Can Richard Dare save the Brooklyn Philharmonic?

Richard Dare at the Millennium Theatre in Brighton Beach. (Kathleen Coughlin)
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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.

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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.”

“Our presentation is more financially driven,” Dare said, “in terms of saying here’s the number of people you can expect at each event, here’s the conversion rate of people who will say ‘I want to be part of this offer,’ and here’s what that means to you and what you’re going to make on it off your end.”

That's the heart of the program he's setting up. In each of the neighborhoods in which the Phil is playing this season he's set up "host committees" made up of what he terms the neighborhood's most influential leaders.

"These committees include business leaders, thought leaders, politicians, clergy, young entrepreneurs, parents, a whole swath," he wrote in an email explaining his plan. They are "people who care about Brooklyn and are willing to help us understand what their neighborhoods are trying to accomplish."

Where a traditional host committee would raise money for the orchestra, these committees try to find business opportunities for corporate sponsors the Phil is targeting. Dare said there are about 30 people on these committees.

They meet about once a month with Dare and Pierson to talk about what music they want the Philharmonic to play, but also what their neighborhoods need.

"These folks tell us what's really going on in their lives and help us envision how we can join forces with them to create value together, both in terms of art and in terms of commerce."

From one committee came an idea that Dare has already begun work on. (Dare would not specify which committee it was because he is still in the early stages of implementing his initiative with them.) They told Dare that loans for their children's education were hard to come by and the terms were too inflexible.

Dare summed up the effort that grew from that meeting like this:

"What if we went to a bank, a large successful bank that did not have access to this region, and using our business backgrounds, we crafted a new type of student loan that the bank would offer to all our ticket buyers?"

"Those loans could be seeded by the bank now as a special offer to our community, and then be drawn on once each child reached a certain age and academic standing."

Dare said that they are already in the early stages of negotiating a deal like that, as well as similar deals with companies in banking, utilities and the auto industry.

Part of Dare's philosophy is that there is a "real" economy and a "shadow world of nonprofit begging economies." The former is much richer than the latter.

"The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was a little less than $300 million last year, " he wrote in the email. "So it's huge by arts standards—in fact possibly the largest arts organization in America. On the corporate or commercial side, by way of contrast, The Walt Disney Company posted revenues of over $38 billion last year."

By creating business opportunities for large corporations among its subscribers in Brooklyn, Dare believes, he can create real value in the "real economy" that brings in dollars on a scale that dwarfs the scale of the "begging economy." In other words, a dollar to a bank is worth 10, or more likely 1,000, to him.

Dare said that presently the Philharmonic plays for about 18,000 fans per year, provides daily school services to about 6,000 students whose 12,000 parents the Philharmonic also regularly interacts with. Beyond that, the Philharmonic gets written up regularly in "major New York periodicals."

So Dare believes he's talking about a group of 35,000 "frequently high-net worth" consumers he can market directly to potential sponsors.

It's a little like a traditional third-payer media play: Just as Vogue brings a group of readers together in one place that certain advertisers want to do business with, he sees his ticket-holders as a psychographic that will be willing to help the Philharmonic by also becoming customers of its sponsors.

“It moves us from the children’s table to the adult table,” Dare said. “We might be the clumsiest guests there, but at least they’re saying ‘Come over here.’"

But for someone like Dare, who has a master's in something called Cognitive Field Theories, choosing this particular area of the arts to test out his ideas is particularly hard.

In many ways, those who raise funds for museums have it quite easy. A new wing with a benefactor’s name can exist for decades. An exhibit sponsored by a company recently fined by the S.E.C. has a highly visual public relations spark. But partnering with an orchestra is like teaming up with a soup kitchen. Like the soup, once a concert’s finished, it’s gone for good.

Thus, while creating new revenue by delivering customers to companies is important, it can’t be Dare’s ultimate goal.

“The next step to me is to ultimately get to actual unrestricted revenue where we actually earn money for something that we do and real money,” Dare said. “Just not something like somebody hires your for a bar mitzvah or something. Think of it as retail type of dollars that extends the brand once the brand means something to people.

“Maybe we get to a step where there’s 20 or 30 Brooklyn philharmonics all throughout New York,” Dare said. “And maybe it’s franchised out across the country because maybe the name begins to mean something. You have to earn that because you have to earn everything.”

That's further along in the five-year plan, though.

“People have to become creative problem solvers,” Dare said. “But the engine for that, the business engine for that, is almost non-existent. I’m not going to take over the orchestra world, but it seemed like such an interesting problem because whatever you could find out from this is going to apply to the commercial world as well.

“I would absolutely hate to be something like a steward and have my turn at the wheel and have it be the same and keep it bobbing along on the surface,” Dare said. “I feel that would be devastating.”

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to Pierson as the "former artistic director" of Alarm Will Sound. The present version clarifies that he will remain in the role.

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