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Monday, 23 November 2015 11:55

St. Cecilia diversifies, forges partnerships to broaden its appeal

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Cathy Holbrook, Executive Director of St. Cecilia Music Center. Cathy Holbrook, Executive Director of St. Cecilia Music Center. PHOTO: Katy Batdorff

GRAND RAPIDS — Longevity tends to be a double-edged sword. Just ask Cathy Holbrook, executive director of the 132-year-old St. Cecilia Music Center, located in downtown Grand Rapids.

“While that history is amazingly wonderful and beneficial and we’re certainly proud of it, at the same time, you have to stay relevant,” Holbrook said.

Holbrook and her team have worked over the last few years to diversify the center’s musical offerings as the classical music fan base slowly dwindles. St. Cecilia now offers jazz and folk music in addition to the classical music on which it was founded.

The strategic tweaks brought in 5,500 total concertgoers last season for its 10 shows. That was a 70-percent increase from nine years ago, Holbrook said. The new lineups have also introduced a whole new fan base to St. Cecilia.

The organization’s management philosophy and operating strategy led to its selection as a finalist in the 2015 MiBiz Best-Managed Nonprofits Awards in the budget category of $1 million to $3 million.

“With a shrinking audience base for classical music, the fact that all of our eggs weren’t just in that basket helped,” Holbrook said. “We were also looking outside of that and seeing ways to bring different music to the hall which would bring in different types of people.”

With an operating budget of just more than $1 million, St. Cecilia generates half from earned income, which comes in the form of building rentals, ticket sales and tuition from its school of music (which it expanded last year). The rest comes from sponsorships, private donations, foundation gifts and other sources.

The other obstacle the arts organization faced was the plethora of music options available on any given night in Grand Rapids, let alone across the West Michigan region as a whole. To set itself apart, Holbrook said that St. Cecilia simply embraced its unique characteristics, which includes an intimate 600-seat auditorium and performances that feature a social aspect to them, such as receptions and meet-and-greets.

One of the two more high-exposure ventures St. Cecilia established last year was a partnership with syndicated radio show Acoustic Café and its host Rob Reinhart for an Acoustic Café concert series. An interview with the featured artist is conducted at St. Cecilia and broadcast on 150 radio station nationwide, something Holbrook said offers incredible exposure for the nonprofit.

St. Cecilia also renewed its three-year partnership with the New York City-based Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which brings world-class musicians to Grand Rapids.

In fact, that quality is an emphasis for Holbrook and her staff. Last year, St. Cecilia featured artists that combined for 100 Grammy nominations or wins.

“For us, it’s about presenting high-quality musicians,” Holbrook said. “They might not be household names because they’re not in the popular music genre, but it’s important to keep the quality up so your audience will really trust you. They may not know who the performer is, but they know it’s going to be great because you are consistently bringing high-quality performances to town.”

Finalist: $1M to $3M
Mission: Since 1883, the mission of St. Cecilia Music Center has been to promote the appreciation, study and performance of music in order to enrich the human spirit and enhance the quality of life for the residents of West Michigan.
Service Area: West Michigan
Executive Director: Cathy Holbrook
Number of Employees: 21 total, seven full-time positions
Annual Budget: $1 million
Best Practices: Diversify musical offering to attract a broader audience. Establish key collaborations with organizations such as the Chamber Music Society of the Lincoln Center or the Acoustic Café radio show to host world-class musicians and increase exposure.

• Scott Huizenga, Varnum
• Dan Persinger, SpartanNash
• Tim Raymer, independent consultant
• Jennifer Tyler, Steelcase
• Ellen Arlinsky, community volunteer
• Lori Baker, Baker Holtz CPAs
• Renwick Brutus, Achievement Resources
• Danielle Buth, community volunteer
• Saralyn Coupe, Morgan Stanley
• Julie Croll, Meijer
• Larry Figueroa, BDO
• Michael Hampton, independent consultant
• Scott Hubbard, Warner Norcross & Judd
• Michelle Hoexum, independent consultant
• John Irwin, Huntington Bank
• Scott Kraemer, Kuiper Orlebeke PC
• Christopher Martin, Grand Rapids Symphony
• Kim S. Mitchell, retired
• Dr. Ralph Rogers, Spectrum
• Taggart Town, Erhardt Construction
• Sheila VanZile, Watermark Insurance
• Clare Wade, independent consultant

Read 3565 times Last modified on Monday, 23 November 2015 11:38
Jayson Bussa

Staff writer/Web editor

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