September 3, 2014

Getting Our Phil

In Gulfshore Life’s October issue, we glimpsed the people and events most influential in Myra Janco Daniels’ life through excerpts from her new autobiography, Secrets of a Rutbuster: Breaking Rules and Selling Dreams.
In this concluding excerpt, we discover that a humble idea to form a community chamber music ensemble, when mixed with one very talented, very restless, very persuasive retired widow, leads not only to the creation of the world-class Naples Philharmonic Orchestra, but also the Philharmonic Center for the Arts and the Naples Museum of Art.


We return to Myra’s story in 1979, when her husband, Dan, convinced her to retire to Marco Island. While he enjoyed retirement, Myra thought of it as “self-imposed prison” and knew she would eventually have to find something to occupy her time. She didn’t realize how soon that would be. Dan was diagnosed with cancer a few months later, and after a four-year battle, he lost his life. She then had to decide what to do with the rest of hers.

Finding Inspiration
I thought for a while that I would go back to Chicago and return to work—although I couldn’t work in my field because of a buy/sell agreement I had signed. Without Dan, I just didn’t want to be retired.

During my long walks on the beach, a question kept coming to me: What can I do to make my world a better place? For a long time, I didn’t know. What I did know was that I didn’t want to sit around and feel sorry for myself. I also didn’t want to spend my days playing bridge or golfing.

For weeks, I took walks and became lost in my thoughts. I placed my faith in a higher power and eventually found an answer to my question.

While Dan was sick, I had received a call one night from two women who wanted to form a chamber music ensemble on Marco Island. Our community was very remote, a couple of hours from Miami, and this was both a blessing and a curse. There was lots of natural beauty where we lived, miles of gorgeous unspoiled beaches and waterways, but virtually none of the cultural beauty—music, art and theater—found in metropolitan areas. But I began to realize, slowly, that there was plenty of hunger for it.

These two women knew that I was from Chicago and that I had an interest in music. They asked if I could help them. At the time, I told them I couldn’t really do much. But shortly after Dan died, I went around to see this fledgling chamber group perform at a local church. It was really just a little pick-up orchestra, in need of rehearsing; but I remember thinking, “This is a good thing. This is what the community needs.” So I decided to support it.
But they sorely needed leadership—and a plan. I told them that to make this work, we had to approach it as a business. First, we needed a budget.

“What sort of a budget?” they asked.

I suggested a goal of $100,000, which would enable the chamber orchestra to perform four concerts a year. I think they thought I was crazy. But I went home and paged through the phone book, marking every few residential numbers with a red dot and then began to make calls. To each of the respondents I explained that we were building an orchestra that would perform in our community; I then asked if they would like to join us. The community was even hungrier than I had imagined.

It took only five days to raise the $100,000.

The turning point came when I called a woman named Frances Hayes. I gave her my line about building an orchestra, and she said, “Well, that’s a wonderful idea.” We chatted for a while, and I asked her what part of the world she was from.

“Philadelphia,” she said. I told her that my mother used to take me to Philadelphia to hear the orchestra.“Oh,” she said. “My father was their biggest donor.”

Her father, she added, was J. Howard Pew, one of the founders of the Pew Charitable Trust and president of Sun Oil Company. We had a nice conversation about music and culture, although at the end of it, she said, “Unfortunately, we’ve given all our money away for this year. But I can give you 25.”

That was fine with me. Each contribution, large or small, was a step in the right direction. When I got to Mrs. Hayes’ house the next day to pick up her check, I found what she had meant by “25.” Her check was written out for $25,000.
It grew from there. We started by selling a dream, and soon, as the money came in and we began to build a quality orchestra, we shared one.

There were many other happy surprises in the months ahead. One woman donated lodging for musicians, enabling us to hire musicians from the East Coast. Then I received a call one day from Jerome Hines, who owned a lot on Marco Island. He had read an article in the newspaper about this woman who was building an orchestra, and he offered to perform a recital benefit for us at a local country club. My friend and state legislator Mary Ellen Hawkins led the charge for government funding.

The theme of our campaign became, “If you want great music in your life, join us. Together, we will build this.”
I never planned to be on the orchestra’s board. But the shared excitement of what we were doing made it impossible to quit. Fundraising became an obsession with me. It was fun and contagious to once again build something from nothing.

Once we had a financial base, we concentrated on the product. We needed better players, and so began holding auditions in Miami. More importantly, we needed a conductor, an experienced maestro who could lead the orchestra and help it grow.

One of my heroes growing up had been Walter Hendel, who was then associate conductor of the Chicago Symphony; Maestro Hendel had done all the children’s concerts in Chicago. Later, he was the music director of the Dallas Symphony. I flew out to see him conduct in Dallas and, afterward, went backstage and asked if he’d come to Marco and do four concerts a year for us.

He said yes, agreeing on a salary of $10,000 per concert. Eventually, Walter steered us to a young man named Tim Russell, who was studying to be a music teacher. Tim became our first music director. A few years later, we replaced Tim with Christopher Seaman, one of Britain’s leading conductors, and Erich Kunzel, the world’s most renowned pops conductor at the time. It still amazes me how much this orchestra has accomplished in such a short time. By the mid-1990s, the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra, as it is now known, was nationally recognized. We had appeared on two PBS specials, accompanied such renowned singers as Luciano Pavarotti, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Frederica von Stade, and had been nominated for a Grammy Award. It was a lot of work, but it never seemed like work. People cared and shared. They wanted to be a part of our family. That was the most effective selling point and one of the secrets of our success.

Making Culture Contagious
It was Frances Pew Hayes who told me that we shouldn’t just build an orchestra; we should also build a home for that orchestra. At the time she told me this, I wondered if we were ready for that. “Maybe not,” Mrs. Hayes said, “but if I know you, someday this will be a first-rate orchestra, and then there won’t be any land left. In fact, let me give you $2 million to get started.”

I told her, “Mrs. Hayes, we appreciate your offer. But we don’t even have a plan yet. However, if you agree to put your money in escrow and give me six months, we will have a plan.”That’s how the orchestra fundraising drive became the drive to build an arts center. The community was even more excited by the plan for a performing arts center than they were about the orchestra. In fact, there was another group in town that also wanted to build an arts center and we became opponents. For several years, they fought us tooth and nail. But by the time we ran into them head-on, we already had $9 million.

Fundraising became my full-time job. I can’t even say for sure when this other group gave up. I just stopped paying attention and eventually they went away. We rented a small office on the highway where I set up green theater seats—just like what we’d have in the hall. People would come in and I’d sell them a seat in the theater. We literally sold the arts center to the community. Every hallway, seat, piece of carpet and brick was sponsored by donation—everything except the urinals.

Contributions ranged from several million dollars to the $1.29 offered by a young boy to buy a $100 brick (I accepted the offer, but gave the boy back a dime after he told me it was his entire savings). One woman pledged $10 from her monthly Social Security check. “Best damn project I ever saw!” she told me on opening night as she rode up on her bicycle. To date, more than 70,000 people have contributed to the center.

Along the way, the concept of the arts center evolved with the enthusiasm of the community—from a home for the orchestra to a full-scale performing arts complex that would also encompass world-class visual arts.

Once we decided to build the Philharmonic Center, I talked with 10 architects, all of whom told me we shouldn’t have art galleries in the hall. I thought, “What do people do during intermission?” Our region didn’t yet have an art museum, and I knew people were hungry for art. Why can’t we also offer museum-quality exhibitions?

After some deliberation, I finally settled on Eugene Aubry, who had recently designed the Wortham Theater in Houston. Gene didn’t think art galleries fit with a performing arts center, either. So I told him, “Gene, we’ll pay for it, you do it.”

Ten years later, the community’s support enabled us to build a three-story art museum adjacent to our center. One of the characteristics that has set us apart from other arts complexes is our mission of combining all of the arts—performing as well as visual—in a single complex under a single management.

On Nov. 3, 1989, the Philharmonic Center for the Arts opened, 95 percent debt-free. Soon afterward, we were 100 percent debt-free. The center has steadily grown since then, both artistically and fiscally. Today, we are a $105 million nonprofit corporation—and an example of how a community can build something from nothing.

Why did it work? First, because we believed in what we were doing and used that belief as a tool to create what some thought was not possible. Second, because we applied the principles of business to our efforts. From the beginning, we approached this with an organized business plan and specific goals. There’s no reason why show business can’t also be good business.

But culture does not convert to cash without careful planning. A performing arts hall has to be conceived, planned and built under the rigid disciplines one would apply in starting any new company.

Why have we remained successful when so many arts centers and orchestras are operating at a loss? One important reason is that we have stayed in sync with our changing community. The challenge is not so much building an arts center as sustaining the community’s interest. Once built, performing arts centers have an enormous capacity to lose money. Because we shared the building of this arts center with the community, there is a feeling of ownership that some other arts organizations don’t have. Together, we changed the cultural flavor of a sleepy seaside community and showed that the arts can be alive and kicking in small-town America. This arts center is a monument to that effort; it belongs to the community.

We have also tapped an important resource too often overlooked. There are many retired corporate officers in Florida playing golf or lying in the sun, bored and restless. Our board includes retired CEOs from some of the largest companies in the country. One result of their pragmatism was the establishment, early on, of an endowment fund that will be a life-sustaining factor for our future. There is a tremendous need in the arts world for the talents and connections that these former executives have developed in their business careers.

We continue to grow by working together and paying attention. Part of our mission is to bring the arts to everyone—to reach out to children and to reach out to the underprivileged. The arts aren’t elitist, although they sometimes carry that stigma. To me, one of the most gratifying sights is the look of wonder in a young child’s eyes when he or she experiences a classical music or dance performance for the first time. Youth programs are a major component of the Philharmonic Center.

Our future, I sometimes say, is in the little hands of our children.

The Philharmonic Center hasn’t “ruined” the community, as some people had warned early on. But the impact of world-class cultural opportunities has certainly changed it. Naples Mayor Bill Barnett was recently asked what effect the Philharmonic Center has had on the city and the region. “It’s done two things,” he replied. “It established Naples at a national level, and it set a new standard for excellence that can be felt in every part of the community.”

The Philharmonic Center is an example of what a community can accomplish when it is galvanized, and it shares a belief. Our arts complex belongs to the people of Southwest Florida and will serve this now culturally savvy community for generations to come.

As my grandmother Sophie said when I was four years old, and about to launch my first business: “Create something that people want and need.” This is what we have done.

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