ISO Reinvents Itself While On Hiatus

May 29, 2020

James Johnson – Courtesy of Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Used with permission.

Like many people in Central Indiana, one of my favorite summer pastimes for years has been Symphony on the Prairie concerts held at Conner Prairie in Fishers. It’s a magical event I have cherished for the opportunity to hear the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra perform outdoors, while dining al fresco with friends, watching the sun set over the prairie and the moon rise into the star-filled canopy. However, like so many of my favorite seasonal activities I had looked forward to this summer, Symphony on the Prairie concerts have been canceled due to the pandemic.

I found out in a news release from the ISO in early May. which read “In keeping with precautionary guidelines necessitated by the COVID-19 outbreak, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra announces the difficult decision to cancel performances through September 17, 2020. This latest cancellation affects the last three Hilbert Circle Theatre concerts of the 2019-20 Lilly Classical Series and Printing Partners Pops Series, the full Kroger Symphony on the Prairie season, the Fifth Third Bank Lunch Break Series, and all other special performances.”

The news release went on to say the 2020-21 ISO subscription series is still scheduled to take place with concerts beginning September 18. In the meantime, ISO will continue to engage the community with “From the Vault,” a series of weekly virtual concerts featuring favorite performances from the ISO archives, along with a variety of virtual performances and content featuring the musicians of the ISO.

Leading the charge during this very critical period for the ISO is its chief executive officer James Johnson, who began his tenure in Indianapolis on April 30, 2018. Previously, he served as president & CEO of the Omaha Symphony, following his roles as chief executive officer of The New York Pops, and in operations for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and Martha Graham Dance Company. He earned a Bachelor of Arts from Pacific Lutheran University, and a Master of Business Administration and Master of Arts in Arts Administration from Southern Methodist University.

Wanting to learn more about the impact of the health crisis on Indianapolis’ premier performing arts institution, I reached out by phone to Johnson from his home, where he is quarantined with his wife Jennifer and his children, Hannah, 20, and Maya, 15. Following is an edited transcript of our interview.

How does the pandemic stack up against your other career challenges?

It certainly ranks up there with my greatest challenges. I have been through three recessions in my career. I have experienced the death of two founders of two organizations I worked for. Then, of course, was 9/11. I guess the point is I have found the arts to be resilient and I have certainly found the organizations that I have been a part of have all come back from whatever adverse conditions we have faced and I am optimistic about this set of circumstances as well.

I think the most difficult decision of my career was the one we had to make a few weeks ago when we put the whole orchestra on furlough and laid off about half of our administrative staff and that was extremely challenging. And, of course, it is easy for me to say, but much harder to be one of those on the receiving end of that bad news. It was a very difficult decision. I am pleased we were one of the early recipients of the CARES Act, so we have been able to rehire, at least on a temporary basis, those musicians and employees during this time. So now, we are attempting to be a virtual orchestra. How do you function as an orchestra when you can’t be together to play music and audiences can’t be in the same room with the musicians? So, we are having to reinvent ourselves in some ways.

I presume you are juggling lots of different scenarios relating to when and how you’ll reopen?

One of the unexpected and wonderful benefits of this time is that we of the arts community have connected in some really marvelous ways. There is a weekly call that Julie Goodman (Arts Council of Indianapolis) organizes with the arts leaders in the community and a number of other, more ad hoc meetings I have had with other arts organization leaders. We discuss our shared challenges and opportunities and future possibilities. The fact the community has really coalesced in the last couple of weeks has really been a marvelous and unexpected benefit. I have to hand it to Julie. She has done a really marvelous job. I have just been so pleased with what she is doing and proud of the role the Arts Council is playing during this time, connecting and acting as our advocates with governmental authorities.

It sounds like those meetings really prevent you all from not having to reinvent the wheel, right?

That’s right. We can compare notes. The shortstop into the batter’s box are the museums and other cultural attractions because they are going to be open on a limited basis probably starting next month and how are they going to go about serving the community in a new way? So, we’ll learn from them in the next while. It’s more challenging for performing arts organizations because we are dealing with proximity issues for both the performers and the audience. You can practice social distancing more readily in museums or a park setting. It’s really more challenging in a concert hall or even an outdoor space where people gather for a concert. So, we are looking at different scenarios, but none of these is easy.

Doesn’t reopening all boil down to your audience members comfort and safety level?

You couldn’t have said it better, Tom. The real challenge for us is not to just implement social distancing measures, but can we persuade our patrons to return at this time or in the new future? It is going to be more challenging without wide-scale testing, without contact tracing, without some kind of treatment possible, if not a vaccine. So, I think it is going to be a while before we are going to offer concerts in any kind of normal setting or a setting that we have become accustomed to. But we do have other surveys I have looked at and there is a great deal of caution, across the country and even locally, expressed by potential concertgoers as to their readiness to return to concerts. You have to listen to your audiences. We are not ready. Yesterday, we canceled concerts until September 17 and it affects a huge number of concertgoers. Dozens of concerts, but I don’t believe we have heard one complaint. Everybody seems to understand.

What are they telling you?

Right now, we are just listening to the hundreds of people calling our box office, getting in touch with us by email or other means. It is a massive effort today to accommodate the requests of all of our patrons. Those who are holding tickets for concerts. We are managing that process right now and that’s what is happening with the feedback we are getting. Honestly, everybody has been very understanding…with a great deal of disappointment, of course. Everyone would like to be able to attend concerts, but honestly, it has not come to my attention there is anyone who doesn’t understand the very difficult decision to cancel concerts.

What about audience members who, rather than asking for refunds, donate the cost of the tickets?

That’s a great question. I am very proud to say a very small percentage of our ticket-holders are requesting refunds. That just speaks to the confidence they have that the ISO is going to return and they want to be part of that. It’s really quite remarkable. And others have simply turned those tickets into donations. That’s just so great.

How about donations in general?

There is certainly an economic downtown that is very real. There’s a huge number of people out of work right now and those not out of work are cautious, but we have been fortunate in our fundraising efforts. We are still being rewarded with contributions, so there is some confidence in the ISO from that perspective as well. We feel the donors we are in touch with are being supportive. Some are increasing their gifts with the understanding that it is a bit of a challenging economic time and not everyone is going to be capable of making a gift. So, some of our contributors, who are better off than others, are stepping up to make larger gifts. We hope to be able to put in place a challenge program at some point in the future as we look toward the end of our fiscal year in August. It’s possible economic conditions, being what they are, may not be what we base our goals on for the start of the season, but we are being successful now at raising funds.

How has the pandemic affected the ISO financially?

Well, we have certainly felt the enormous hit on ticket sales. That means we have slowed dramatically for concerts in the future and that has really impacted our cash flow and it really will have an impact on us financially. There have been certain contributors or corporations that may have other priorities at the moment other than the performing arts because of the COVID-19 challenges on society.

I take it you are referring to sponsors?

Regarding sponsors, it is just challenging because they are really focused on the present and we are talking about performances that may be a year away and it is hard to speak about a future that is so distant at this point when there is such a great crisis staring us all in the face.

Have you had to draw from your endowment?

We have not had to draw any special amounts from the endowment, but our endowment is a special organization with a special board of directors, so it’s not as if they would provide us with any kind of funds automatically. You have to request those and, thus far, we have not had to request additional funds from the endowment and we hope we can continue for the rest of this fiscal year on an even keel and not have to request funds from the endowment.

How are you dealing with scheduling guest artists? Don’t you book years in advance?

Well, in advance. We have plans that extend three years and it varies according to the time of year, so now is the time when we would start to book 2021-22 season and start that process now and it’s pretty challenging, I will tell you. There is so much uncertainly to that. Frankly, we booked next season and we are very hopeful we are able to start on September 18, the first concert of next season, so I hope it will all fall into place, but there is a sense of unease about those plans.

Next season is Maestro Urbański’s last, correct?

Krzysztof is looking forward to next season, which will be his concluding season as music director. He’s got a good season plan of some of his most beloved music, particularly with concluding our Beethoven celebration in the fall of 2020. There are a number of really wonderful concerts we are planning for winter and spring, so that is still in place. So, we are looking forward to the new year.

Is the search for his replacement still ongoing?

We do have an active search committee made up of musicians, staff and board members and they continue to do their work, even during this time. Katrina McGuiness, our director of artistic planning, is doing an absolutely marvelous job of keeping us on track in that search process. She is doing a great deal of the work researching potential conductors and just bringing news to us. I can tell you the committee has been focusing on the qualities we are seeking in our next music director. We are beginning to identify potential candidates for the position. It’s all a long process and it could be longer because of COVID-19, but we are hoping we can keep on track. At the end of the day, we have to have performances to evaluate the conductor. The longer we go on without a concert, the more difficult it gets.

Will virtual content, such as the ISO’s, remain a permanent component for performing arts organizations?

I do. Because it is a new way for us to connect. I mentioned how I have been connecting with other arts leaders. We’ve been connecting with our audiences and people are getting used to this idea that they can speak to anyone at any time; they can hear music from anyone at any time. I think this could be a real benefit to arts organizations, so I think there is a new horizon for us when we emerge from this with a new way to connect. We cannot forget the power or the impact of a live performance. It will be part of what we do, but I am excited about these new opportunities that we’ve had. We, as a staff, for example, are connecting much more frequently in some ways than we did in our own building. It’s really quite remarkable.

How are you coping with being in quarantine?

Well, we each retreat to our rooms at the start of the day and my day sometimes goes very late with all the things to do. Seems to be going well. I am just praying for a haircut.

What has the pandemic taught you?

During this strange time, besides honing gardening and baking skills, I have learned that we members of this community are resilient, cleverer than we knew at mastering new technologies, and are entirely social animals. We have a primal need to keep in touch with each other —if not in person—than through whatever means available.

That is why I am more certain than ever, that we, as a community, cannot subsist without live performance. Those first musical notes from the orchestra at Hilbert Circle Theatre, when we are all back together, will be absolutely cathartic. I predict tears or smiles, probably both, on every face. No one would wish that we experienced this pandemic. The human cost is almost too great to bear. Nevertheless, it has taught me that great music is priceless in value, fragile, in that it must be constantly nurtured, and reaches its pinnacle when it is experienced collectively. Music, in this sense, is a communion between artist and audience.

For more information about the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and its virtual performances and programming, go to

photo: Josh Humble

About Tom

Journalist, producer, director, Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, arts administrator, TV contributor, actor, model, writer and lyricist, Tom Alvarez has had an extensive career in media and the fine arts and continues to be an enthusiastic and devoted fan of both. His passion and unique background grant him insight, access and perspective to cover, promote and review the arts in Indianapolis, Central Indiana and beyond. Follow him on social media @tomalvarezartswriter and @tomalvarez1.

Alvarez has been writing about theatre, dance, music, cinema and visual arts for 40 years. His work has appeared in the Indianapolis Star, NUVO, Indianapolis Monthly, Arts Indiana, Unite Magazine, Dance Magazine, NOTE Magazine, and, among many other print and online platforms. A former contributor to Across Indiana on WFYI-TV, he currently has a regular performing arts segment on WISH-TV’s Life. Style. Live!

A principal of Klein & Alvarez Productions, LLC, Alvarez co-created “Calder, The Musical” and is the managing director of Magic Thread Cabaret. As an actor-model, he has appeared in numerous TV and print ads and is represented by the Helen Wells Agency and Heyman Talent Artists Agency.

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