New arts council chief aims to rock

Tom Philion
Tom Philion

Todd Cohen

GREENSBORO, N.C. — When Tom Philion traveled in April from his home in Seattle to interview for the job of president and CEO of United Arts Council of Greater Greensboro, he made a side trip to New York City to play bass guitar in a club in Greenwich Village with renowned musician Mark O’Connor.

Philion, who has spent most of his career on the management side of the arts business, mainly managing orchestras, says his perspective as a musician will help guide his approach to his new job heading the arts council – both because he understands first-hand the world of the arts groups and artists the council supports, and because he wants to inject the energy and innovation of the creative sector into the sometimes button-down business of supporting the arts.

“This is an industry with a little bit of a reputation for being intransigent or old-fashioned,” he says of the orchestra business in particular, “and I like to take a look at things and do some interesting stuff.”

The arts council, which saw its annual fundraising double to a high of $1.62 million in 2008 under Jeanie Duncan, its former president and CEO, will be looking at alternative revenue streams, Philion says.

“I think we can raise more money,” he says. “We have a tremendous opportunity in Greensboro because the community is very rich in talent, and the Arts Council should be able to capitalize on that and leverage that to find more resources and support the wonderful quality that’s there.”

Another focus, he says, will be cooperation and collaboration.
As president and CEO of the Greensboro-based Eastern Music Festival from 2000 to 2007, for example, Philion helped spearhead creation of the Jazz and Blues Festival, an annual event his organization coordinated that generated a “larger synergy,” he says, by encouraging its participating organizations to produce and market their own events as part of the jazz and blues gathering.

“You can bring energy to bear by thinking in different ways about how to make some really good stuff happen,” he says.

The son of two violinists, Philion grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and started playing in a garage band at about age 12.

After graduating with an undergraduate degree in English from George Mason University, his first job was in the press office at the National Symphony in the Kennedy Center in Washington.

He later served as director of marketing and public relations at the Cleveland Orchestra, then managed the orchestras in Richmond, Va., Vermont, Oklahoma City, Buffalo and, most recently, Seattle.

When he arrived in Seattle in April 2007, the symphony faced an accumulated deficit of roughly $3 million.

Philion says he tweaked but did not slash programming, laid off staff and volunteered a give-back of part of his salary, then presented the symphony’s new plan to core donor groups and raised a total of more than $5 million beyond the annual fund over two fiscal years.

The symphony balanced its budget in 2007 and 2008, although it posted a deficit in its most recent year in the face of the recession.

He also looked for ways to move beyond traditional revenue strategies.

The Seattle Symphony, for example, recorded Shoe Bird, a piece of music by Sam Jones based on a children’s book by Eudora Welty, and persuaded Jim Dale, the voice of the Harry Potter audio books, to be the narrator.

Then, instead of releasing the work as an audio CD marketed through music stories as a piece of classical music for a narrator and orchestra, the symphony made a deal with Brilliance Audio to release it as an audio book marketed through chain book stores, like Borders and Barnes and Noble, and big box stores like Target and Costco.

The recording, which was nominated for a Grammy, generated more royalties for the symphony than any other recording effort in the last 10 years, Philion says.

Working to “rethink the donor culture” and continually assessing the work of the arts council and its impact on donors, will be key to generating more revenue in Greensboro, he says.

“It’s easy to get separated from the donor base,” he says. “One has to constantly think about what’s important to donors, what resonates with donors.”

Philion also is looking for a local band to play with.

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