Q&A with Rob McDonald, new Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra board chair

Innovating to increase diversity is key to future

Rob McDonald takes over as chair of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra board of directors this month, at the beginning of its 125th season. A partner in Taft Stettinius and Hollister (where he chairs the Cincinnati Business & Finance group), McDonald co-founded The Brandery – a Cincinnati-based global business accelerator – and helps manage Vine Street Ventures, a venture capital fund investing in web and mobile technology companies. Before college, he grew up in Canada, the Philippines, Japan and Belgium, settling in Cincinnati in 2009. His father, Bob McDonald, is retired chairman, president and CEO of Procter & Gamble, and former U.S. secretary of veterans affairs. This global background gives Rob McDonald a unique perspective on the relationships among business, innovation and the arts. Movers & Makers co-publisher Thom Mariner spoke with him about his new responsibilities at the CSO. His responses have been edited and condensed for publication.

Rob McDonald
Rob McDonald

Thom Mariner: What is your earliest memory of being exposed to the arts? And did you have artistic training or education growing up?

Rob McDonald: My earliest memory of exposure to art is probably going to art museums. I was fortunate to be exposed to the arts; it was a focus area in our family very early on. As kids, we were taken to museums, taken to performances. I was active in jazz growing up. Played the saxophone. Our jazz band would play gigs on weekends, and we made a little bit of money, enough to take girls out on dates, which was pretty much all I wanted money for back then!

Worthy cause.

Yeah, exactly. And at some point I got a little tired of playing the saxophone and put it away when I went to college.

So how can we better educate our students to prepare them for future jobs? 

I certainly think the arts are a big part of that. There were music theory classes I took in high school that I found to be as challenging as some of my math courses. So it’s intellectually stimulating, but also you have the creative bent to music theory. We would like to see arts education continue in our community. There’s a lot of pressure to cut arts budgets and cut arts funding. Our current president has talked about cutting the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) at various times and that’s obviously something we don’t want to see happen.

But our orchestra, we’re fortunate to be in a position where we can be a leader in that area. Through our strategic planning exercise, which we just completed, education in the community is to be a big focus area for us.

What form will that take?

The nuts and bolts of how we deploy it is going to be figured out. But I believe it’s going to be more in-school-type programming. We do a lot of performances for schools, but personally, I would love to see more in-class programming. That’s a bigger commitment, but that’s where I’d like to see us go.

Have there been conversations with the school district about that, to your knowledge?

Yes. We’re excited about the fact that Laura Mitchell (superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools) just joined our board. So we are going to be having active conversations with her and are looking to her for leadership on this.

What do you see as the principal role of the CSO within the community?

As the largest arts organization in our community, now that we have financial stability, we’re in a position where we can continue to deploy programming and arts in ways other organizations can’t. Our arts need to be more inclusive. And to do that we need to reflect the community more broadly. So if you look at what we’re working on now – CSO Look Around, CSO Proof – we are trying to be as innovative as possible to be as inclusive as possible. And that is one of the big outcomes of our strategic plan – making sure we’re creating arts programming that is not only going to reflect the community but be inspirational to all aspects of our community.

Now that Music Hall has been renovated, what’s next on the horizon, especially in terms of promoting the classical art form?

I talked about inspiration and innovation in our strategic plan, but the core of the orchestra is still our traditional programming and we are always going to look to excel at that. We will continue to look for better talent to make our orchestra one of the best in the world. That was a challenge at one point; now we’re in a position where we can really be focused on musical excellence. I believe our artistic quality will make the CSO one of Cincinnati’s best global ambassadors. 

What do you see as the relationship between traditional classical repertoire and new music, and to what level might programming shift in the future?

There is a perception that innovative new contemporary music is going to draw younger, more diverse audiences. We see that in our data, and I believe that to be true. So this year we’re launching the CSO Proof series, a three-concert series (shorter, casual, intermission-less performances featuring elements of theater, lighting and dance). The investment we have to make to roll out a program like this, it’s actually quite extensive. And it’s expensive, too. So we want to be very deliberate about how we do it. We’re not going to change our entire repertoire overnight.

I personally prefer our classical repertoire, but I also understand that we need to be innovative and do new things with our repertoire. I’m super excited about CSO Proof. We’re making a big commitment with this. And seeing how that series performs this year, we’re going to try to expand that. And then we’ll look at finding ways to get people going to CSO Proof to attend our traditional performances, as well. Getting people in through the innovative programming is great, but we have to make sure they continue to be regular patrons.

Beyond obvious fundraising requirements, what do you see as the key challenges for the orchestra?

Our key challenge is diversifying our patron base. If you look at the core of our audience, a lot of them will not be here in 20 years. So we need to continue to attract new audiences and find ways to, again, be reflective of the community. One thing I’m really excited about is the folks we have joining the board this year – by far the most diverse group of directors we’ve ever had. We’ve talked about Laura Mitchell, but Charla Weiss joined us last year – she runs diversity and inclusion for Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. We’ve got Gerron McKnight joining us from Christ Hospital. Will Lindner, who’s a young leader joining us from UDF. Stephanie Smith joining us from Fifth Third Bank, who runs diversity and inclusion there. I’m particularly excited because it lowers the average age of the board and increases our diversity.

How confident are you that the symphonic art form will exist as is by the time the orchestra turns 150? Or how might it change? 

I believe the top-line classical repertoire will always exist in some form. I’m a strong believer that we will be celebrating our 200-year anniversary, maybe even our 300-year anniversary. But I do think we will see more series like CSO Proof. I believe we will be doing more performances outside of Music Hall as well. We need to be playing in the community more. We need to be playing on the road more. To make our orchestra heard, we can’t just be in Music Hall.

Let’s talk about the startup community and The Brandery. What opportunities might you see for meaningful interaction or cooperation between the arts community and the startup community? And to what extent is this being done now?

Great question. Fortunately, there is stuff being done now. For the Look Around event held in Washington Park and OTR, we had stakeholders from the startup community consult on that project. I think that dialogue is really important to helping us understand what new audiences want to see from the symphony. We don’t regularly see the startup community at Music Hall. I think we’re going to change that. 

Securing a decent seat at the CSO is not an inexpensive proposition, and that can be a barrier to inclusion. What do you think the opportunities might be for corporate support to make tickets less expensive?

I think there’s extreme possibility there. To the extent we can use sponsor dollars to subsidize ticket prices to reach more patrons, that is a formula that is certainly of interest to a lot of people. Including me. To the extent that somebody is having trouble getting a ticket to the CSO and has an interest in going, I want to take that person to the CSO. So if we can’t find a way to do that, we’ve got problems. 

Rob McDonald with his wife, Alexa, and their son, Wells
Rob McDonald with his wife, Alexa, and their son, Wells

There is a lot of conversation about how we need to start teaching the language of music at an early age when language is most easily adopted by young children. Thoughts?

This is particularly relevant to me because I have a 1-year-old. I think as much as possible, exposure to the arts, whether musical or performing or visual arts, is really important for a child’s development. The research seems to support that as well.

So how do we make that happen?

We have to invest in it. Again, I believe our orchestra is well positioned to impact our community’s ability to access the arts. ArtsWave is a wonderful organization in funding tons of initiatives, but our various anchor arts organizations, if I can use that term, really have that responsibility. That is what we are charged with doing, with making sure people can access the arts.


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