Closing: Asking for Money in the Arts

10/13/2017 11:58 am ET

A few years before the New Mexico Symphony folded, my brother Kevin, serving at the time as the orchestra’s executive director, took me one summer evening on a fundraising visit to the home of some symphony patrons. Perched miserably next to him on a plastic covered wicker couch in the slatternly sunporch of the ranch home of a retired naval aviator and his wife nestled in the hills above Albuquerque, I watched as the once-beautiful Navy Wife in her sixties whose leathery smoker’s skin had been rendered by the desert sun as stiff as an iguana’s flashed what once must have been a best-and-the-brightest smile, curtsied girlishly, and pressed into each of our fists a highball glass brimming with Ballantine’s. “Lenny’s drink,” I murmured to Kevin. “Well, this sure isn’t the Dakota,” he muttered.

Despite my brother’s addiction to alcohol, he was by all accounts an excellent arts administrator. In 1997, after stints with the Milwaukee Symphony, Denver Symphony, Florida Symphony, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and Illinois Symphony, Kevin landed in New Mexico, where he won a job as executive director of the now-defunct New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. The board hired Kevin knowing that he was an alcoholic. His staff was not just his professional but his personal support network—they were people who loved him who—when he disappeared to a hotel with a crate of booze—noticed his absence, and went out to look for him. Orchestra and man kept one another alive for a decade, with Kevin as a maverick fundraiser, a key factor in his job. “You need someone who knows how to go ask people for fifty thousand and a hundred thousand dollars,” conductor Roger Melone remarked after Kevin died. “That takes a very special person, and he knew how to do that. He had to inspire trust to get people to do that.”

“I sure do adore the symphony,” Navy Wife purred as her husband glowered malevolently at us over his bottle of Miller Lite. “I know,” Kevin smiled warmly, “and the dinner was wonderful,” he said, knocking back the scotch. “Kevin,” asked the pilot, “my wife’s going to write the orchestra another big check. How does that make you feel?” “Just great, Wayne,” replied Kevin, carefully. “Uh huh,” he grunted, heaving himself up and walking into the kitchen to get himself another beer. As he walked away, the once athletic Pilot called out, “Tell me: how does it feel to be such a loser?” Kevin’s smile, as he watched the woman’s pen skitter across the safety paper, did not shift. I wondered whether the players of the New Mexico Symphony knew that this sort of little ritualized humiliation formed an important part of what their executive director did to keep their orchestra afloat. “I do it for the music,” Kevin said evenly, folding the check in two and placing it carefully in the breast pocket of his blazer. “Well, honey,” she said, hard, to her husband’s back, “so do I.”

Grown acquisitive with the financial stability that Kevin’s fundraising and stewardship had established, the musicians demanded a substantial pay hike. “The orchestra saved my life, and I saved its life,” Kevin told me when they struck. “I knew that they were being unrealistic, but players usually are. I told them that if they got the board to give them the new contract, I’d retire, and predicted—without joy—that the symphony would be out of business within two seasons.” The union’s victory was Pyrrhic: the orchestra declared bankruptcy soon after the players won their contract negotiation.

Kevin took no satisfaction in having been right about the New Mexico Symphony folding, but he did take satisfaction in having had a hand in creating the orchestra’s endowment, the charter of which stipulated that, if it went out of business, then the money would endow Albuquerque-based symphonic music. “What this meant to donors was that no matter what happened to the symphony in the long run, their money would not go down the drain,” Melone observed. Kevin turned to freelance consulting, and then served as executive director of Opera Southwest for a while, but the safety net of friends and co-workers that had helped save him from his own demons was gone and, within a year or two, he succumbed to a heart attack brought on by chronic alcoholism.

That summer night, though, his business concluded, Kevin smiled warmly at Navy Wife, nodded to Pilot, and we saw ourselves out. Loosening his tie and sighing deeply, he turned to me and gave me one of the lopsided, rueful smiles we had both inherited from our mother. “Was it a lot of money?” I asked quietly. “The amount isn’t the point,” he said. We walked down the shipshape pad of cement leading out to the street. In the end, despite all I’d learned as the artist member of fundraising duos, I hadn’t Kevin’s gift for closing—leaving the room folding a donation check and placing it in my blazer’s breast pocket was something I did too infrequently to be a successful foundation president myself. Kevin’s keys jangled in one hand. The other was free. I slipped my hand into it for a moment and said quietly, “I don’t think I’ve ever admired you more.”

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