?” Dare said. “On one side of the story here is the art. But underlying that story is a business story. This will live and die as a business story. No arts organization can survive without a great artistic product, but ultimately we have to develop organizations that can sustain themselves and grow in new ways.”
Forced from its performing space at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which it had called home since 1861, and facing a financial freefall, the orchestra cancelled its 2009-2010 season, its image tarnished and subscriber base eviscerated. Since then a lot has been placed on Pierson's shoulders. Expectations are high, in part a function of his having been lauded in both New York and The New York Times for creating a portable symphony, one that will reach beyond the corridors of the Heights and Park Slope and play at venues in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brighton Beach.
“He’s a really cool guy,” Dare said of Pierson.
When Dare went to visit Pierson at his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, Dare said he spent hours on the floor listening to Pierson’s ideas of how he would move the Brooklyn Philharmonic forward. Dare told him that if the intent was to bring back the glory days of orchestras, they were doomed. They would have to change their business philosophies or risk extinction.
“The heart of it,” Pierson said, “is creating a model which takes an arts organization from a charity case to an investment. We both think big and unconventionally for the jobs that we have and in that way make a really good team.”
For Dare that represents the fundamental challenge in the months and years to come. Internally it meant changing the metabolism while assuring everyone he wasn’t the bad guy. When Dare first arrived on the scene, he said he’d send out an email out and would wait a week before any response. That changed quickly. If anything, he said, people needed to bring the same passion they felt to the music to how they directed their passion in ensuring that music was heard.
“Often arts organizations have the same cast of characters and they tend to move from this presentation house to this orchestra and they just tend to hang around,” Dare said. “Sometimes that’s good because they bring that knowledge, but sometimes it’s bad because they’re trying to apply lessons from a model that broke 35 years ago and has been hemorrhaging money and is being propped up by goodwill because people know it’s inherently valuable. They’re able to articulate less and less why it’s important because it’s more distant for them.
“But that goodwill will dry up,” Dare said. “I’m surprised it’s lasted this long. If only artists are involved in these things—and maybe I shouldn’t say this—but you have a bias there that can develop, an elitist bias that says this is art for art’s sake. It’s like Milton Babbitt saying 'Fuck 'em; we don’t need the public to like it. How dare we have to justify what we’re doing?’
“But no other discipline does that,” Dare said. “They don’t teach math at the university and say only people who inherently love math should be in this program."
But if the traditional way of running arts organizations doesn't work anymore, it's not obvious that taking a traditional business strategy applies perfectly, either.
“In commercial businesses things have traditionally been handled in two ways,” Dare said. “You can jack prices up or create make more efficiencies—use cheaper materials, use less workers.
“But the fundamental thing about art is that you can’t do that,” Dare continued. “You can’t raise prices here to Broadway levels. It still takes as many people to play Hamlet as when Shakespeare wrote it and you can’t play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony by asking the musicians to play faster and faster.
“That’s a fundamental problem which interests me and it can’t be solved in traditional ways,” Dare said. “The traditional way is to go out and beg for money, to say this is really important to the kids or whatever. The argument basically boils down to, ‘Please sir, can I have some more?’ And then people say ‘No, I don’t want to give anymore.’”
Dare often talks about a three-step process, one that begins with the music itself. But things get invariably trickier after that.
“I think people are used to arts organizations saying here’s all the great things we do and it’s a drag because it’s just asking people for money,” Dare said. “What we’re doing is saying here’s how we can make more money for you, develop customers for you but do it in a way that doesn’t corrupt or influence our product or set our artistic director off to the side.”