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Grand Rapids Symphony unveils five-year strategic plan for innovation, collaboration, growth

Grand Rapids Symphony, about to select a new music director, has adopted a 5-year Strategic Plan to guide the orchestra into the future.
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Grand Rapids Symphony milestones in the past year

  • LiveArts with 1,500 performers draws 7,100 to Van Andel Arena
  • $40 million Legacy of Excellence Campaign wraps up
  • Unprecedented 5-year contract signed with musicians
  • 4 of 5 sold-out concerts in May
  • Music director search nears conclusion

/| Grand Rapids Symphony

Grand Rapids Symphony sold out all three of its "Star Wars & More" concerts in May.

Grand Rapids Symphony sold out all three of its "Star Wars & More" concerts in May. /Terry Johnston | Grand Rapids Symphony

Grand Rapids Symphony honored leaders of its $40 million Legacy of Excellence Campaign with BRAVO! Awards

Grand Rapids Symphony honored leaders of its $40 million Legacy of Excellence Campaign with BRAVO! Awards /Terry Johnston | Grand Rapids Symphony

President Abraham Lincoln knew a few things about getting a job done, beginning with how to go about it.

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree,” Lincoln once said. “And I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

The Grand Rapids Symphony, which soon will select a new music director, has been sharpening its axe so it’s ready.

The next music director will lead the ensemble and its artistic journey into the future, but the path there will be mapped out, thanks to a new Strategic Plan.

Its five-year mission is to explore ways to attract new audiences, to seek out and serve an increasingly diverse community, to boldly branch out into innovative new areas such as music for health and wellness.

“The real focus of this plan was how we start to build a stronger financial base,” said consultant Michael Kaiser, chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, who collaborated with the Grand Rapids Symphony on the plan to achieve its goals.

But a goal without a plan is just a wish, as Antoine de Saint-Exupery once observed.

The Strategic Plan calls on the Grand Rapids Symphony to continue to expand collaborations with other arts organizations, to explore technological advances to reach people in new ways, to engage a wider audience across the region and to prepare for major milestones such as the orchestra’s 90th anniversary season in 2019-20.

Grand Rapids Symphony has made “remarkable progress,” according Peter Kjome, president and CEO of the orchestra.

Just over a year ago, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s LiveArts extravaganza drew 7,100 people to the Van Andel Arena for a multi-media, multi-genre show with 1,500 performers.

In recent weeks, the orchestra wrapped up its $40 million Legacy of Excellence Campaign to grow its endowment, it successfully concluded an unprecedented 5-year collecting bargaining agreement with its musicians, and it sold out four of its five final concerts in DeVos Performance Hall to end its season.

Kaiser, who spent more than 13 years at the helm of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., before becoming president emeritus in 2014, said he’s especially optimistic about the future of Michigan’s second largest city.

Kaiser describes Grand Rapids as a vibrant city with a rapidly growing economy, increased downtown living, strong civic leadership and a large base of family-owned business that support the community.

In fact, Grand Rapids is one of three American cities he’s especially bullish on. The other two are Orlando and Miami, both in Florida.

“You have a downtown that’s actually getting busier, and that’s unusual,” he said about Grand Rapids. “In all three cities, I come, and there’s a sense of expectation that things are growing and are going to be bigger and better and more exciting next year than this year.”

With that in mind, the Grand Rapids Symphony has spent many months drawing up a blueprint to build a brighter future for West Michigan’s largest performing arts organization.

“This visionary five-year plan will help us sustain and advance our exceptional symphony, superb musicians and programs that reach thousands of people each year,” Kjome said.

An objective of the plan is to reflect the dynamism of the city of Grand Rapids and become an even more energetic organization that embraces the youthful spirit of the city’s leadership in design and technology.

“As a city consistently recognized nationally as one that is vibrant and growing, I count the Grand Rapids Symphony as one of our greatest cultural assets,” said GRS Board Chairperson Kate Pew Wolters. “Our board, musicians and staff will move forward together, guided by a shared vision of growth and sustainability that reflects our city and region.”

Behind the scenes this past season, board members, musicians, staff and community leaders have spent months working with Kaiser to build upon past successes, such as LiveArts, while planning for the future.

“I was ecstatic about Michael’s repeated insistence on long-term, artistic planning – three to five years,” said musician Ruth Bylsma, assistant principal flutist with the orchestra. “He also called for two-to-three big events a year. These do not have to be on the same scale as LiveArts, but noteworthy nonetheless.”

The Grand Rapids Symphony’s next music director, who will be selected in the coming weeks, will be responsible for all artistic work of the organization, including planning concerts, choosing repertoire, selecting guest artists and auditioning musicians to fill vacancies within the orchestra.

“It’s a very exciting time,” Kaiser said. “And it is indeed a crossroads period for the symphony.”

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