Finale: Moving Forward, Giving Back

Christina Littlejohn, ASO chief executive officer, opens up on near-misses, impassioned patrons and a community that just won’t give up on its orchestra

rp_arlife__161213_3892Talk to me about what it means for an organization like this to reach 50 years. That’s a pretty monumental moment.

It is. Yes. It means that a lot of people have worked really, really hard to keep it going. I think about that a lot. We’re a nonprofit organization and completely dependent on individuals who are passionate about music to keep it going. I think about what it would’ve been like to meet Stella Boyle Smith—it’s her trust, even today, that helps support our Masterworks series and helps support our operations. I think of Gus Vratsinas. Gus knew Stella and can tell me stories about the old days, but now Gus is one of my favorite go-tos. He’s still greatly involved. I think about Mary Worthen, a life member. I think of the Ronnels—Lee Ronnel and Dale Ronnel, who used to be president of the guild. I think about all the individuals who’ve worked hard to keep

the organization going so we have great music for the community.

I think about our youth orchestra. I was talking to our [associate] conductor recently, Geoff Robson, and when you ask Geoff to talk about his role and what he’s doing, he’s like, Christina, it’s real important to me that it’s an equal playing field for kids, that no one feels like a have or a have-not. We’re teaching kids that if they work hard, they can control their destiny. I’m about making students for our future, about giving them a chance to hope, a chance to be a part of something that’s bigger than themselves. And I was like, Oh, Geoff! So when I think about the last 50 years, I think about all those people who were engaged and determined and gave time and money—the families who gave inordinately to transform our orchestra, to transform our youth.

And then I think about more than the kids. I think about, What are we creating in the concert hall? The reason I was so excited to do the [free community] concert is because we’re at this time when there’s a lot of conflict, and nothing creates a space where we can look around and realize that we have more in common and that we’re more alike than unalike than a concert [does]. That performance, Pictures at an Exhibition—that piece was written by the Russian composer Mussorgsky, who wrote it after walking through an art festival. It’s a piece that any person of any age from any background and any walk of life can get into and just … feel better about humanity.

So, to me, all of those people from the past 50 years and for the next 50 years are creating spaces that remind us that we are the same, and that this is about joy and about hope, and we can bond together. We can enjoy things together. That concert was really about thanking the community because, you know, over the past 50 years, over $100 million has been donated by individuals.

$100 million?

Yeah! And it’s gonna take new individuals to keep it going for the next 50. So we always want to be cognizant that we are creating a community value and that we’re appreciating the gifts we’ve been given.

Were there ever any moments over the course of those 50 years when it seemed like the organization might not live to see this day? Any points where things got tough?

Oh, yes. Personally, I know that when I got here in 2009, we were concerned. I’m sure there were other times, as well, but I’m thankfully not privy to those. When I got here that June, we realized we were gonna run out of cash in six months. There was a recession going on, and we had had some other issues, too—change of leadership. I believe there were seven different people in my spot, from 2006 to 2009.

So when I got here, we did a deep dive and realized we were gonna run out of funds just in time for Christmas. We might actually have to close the doors, just in time for Christmas. So … yes. It was very, very scary. I was like, What have I done? And, What are we, the orchestra, gonna do? But part of the reason I moved here—the reason—was because I believed this board and this organization and these musicians were not going to let it fail. It was not a community that was going to let its orchestra fail. When I was recruited, I went to a dinner, and Lee Ronnel said, Christina, we just need a leader. If you show up, just tell us what to do, and we’ll do it. I remembered that when I was looking at the numbers.

Not your typical first month on the job.

Well … no (laughs). So we got to work right away on a financial-recovery turnaround plan. There was a team of about 12 of us: board members, musicians and staff. We were not gonna let [the orchestra] die. We were gonna figure it out. We had to address how much cash we needed and how we were gonna get it—when you don’t have cash to make payroll, you’re in a lot of trouble. Secondly, we had to address what was causing the problem. And then third, how big was the problem? And again, because this community is so generous and so committed to its arts organizations, I remember my first couple of months here, the two people that I met with the most were French Hill—he was still at Delta Trust—and Jonathan Bates, who was the chair of our foundation. That December, Charles and Susie Morgan gave us the best Christmas present ever: $200,000 to help get us through. He said, I hear you have a plan. And we did. That bought us some breathing room.

So then we figured out the real problem. We had a $500,000 gap between sustainable revenue and annual expenses. So the board chose to own $300,000 of the problem, and the musicians and the staff the remaining $200,000. We had to make some layoffs and take some pay cuts, and the board increased its annual giving 300 percent. Our board chair at that point, Martin Thoma, told me, Christina, do whatever cuts you’ve got to do to get us to the edge of the cliff, but don’t let us drop off. We never cut our education programs—in fact, we looked to increase them.

We cut our marketing budget, but in exchange, we dropped our ticket price and learned we actually didn’t need to spend so much on marketing. Entergy sponsored a free-for-kids program on Sundays. And when people saw that people were coming to the concerts … you know, people are more likely to donate to a winning team. We never had to touch our endowment, never had to do a “Save the Symphony!” campaign—never had to touch those last two bullets that you hold.

So now, that was seven years ago, and we made it through. And then we had to make it through the hall being closed for renovation. We did a campaign to get us through that. So now we’re like, What are we looking at? What can we do?

You made it through a really difficult period—and not only did you make it through; you came out on the other side with this gorgeously renovated space that’s tailored to your music. So, yeah, kinda seems like you’ve checked off all the big to-dos, right?

On some level, I feel like we’ve been so internally focused. We’ve been focused on the external, sure—to Martin Thoma’s point, we wanted to make sure we could come back. You know, we upped our education program; we added a series at churches—we actually added quite a few programs. But now, I feel like we have this great chance to look externally: How can we serve the community best over the next 50 years—or, well, my head is probably still wrapped around the next five. We’re viewing it in terms of the words “gratitude” and “service” because I believe in my heart that music can transform a community. I had someone who stopped me on the street, saying, Hey, aren’t you with the symphony? And he said, My kid hated going to school. It made it horrible for his brothers and sisters, for my wife, me—every morning was horrible. But once he got the opportunity to take violin, it completely transformed everything. Now he’s happy to go to class.

So I know music has power. But how are we gonna do it? How are we gonna transform Arkansas through music? Can we help move Arkansas from 49th to 48th? Maybe even 47th? How do we move it up on the good lists? How do we help educate our kids? How do we create spaces for families to come together? A lot of people have a lot of kids, and they come to us and thank us for the free-for-kids program because it’s cheaper to take their kids to the symphony than to go to the movies. And that’s it: That’s our next generation right there. The Knight Foundation did a study and found that the one thing that audiences all have in common is that 70 percent took an instrument at some point in their lives. If you look at our board, almost all of them have taken an instrument at one point in their lives. So if we can get kids in the door, and if we can get them to pick up an instrument, selfishly, it will create an audience and a board for the future. And for the community, hopefully, it will make better kids.

Do you have plans that will come into play that will be different than what you’ve been focusing on, or is it still kind of big-picture?

Well, one of the things we started this year is the Sturgis Music Academy, [which partners with Little Rock schools to get] kids engaged in making music. We’ve hired a woman, Dr. Tze-Ying Wu, to lead the academy. She’s amazing. So far, she’s been teaching at Forest Park, Jefferson, and she’s also got a program here in our offices. But starting this month, she’s teaching all the third-grade students at Bale Elementary. And we’re going to continue to develop our SHARP program for people in their 20s and 30s, for young professionals. One of the benefits is that for $6 a month—the Netflix model—you get tickets to whatever you want. We’re currently at 60 members, and they’re really using it, which is good, because we have more young people coming to concerts, and coming more frequently.

Again, we’re just thinking about how we can knock down any perceived barrier to bring people together for our concerts. One might be price, so how do we make it affordable enough that people can come as often as they want? Starting this month, we’ll be announcing that Netflix model. One of our goals for the next 50 years is to have younger people in the audience, and to be more diverse. So one of the things I’m looking at is, is there a neighborhood or a location that we can work with to provide string-instrument instruction? Or, I don’t know—somebody in Baltimore has this bucket band, so the kids have buckets and sticks. Could we do that? A percussion band? I’ve just got to find the right partner. Anyone could participate in that, and it doesn’t cost any money. So, are there more creative solutions that we can come up with or steal from Baltimore or what have you? Are there other ways we can use that work to help transform the community? These are the ideas that I’m playing with.

And of course, we still would like to have new headquarters some day. The move downtown—we thought that would help us with our younger audience as well. We could have after-hours events with musicians, curated concerts in the lobby. We could have kids from downtown schools walk over and take lessons. We’d increase our ability to serve those kids. We know there’s an interest—we did a poll when we thought we were moving to Main Street. But we’re not there yet—but it’s still the goal, still part of the master plan.

We’ve been talking a lot about the very near future. But if everything goes according to plan, where do you hope to see the organization thereafter?

In five years, say, I hope we have a good handle on the number of people we’re serving, and for that number to be up. Also, the number of kids participating in our youth orchestra—we have four ensembles, but can we double that? Currently we have 11 full-time musicians, but I’d like us to be able to support more professional musicians living here in Little Rock, or even in Arkansas, come to think about it. More professional musicians here just means we’ll be better able to serve our community. I’d also love to see our endowment doubled. … That would be nice.

Well, if we’re thinking big-picture here, let’s just go for it! I know you’ve worked with a handful of other orchestras in other cities, so let me ask you this: Knowing what you know about the 50 years this organization has existed here and the issues it’s encountered, do you think, if this had been another city, that it would have failed?

I do. I really do. I think what Little Rock has is truly, truly amazing. Lee and Gus and Jonathan Bates and French Hill were right: Little Rock leaders were not going to let this orchestra fail. The fact that the musicians were willing to work, and the staff, and the board—an all-in, all-play sacrifice—is a reflection of the fact that this is a city that accepts differences and also embraces the greater good. And the greater good comes first. In this instance, for us, the greater good was to keep this orchestra here for us, for Little Rock, for Arkansas. It was a source of pride, but it’s also a source of great joy. I don’t think it would have survived just anywhere, no.

I do believe that our musicians were really, really courageous leaders and said, Yes, this sucks. This. Sucks. This is not our fault. But it’s going to take all of us. Let’s solve the problem together. That was key. We all solved it together. Everyone checked their ego and their self-interest at the door. I think that’s a beautiful thing about Little Rock.