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Tue, Feb

Allison Vulgamore: Leading the Philadelphia Orchestra Is Her Forte


I had the opportunity to speak with Allison Vulgamore, President and CEO of The Philadelphia Orchestra, about her time at the orchestra, life before this role and what’s ahead.  Allison came to Philadelphia from the Atlanta Symphony in early 2010.  She has been a strong force in moving the orchestra onto firmer financial ground, which followed a year of Chapter 11 reorganization of the association.  The resulting successful campaign, aptly titled the “Transformation Fund,” was used during the reorganization for fees associated with this endeavor.  Allison has now turned to reinvigorating the current endowment, pushing forward to $100 million to it.  This will allow an additional $5 million to be available annually to the orchestra for operational funds. 

The Philadelphia Orchestra, founded in 1900, has a long and esteemed history locally, nationally and globally.  They are known throughout the world for their lush “Philadelphia Sound,” through its national and international tours and through its vast discography.  Over the years, the orchestra has had just eight artistic leaders.  Currently, the artistic director is Yannik Nézet-Séguin, with Allison Vulgamore serving as the President/CEO.  Other great artistic directors have included Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy, Riccardo Muti, Wolfgang Sawallish, and Charles Dutoit. 

In April of 2011, The Philadelphia Orchestra became the first major orchestra in the United States to declare bankruptcy and enter Chapter 11; they reorganized and emerged from bankruptcy in July 2012.  This filing was due not to overwhelming debt but to an urgent need to renegotiate expenditures, such as rent and pensions.  Post-2008, debts mounted, complicated by a standard to which the union was accustomed but which the association could not maintain along with difficult rental agreements.  In 2012, when the orchestra emerged from bankruptcy, it began a stronger financial path forward.  During the restructuring phase, it formed the Transformation Fund, which raised $44 million.  Following this successful campaign, an initiative was launched to increase the endowment by $100 million.  Success in this endeavor will generate an additional $5 million per year for operations without drawing down the endowment itself. 

Allison Vulgamore grew up in Ohio, the daughter of university professors, and she majored in voice at Oberlin College’s prestigious music conservatory.  It was during this time that she realized that although she was a talented singer, she, in her opinion, would never be a “great” singer.  Allison then applied to and was accepted into the inaugural class of the American Symphony Orchestra League’s (a/k/a League of American Orchestras) Orchestra Management Fellowship Program.  It was through this fellowship that she initially came to work with The Philadelphia Orchestra.  She has continued her association with the American Symphony Orchestra League, having chaired the Fellowship Program and continues to serve as an advisor and mentor in the program. 

Allison has held leading positions over the years at the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, as well as with the New York Philharmonic.  Her longest tenure was when she spent more than 15 years at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, transforming it into one of the great American orchestral institutions. While there, she built collaborations within the community, between musical artists, including composers, musicians and conductors, and within the diverse community of the orchestra itself.  Under her leadership, fundraising rose to unparalleled heights.  She was also responsible for the concept and construction of a new 12,000-seat venue, the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park in Atlanta.

Allison came to The Philadelphia Orchestra in the middle of a difficult financial period.  Following her return to Philadelphia and after about a year of consideration, Allison, along with the Board of Directors, came to the conclusion that filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy and reorganizing would be the best option for gaining better financial footing and to negotiate contracts within the orchestra unions as well as with outside venues. 

I asked Allison if she had any special secret or advice for learning financial management at an orchestra.  She indicated that she had initially learned a great deal through her American Symphony Orchestra League Fellowship.  Allison is a great believer in on-the-job training, and this is one of the ways she has achieved her great financial savvy. 

When asked about how she managed mistakes or perceived errors throughout her career, Allison’s perspective was that the inevitable experiences could be seen as cumulative learning, not as going forward or backward, but as “side-steps.”  

Instead of mentors, Allison spoke of several life-shaping experiences.  She is grateful for the incredible gift of knowing Leonard Bernstein from her time at the New York Philharmonic.  She also talked of her work with Robert Shaw in Atlanta, particularly of being involved with the music when the 1996 Summer Olympics were held in Atlanta and of being moved by the funeral for Coretta Scott King. 

Some challenges that accompany her position as President and CEO of The Philadelphia Orchestra have included the speed necessary for the organization to recover from and come out of Chapter 11.  Following this, the orchestra made a recommitment to its vitality.  It has been challenging to continue to inspire new artistic vision while underpinning the orchestra financially, all while diligently working to meet the community where it is.  This is a delicate balance.

Allison mentioned that keeping the organization vital and relevant can be like using a Rubik’s Cube: puzzling and challenging, but beautifully intricate when it comes together.  It is also about being comfortable with risk, developing innovations and new ideas in the field while taking care to not adversely affect the orchestra financially. 

Speaking of union issues and collective bargaining, which all professional orchestras must address periodically, she mentioned the orchestra and the unions have worked together to create wonderful projects.  They were able to cooperate in creating a wonderful ongoing collaboration with China.  They have designed “Pop-Up” Concerts: free, casual, entertaining and educational musical endeavors throughout the city.  Concerning the occasional necessary negotiations, she mentions that both sides are often able to progress, but that both sometimes leave less than fully satisfied. 

When asked about advocacy and policy issues related to the orchestra, Allison spoke of advocacy being the responsibility of everyone connected to the association.  Advocacy for the orchestra is undertaken in Harrisburg, of course, but also on the international stage.  The collaboration with China has been vital to US-China cultural relations.  It has not only built exchanges of artistic ideas, but has also led to wonderful business opportunities.  Advocacy can also take the form of volunteers and board members spreading the news of the orchestra’s good work, both artistically and community-service oriented. 

From my conversation with Allison Vulgamore, I learned that she is a dynamic leader for a diverse group of staff, volunteers and musicians.  Her specialty of building collaborations has helped the orchestra progress beyond difficulties and into a very promising future of beauty, health, tradition and excellence. 

About the Author: Catherine Short is a graduate student in nonprofit management at the University of Pennsylvania and holds a master’s degree from the University of Miami and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Delaware. Besides her interest in the nonprofit sector, Catherine is a soprano, having enjoyed an international singing career.
Note: Conversations with Allison Vulgamore took place via phone conversation with the author on October 28, 2014.