Kelly Ruggirello is the executive director of the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra (LBSO). Not that long ago, the organization was floundering in a bit of a creative and financial crisis but, after an extensive search, the LBSO’s board hired Ruggirello to right the ship.
Since then, the organization has become more fiscally stable and is in the midst of a rather spectacular search for a new music director. A few weeks ago, while preparing to host last week’s conference for the Association of California Symphony Orchestras, she took time to share her history, and insights on running one of the city’s major arts entities.
Long Beach Post: How did you get involved in arts administration?
Kelly Ruggirello: I was teaching third grade for Downey Unified School District (USD) and needed a summer job. My boyfriend was working at the L.A. Philharmonic and told me about a position as publicity associate for them, which led to a summer job that introduced me to classical music and a world-class orchestra.
I worked for the L.A. Philharmonic Institute – a six-week summer program based at UCLA (my alma mater) that brought 100 high school and college students to So Cal for an intensive training and performance experience.
Guest conductors and guest artists from all over the world came to conduct the L.A. Phil at the Hollywood Bowl and, during their week stay, they worked with the Institute Orchestra students. I recall at the first rehearsal, all of these students walked in, sat down, and began making incredible music. I fell in love with orchestral music in that moment. I was able to meet world-class artists and conductors, hear incredible, world-class performances while beginning to learn the field of arts management. I dreamed that one day I could work for an orchestra.
How did your education background influence your work in arts management?
Because of my strong commitment to education, my personal mission statement demands that I work for orchestras that truly embrace an educational mission, which the Long Beach Symphony does.
What did you do to move from education to full-time arts administration?
After investing so much time into teaching—having obtained my teaching credential and Masters in Education both from UCLA—when offered the position of director of education and community programs for Pacific Symphony, I decided to take a one-year leave of absence from Downey Unified School District just to make sure I truly wanted to make that leap. I knew, fairly quickly, that I’d found my calling in arts administration.
In my classroom of 35 I could make a profound impact on those students by spreading my love of the arts on a daily basis (in addition to all the other subjects). But working for an orchestra, I could focus exclusively on my true passion—spreading my love of music to thousands.
I was Pacific Symphony’s first director of ed. and comm. programs, and created the department. Prior to my hire, they did have some small concerts in high school auditoriums, some musician visitations to local high schools, and a few other, smaller initiatives.
During my five years, we launched two training orchestras, an award-winning orchestra music education program called Class Act – now in its 20th year (you can google and find lots on it), as well as an elementary string and wind/brass program in a few districts. We moved those auditorium concerts into the big Segerstrom Concert Hall, where 18,000 students were bused to hear a full orchestra performance. I had great support of my administration and volunteers. Creating Class Act is one of the major highlights of my career.
How did you transition from this position, to your next?
I was offered the position of vice president of development, marketing and public relations for the Orange County High School of the Arts in 1998. I had made many connections and relationships that could help this institution grow.
During my seven-year tenure, I raised over $40 million, including $25 million to relocate the campus to downtown Santa Ana, where the seventh to 12th grade pre-professional arts charter school is now award-winning and ranked one of the best high schools in the nation. I loved learning the field of fundraising and playing a role in the expansion of such a great institution. It’s now called the Orange County School of the Arts. Those students have an exceptional academic and arts experience and thrive in such a welcoming and nurturing environment. I absolutely loved my time there, but I was ready to become an executive director.
What was that next opportunity?
Nine years as executive director of the world-class professional choir in the OC, Pacific Chorale. As a singer myself—I still sing here in Long Beach—I loved working with world-class singers and, arguably, one of the best choral conductors that has ever lived: John Alexander.
While there, I was able to financially stabilize the organization, build the Board of Directors from 12 to 38 members, launch an $800,000 campaign to fund artistic projects and relaunch their education department.
Those are some truly impressive accomplishments!
Thanks! I’ve chosen positions where change is valued and where I can try to make a difference. Which all leads me to here!
What were the issues you felt were at the top of the priority list for the LBSO?
I have lived in Long Beach 27 years but never worked here. This was the community in which I raised my 2 kids (now at Millikan) and sang in church, but that was it. I had attended LB Symphony concerts and knew its outstanding reputation with world-class musicians and its serious commitment to music education. After all those years commuting to the OC, it was nice to be off that 405 freeway! The Board conducted a nationwide search but ultimately chose someone from their community: me. After a decade of deficits and staff turnover, the Symphony needed stability in leadership.
Within my first 100 days, I’d met with over 300 donors, patrons, politicians and community leaders, with my intent to begin building relationships and demonstrating my commitment to and passion for the arts in Long Beach. Over the past two years, I have focused on rebuilding those relationships and making new ones. I assembled a fabulous administrative team, increased the Board by 15 new members, and ended the past 2 years with surpluses. I also focused on building relationships with our musicians which successfully resulted in providing them modest raises over two years.
As you explored these various stakeholders, did you find that the commitment and passion to the arts, in Long Beach, was in any way different than in OC, or elsewhere?
With an 80-year-old institution, what I found was that the community and its stakeholders are seriously and passionately dedicated to the Symphony. I always say that the difference between an organization and an institution is the degree of community ownership. The LBSO is definitely an institution. Just as a community defines itself by its achievements, the Symphony is a huge source of pride and many generations of families have been committed to its mission and its success.
As with most arts institutions, there’s always the balance between serving existing audiences, and drawing new ones. How has that challenge been met?
We walk an interesting path of honoring our mission of providing classical and contemporary concerts, as well as education programs, while trying to attract new and diverse audiences to ensure the continuation of our mission. Sometimes diverse programming can attract new audiences but we must balance it so as not to turn off our current audiences. Another solution is to create audience engagement programs— and other entry points—for new folks, such as a Family Concert Series. In the next year or so we’ll be hiring a new music director, whose vision will help lead the way for additional initiatives to help build audiences, which is very exciting!
During the time when Maestro Joann Falletta was the music director, she was constantly commissioning new works. This was beneficial in a number of ways. Is there any plan to resume this?
Each Music Director has his or her artistic vision, which can include commissioning works, creating new recordings of the orchestra, touring the orchestra, implementing concerto competitions, etc. Now that we are financially, stable we have begun dreaming again about being an active contributor to the art form. We only await our new artistic visionary to lead the cause!
Tell me about this next season, when the LBSO will continue to audition conductors. How did this idea come to be?
Our prior music director, Enrique Arturo Diemecke, completed his final season in May 2014. We created an Artistic Transition Committee comprised of musicians, Board members and staff, to select guest conductors for our Classical concerts, of which we had six last season. The committee decided to invite three of those to return and invite three new conductors for this season. While all six are music director candidates, we are putting no time limit on this search. We will take the time we need to find the right fit for our world class musicians and our wonderful community.
Aside from the search for a new music director, what are the other big challenges, or opportunities, you’re tackling in the next year?
Well, next week culminates a year long planning process. I serve on the Board of Directors of the Association of California Symphony Orchestras, am immediate past president and currently the conference chair. LBSO was awarded the prestigious and highly coveted honor of serving as conference host for the annual conference, at which nearly 300 delegates come for three days of inspiration, education, and rejuvenation.
We will also begin negotiations with our local musicians union this spring, as our contract is up for renewal. It went so smoothly last time due to great respect, trust and mutual admiration, that I expect another mutually beneficial contract this year. A third straight year of [fiscal] surpluses continues to be the goal to show our community that we are experiencing a renaissance here at the Long Beach Symphony and are earning the trust and respect of our patrons.
In my experience, one of the aspects of being executive director that is critical and often overlooked, is the culture we create with our staffs, volunteers, musicians and Board members. My management philosophy is not the typical pyramid structure. It’s actually an inverted pyramid where I’m at the bottom and it’s my job to provide whatever is needed to ensure my directors and staff are successful.
Ultimately, we serve the musicians and the community as a public charity. I believe this sense of enthusiastic, optimistic, knowledgeable and passionate humility is what makes a great leader and I strive for this on a daily basis.
To learn more about the LBSO’s concerts and other programs, including Thursday’s Live After Five rooftop performance with RIOTstage of the Beatles’ Let It Be album, visit LBSO.org.