Massey ready to tackle another orchestra fumbling in hard times
Now that Orchestra Iowa has built a model for struggling symphonies across the nation, CEO Robert Massey is ready for a new challenge.
The charismatic, business-savvy Massey who came to Cedar Rapids just days before the Floods of 2008, is moving to Florida to become president and CEO of the Jacksonville Symphony. He begins his new duties Jan. 2 but is staying with Orchestra Iowa until Feb. 28 to facilitate a smooth transition.
Massey, 44, said the decision was not an easy one, and “lots of tears will be shed” in his household when they do leave, but the timing was right.
“We finally found an orchestra … in need of a big overhaul,” Massey said by phone from Jacksonville, where his appointment was announced Thursday morning.
Even though the Florida ensemble is an all-professional symphony with 67 salaried musicians, a budget about three times larger than Orchestra Iowa’s and a paid staff of 38, it is facing many of the same hurdles Massey’s leadership helped conquer in Cedar Rapids. The Jacksonville group approached him in June.
“Like many orchestras, they’ve been continuously operating with a deficit budget,” he said. “They’ve got a pretty significant debt over their heads. They operate with about a $9 million to $10 million annual operating budget; they’ve been coming in anywhere from $200,000 to $800,000 in the red. They have about a $3 million accumulative deficit that’s attached to a line of credit.”
Like others in the industry, he said the Jacksonville Symphony had a labor dispute in recent years and canceled half of a season. Performances have resumed, but the organization still is feeling “the final lingering effects” of that troubled time.
He said momentum is building again, and a new music director has been hired for the 2015-16 season as well, reeling in Courtney Lewis, associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic.
“He’s a young vibrant conductor,” Massey said. “The musicians are really excited, the board’s excited. The president position was the last one they needed to fill to get into the new era and away from their past.
“So I’m looking at an organization that financially needs some assistance. Their audiences need to grow, ticket sales are somewhat stagnant, contributed giving has been somewhat stagnant,” he said. “Morale is now better, but they had about three years of a lot of institutional turmoil.”
That’s not unlike the situation the Cedar Rapids Symphony found itself in after its home in the Paramount Theatre was destroyed by floodwaters. Among his many accomplishments, Massey helped rebrand the ensemble as Orchestra Iowa, expanding its reach across the state; helped double the operating budget from $1.5 million to $3 million; forged partnerships with the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre, Ballet Quad Cities and VenuWorks, and increased audiences from 20,000 to 100,000 annually.
“If I can take just some of what we’ve been able to accomplish at Orchestra Iowa and share that with others, I think the entire industry and the art form will be better off,” he said.
And if any Hawkeye fans heading to the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville would like to tote a box for him, just give him a call, he said with a laugh.
“Robert joined Orchestra Iowa in the hour of our greatest need,” Music Director Timothy Hankewich said in a prepared statement. “As he helped this community respond to the flood, he transformed our organization in ways I could have never imagined.
“He was pivotal in saving the Paramount and active in its redesign to give the grand dame a new lease on life. He helped Orchestra Iowa extend its reach throughout the state and brought new and more expansive art to our community with partnerships with Ballet Quad Cities, Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre and many others.
“He has one of the most flexible minds I know as he imagined and transformed Brucemore and Veterans Memorial Stadium into concert venues, and had the expertise and business acumen to change us from a financially distressed organization into one that leads our peers,” Hankewich said.
“I will miss him most of all as Florida has recruited one of my best friends.”
Among Massey’s key accomplishments:
- Kept the Orchestra in operation following the epic floods of 2008
- Created Brucemorchestra!, a cultural event that quickly became the most popular of the season
- Raised $7 million to restore the Orchestra Iowa building and create the Opus Concert Café
- Worked as part of the Paramount restoration committee to gain acoustical improvements, audience amenities, deeper stagehouse, larger orchestra pit and sprung dance floor in the Theatre
- Expanded Orchestra Iowa’s concerts to Iowa City and beyond the Creative Corridor
- Created Orchestra Iowa’s Showcase Chamber Series
- Commissioned and produced American Gothic, a work by Cedar Rapids’ own Michael Daugherty, Orchestra Iowa’s first commercial recording.
- Created Paramount Presents, bringing high profile artists including Harry Connick Jr., Chris Botti, William Shatner and Pink Martini to Iowa
- Expanded Music in the Schools, an outreach program bringing Orchestra Iowa ensembles into first, second, third and fourth grade classrooms, to include all Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Community School District schools
- Formed partnerships with Ballet Quad Cities, Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre and VenuWorks to expand the Orchestra’s programming and business offerings.