When Anne Ewers took over an ailing Boston Lyric Opera in the 1980s, she figured out that she needed $18,000 to get the company back on its feet, so at her first opera board meeting she handed out pledge cards and asked each board member to write down what he or she was willing to give.
“When the cards came back I said, ‘Gentlemen, we are at $3,000 short.’ Whoosh — sent the cards around again.’”
The second appeal reaped what she needed.
That experience would come in handy decades later when Ewers became chief of the Kimmel Center. Philadelphia’s answer to Lincoln Center was still struggling with loans left over from the construction around 2000 and there was no easy solution in sight.
She worked to assemble a package of funding from board members and area philanthropies that erased the debt. It was an echo of her strategy in Boston.
“It’s just adding zeros, that’s all it is. Same job, add zeroes,” she said.
Of course, in Philadelphia there were many more zeroes. The debt she inherited at the Kimmel was $30 million, and Ewers has spent the last 14 years on the perpetual fund-raising treadmill that jobs like this have become.
Now she’s ready to step off. Ewers announced a few months ago that with the consolidation of the Kimmel and Philadelphia Orchestra under a single corporate umbrella, she would end her tenure. The quasi-merger was finalized Thursday, and Ewers, the Kimmel’s longest-serving president and CEO, was set to retire Friday after 45 years in the arts sector.
“I have just loved this career, and all parts,” said Ewers, 69, who came to Philadelphia from Salt Lake City, where she had been president and CEO of the Utah Symphony and Opera. “I started as a singer, then a director and designer, then a producer, then presenter, and never have I looked back and said, ‘Gee, I wish I was doing whatever.’ And I think that’s how I feel about retirement. I just knew when I was ready and I was ready to move on.”
She leaves the Kimmel with a balanced budget (as of the end of the fiscal year ending June 30, 2021.)
Ewers arrived in 2007, just six years after the Kimmel opened its doors. Philadelphia had not been clamoring for an arts center. Rather, the $275 million complex at Broad and Spruce was conceived after decades of the Philadelphia Orchestra struggling to build support for a new concert hall.
A group of civic leaders bet that a larger project folding together an orchestra hall and smaller concert venues would do a better job of attracting funding, and it did. The center opened in December 2001, as home to a handful of homegrown resident companies and with an ambitious datebook of visiting orchestras and high-profile soloists.
But even as Ewers was interviewing for the job, consultants were being hired to diagnose its financial problems.The Kimmel was competing with some of its own resident companies for donors and audiences, leaders concluded, and a new business plan was adopted. The Kimmel not only needed the debt gone, but also required a larger endowment. It would focus on Broadway shows — and the lucrative income they can bring — as well as jazz and a popular mix, leaving classical music to others like the Philadelphia Orchestra and Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.
What got cut were the visits from the Vienna and Berlin philharmonics and major American ensembles, as well as certain high-profile touring solo artists. More than a decade later, Ewers says she has no regrets.
“Well, I mean my whole life is classical, right? But it was so hard for the orchestra when we would have a guest orchestra in there that I actually am relieved that we aren’t competing with what they are offering,” she says. “And now I am really excited about the direction we’ve taken because we’ve found a way to reach a really broad and diverse community, so that now there is something for absolutely everyone at the Kimmel. I think people need to see the Kimmel as their home. And a meeting place, as a convening place. And they need to feel like, ‘Gee, I belong here and there is something for me.’ ”
That business model held until recently. The quasi-merger puts both the Kimmel and the orchestra under a single parent company now headed by orchestra president and CEO Matías Tarnopolsky. Ewers sees the consolidation as the solution to a certain amount of friction and competition that has existed between the two groups.
The Kimmel and its groups have often jostled for concert and rehearsal times in the halls. “Scheduling has always been such a struggle,” says Ewers. Now, though, she cites a recent discussion over a national choral conference wanting to come to Philadelphia for three days. “That would never have been possible, and now the orchestra is saying, ‘Hey, maybe we can go on tour for three days.’ It’s working together instead of working in conflict.”
Coordinated fund-raising is already happening, she says, so that as wide as possible an appeal can be made when calls are being made to donors. A particular donor who might not be interested in giving to education and diversity programs, for instance, might be willing to give to Academy of Music restoration, or vice versa.
The naming rights to Verizon Hall, for instance, expire in 2023, and now, with the orchestra and Kimmel operating as one, the prospects of funding a future namesake have brightened, says Ewers.
“Many of the orchestra patrons are going to be more interested in naming Verizon or the stage in Verizon Hall than anyone we would have had contact with, so I think there is some great potential there.”
In her time, Ewers oversaw several makeovers to the complex, including the transformation of the public rooftop garden atop the Perelman into a private enclosed events space that produces rental income. She drew support from philanthropist Leonore Annenberg to launch the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, which appeared four times before it quietly disappeared.
“I would say it ran its course. It was great for those years, but we couldn’t find funds to sustain it,” said Ewers.
She brought in chef Jose Garces to operate the restaurant and catering, and oversaw the purchase of the Merriam Theater from the University of the Arts.
It’s that acquisition that points to some of Ewers’ unfinished business. In 2015, she set out to sell naming rights for various aspects of the center — with price tags for everything from $100 million to put a name on the entire center, all the way down to much smaller items, such as naming rooms.
She had hoped to finish the entire campaign by 2020, but no major donor or corporate entity has so far signed on the dotted line.
A naming opportunity is central to funding much-need renovations at the Merriam Theater, whose 1,800-seat size is ideal for many groups that can’t fill the 2,500 seats of Verizon or 2,900 in the Academy of Music, but can sell more than the 600 or so of the Perelman Theater.
“It’s got great bones, it just needs work,” says Ewers of the Merriam, whose history includes Broadway tryouts, Black theater, and a wide variety of musical genres.
Ewers may be stepping away from her daily devotion to the Kimmel, but she won’t be totally shedding responsibility. After a few weeks off, she will return to serve on the all-volunteer board starting in December. Much work remains: more renovations and fund-raising; expanding appeal to traditionally underserved audiences; figuring out how to draw back audiences in COVID times; and the very tall order of figuring out how the center once again alters the mission and programming mix as it and the orchestra merge identities.
“I’ll be around,” says Ewers, “probably more for performances than I had time for before.”