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November 19, 2018 Community Excellence & Nonprofit Awards 2018

Collins helps orchestrate Hartford Symphony's transformation

Photos | Contributed Steve Collins addresses a Hartford Symphony Orchestra audience at Hartford's Hog River Brewery.
(Left) Steve Collins with HSO Personnel Manager Jarek Lis on stage at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. (Right) Collins with legendary Tonight Show bandleader and trumpeter Doc Severinsen at the HSO’s Talcott Mountain Music Festival.

Nonprofit Executive of the Year — Winner: Steve Collins, Executive Director, Hartford Symphony Orchestra

Steve Collins began as executive director of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra (HSO) in April 2016 after the organization's near financial collapse and has helped improve finances, develop new programming and stabilize staff, putting HSO on sound footing entering its 75th season that began in October.

“Steve on his own has — with the help of the team and the board and the musicians — really put us in probably one of the best spots HSO has been in, in a long time, if not ever,” said Jeff Verney, chairman of the HSO board.

It's a far cry from three years ago, when Verney said HSO was running out of money, almost went out of business and was at a contract impasse with its musicians. But musicians agreed to a new deal in Jan. 2016 that saved money and HSO made other moves to set a new course, he said.

In fiscal year 2018, HSO increased revenues by nearly $1 million to $5.4 million. It also turned nearly $600,000 losses in fiscals 2015 and 2016 into surpluses of $40,856 and $45,220 in fiscals 2017 and 2018, respectively.

“Credit really needs to go to everybody: Steve, the board, there's also the musicians, they certainly made a meaningful sacrifice that helped us get to the position where we could stabilize and start to grow,” said Verney, who is president of group retiree products and services at UnitedHealthcare.

Collins said HSO's turnaround has been a large-scale effort, including by Music Director Carolyn Kuan, whom he called a “vital part of the picture” and key ingredient to HSO's success.

Verney also credited David Fay, president and CEO at The Bushnell, for hiring Collins in 2014 as HSO's director of artistic operations and administration during the 2014-2016 period when The Bushnell assumed management of the struggling HSO. Fay in 2016 handed management to Collins, whose previous leadership experience includes executive director of the Waterbury Symphony Orchestra.

HSO's stabilization the past two seasons is the beginning of its transformation to change with the times and broaden its audience through new programming and experiences, said Collins, 51, acknowledging the changes were necessary for survival.

“This is a multiyear process … and there'll be successes, but there also will be some setbacks, too,” he said. “It's all part of experimentation and being a progressive arts organization.”

Key has been catering to audiences looking for new experiences without abandoning the classics and light classics, which remain an HSO backbone, he said. New endeavors include HSO playing the score to popular movies like “Star Wars” or “Harry Potter,” which attracted new customers, Collins said, noting the challenge of synching music with the films, and “the music itself is not easy.”

HSO also began a concert series with musicians playing nontraditional venues like breweries or art galleries, giving new audiences an introduction to musicians.

HSO also is partnering with the New Britain Museum of American Art to display digital images of art during performances, exploring the concept of music inspired by visual art.

Additionally, HSO plans to show segments of its performances online to expose more people to its work.

HSO also is reintroducing its Young Artist Competition for high school students to audition for HSO and get feedback from its musicians to help inspire future performers.

In fundraising, HSO in early September was 59 percent of the way toward its goal of raising $10 million through its Music Builds Community campaign, which began in 2016.

Himself a musician, Collins, a percussionist, first toured and played professionally, later gravitating toward orchestra education work, then orchestra management. He plays when he can around Connecticut and occasionally “you'll find me in the back of the percussion section here at the Hartford Symphony,” he said.

Verney said Collins' joy of music “sort of helps drive joy into everything he does.”

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