Finally A Captain At The Helm

As a denizen of Honolulu, I have been monitoring the leadership situation at the Honolulu Symphony off and on over the past few years. Up until the last week or so they have been without an executive director and a music director and suffered some tension on the board of directors. This past Saturday an article in the local newspaper announced that Tom Gulick has been apppointed executive director.

Gulick, who counts the Detroit Symphony in his background, was recently executive director of Ballet Pacifica which has had some tough times of its own. In March Gulick left his position there for personal reasons. The ballet’s development director left around the same time. A few weeks later, artistic director Ethan Stiefel also departed barely a year after his loudly trumpeted assumption of that position citing the cancellation of the 06-07 season due to lack of funds as his reason for leaving.

There is some good news as Gulick takes up the symphony’s reins. Just last month the state allocated a $4 million grant to the organization contingent on matching funds being raised. The state also gave the symphony $150,000 for education programs. The symphony has a new board president and has recruited 13 new board members.

Gulick will need all the backing he can as he leads the largest professional performing arts company in the state. Not only does the organization need to hire a music director, it is also in contract negotiations with the musicians union who agreed to a fairly significant paycut a few years ago.

Gulick also faces some public relations problems for the symphony. In an interview on Hawaii Public Radio (mp3 format), Gulick acknowledged that he would be making a “save the symphony” appeal to the same people who gave to save the organization a few years ago and a few years before that. Among his plans to gain the trust of the community is to have fiscal transparency.

He may also want to focus on the use of the symphony web site to reassure the public about the symphony’s strength and successes. Despite the articles and radio interviews that have occurred, as of this writing there is no mention on the website that Tom Gulick is executive director or even that the symphony was preparing to announce someone soon.

There has been some grumbling among season ticket holders over the past month. Editorials in the newspaper have been complaining about a new pricing scheme in the balcony. Two couples wrote that their balcony seats have tripled in price since last year and are on par with the cost of the most expensive orchestra seating. Both decided to pass on subscribing this year, but one couple reconsidered and renewed their seats, although it was for fewer performances. Another single ticket buyer wrote to say she tried to buy balcony seats but was told they wouldn’t be sold until the orchestra seating filled up. Faced with only $60 remaining, she walked away. Two of the writers noted that given the symphony needed to match the state grant, they were surprised the symphony would risk alienating them.

While I might question the amount of the increase and the timing of some decisions, for me this just underscores just how important box office policies are in audience relations. There are some situations when communicated clearly with patrons that earn understanding and tolerance. It is just difficult to make a compelling case in a subscription brochure or train box office people to effectively do it.

I have been approached by symphony musicians with proposals to have both chamber performances and full symphony concerts in my theatre as part of an outreach to my side of the island. It will be interesting to see if any sort of momentum in that direction will develop in the next 5 years or so. Alot of new housing is popping up out here so there is a potential for new audiences as well.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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