Arts + Culture


Strike Up the Brand: How Kathleen van Bergen Reshaped Artis—Naples

Through five years of controversy, the CEO has changed Artis—Naples to include a younger, broader audience.

 

Kathleen van Bergen had seen Olga Hirshhorn’s renowned art collection before, of course, and had watched the exhibition go up on the third floor of The Baker Museum. Nevertheless, on this particular night—the museum’s annual reopening—she is showing off the works with the enthusiasm of a first-time viewer.

She points to a lamp in one display case, molded by Giacometti, a Swiss surrealist sculptor. “That’s amazing. That was in her bedroom,” van Bergen says.

Or, how about this one. She gestures to a narrow striped painting, Kenneth Noland’s Twin Planes. Frank Verpoorten, the museum’s director, had noticed it one day while visiting Hirshhorn’s nearby home. The artist had intended a vertical display; Hirshhorn opted for a horizontal one, tucked above her kitchen cupboards. “Hey, art is personal,” van Bergen says with a shrug. (It hangs vertically in the museum, for the record.)

She could, no doubt, spend hours narrating the collection—and a similarly impressive one recently donated by Naples collectors Paul and Charlotte Corddry—but the window of time is short, and she’ll have goodbyes to say as the crowd exits. This was the first Art After Hours of the season, and nearly 500 people had come to see the just-opened exhibits and enjoy an admission-free night at the museum.

It proved a fine kickoff to van Bergen’s sixth season as Artis—Naples’ chief executive officer, a season in which her artistic team is putting its programming philosophy fully into play and embarking on a major fundraising push. 

But her vision had included something radical: the rebranding and renaming of a beloved, homegrown institution. Less than two years into her position, the new executive, with her board’s backing, announced that the Philharmonic Center for the Arts would henceforth be known as Artis—Naples. Had a posse rounded her up and escorted her out of town, few might have been surprised and even fewer might have intervened. 

That was three years ago, and van Bergen likes to say she’s lived under the new name for longer than she did the old. “I’m happy to say that feels like a long time ago now,” she says.

Lost amid that controversy is any real sense of who van Bergen is, what drives her decisions, where she’s taken the organization and what she’s imagining for its future. Consider this a re-introduction to the woman behind Naples’ most important cultural institution.

Kathleen van Bergen greets guests at The Baker Museum during a VIP reception.

 

Conversations about Artis—Naples and the differences between the previous administration and the current one are delicate—if they take place at all. No one wants their words to be interpreted as disparaging to The Phil’s founder—the charismatic Myra Janco Daniels, a pioneering ad executive who sold the community on the need for a cultural complex. The 1989 opening of the Frances Pew Hayes Hall thrust Naples onto the international scene and shaped the community’s identity as both seaside retreat and enclave for high-minded arts.

Nevertheless, board members were ready for The Phil 2.0 as Daniels prepared to retire.

“(Daniels) built the organization out of thin air. It’s extraordinary,” says Ned Lautenbach, who has been on the board of directors for roughly 20 years and now serves as its chair. “But like any organization, after a period of time, it needs new thoughts, new blood. … We weren’t in trouble, we weren’t falling apart, but we needed a fresh start, a revitalization.”

There were concerns that The Phil was catering to a narrow subset of elites even as Collier County’s demographics skewed younger and more diverse; concerns about subscriptions rates; and concerns about the long-term financial outlook.

A recruiting firm combed the country for someone suitable—and willing—to follow a legacy. The search yielded two men, seasoned professionals, and 34-year-old Kathleen van Bergen.

“Kathleen seemed a little riskier, younger, but with a lot of enthusiasm and good experience,” Lautenbach says. “I was really taken by her, and I think it’s good to put young people into jobs. They bring a different dimension to it.”

Van Bergen had started out as a professional violinist trained at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. But she found herself scrimping on practice time in favor of industry study—researching composers, conductors, trends and the art of putting together compelling programs.

“We can blame Eastman for that,” she says one August morning. “It’s very common now, but Eastman was one of the first to have an arts leadership program, and I was part of the second graduating class.”

She packed up her violin (though she still plays from time to time) and landed a string of prominent jobs—vice president and director of artistic administration for the St. Louis Symphony; vice president of artistic planning for The Philadelphia Orchestra; and artistic and executive director of the Schubert Club, an organization in St. Paul, Minnesota, dedicated to presenting acclaimed soloists and ensembles.

Van Bergen has no interest in being a founding CEO—“I cannot imagine starting something literally from sand up. That’s amazing to me.” Her strength, she believes, is in taking established organizations to new levels.

“It is a gift to come to an organization that is already beloved,” she says.

Left unsaid: the weight of community expectations that comes with taking over an institution so cherished.

Two of van Bergen's key hires: Baker Museum Director and Chief Curator Frank Verpoorten (left) and Vice President of Artistic Operations David Filner. (Courtesy Artis—Naples)

 

Van Bergen’s immediate charge was to fill two key positions. The Baker Museum had gone through a slew of administrators since its opening in 2000, and van Bergen was eager to stabilize the place—and increase its prominence. In addition, conductor Jorge Mester had announced he would depart at the end of the 2011-12 season, leaving a hole at the organization’s core, the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra.

She scored two significant victories, landing the acclaimed Russian-born conductor Andrey Boreyko, who leads Belgium’s national orchestra and has conducted many of the world’s most prominent symphonies, and coaxing curator Frank Verpoorten out of New York City to take a chance on small-town Naples. Verpoorten is a native of Belgium and is his country’s former cultural attaché. Both men carry the kind of industry clout that could draw big-name musical guest artists or increase the museum’s scholarly reputation by curating new, unique exhibits.

Van Bergen would later round out her artistic team with the appointment of David Filner, the former interim CEO of the San Antonio Symphony, to serve as vice president for artistic programming.

All three say they were struck by the CEO’s professionalism and the clarity of her vision.

“When I met with Kathleen originally, it was so easy from the start, our getting along. There was something different,” Verpoorten says, some five years later. “I got the impression that she was so on top of the game.”

Verpoorten came into the job with concerns about museum operations, and when he brought them to his new boss, she had already made an almost identical list. Chief among them: the name.

“It was the Patty and Jay Baker Naples Museum of Art at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts,” Verpoorten says with a grin, remembering the impossibly long line of text on his business cards.

The Bakers agreed to streamline to “The Baker Museum,” but that didn’t solve what van Bergen, her newly assembled team and a consulting firm she engaged saw as a bigger issue.

“Philharmonic” means music. Van Bergen wanted to grow the role of the museum and also convey the breadth of shows and events staged on the 8.5-acre campus. “Philharmonic,” she believed, didn’t define the place—at least not for out-of-towners or the visiting artists the organization hoped to attract.

Thus came “Artis,” Latin for “the arts.” In Naples-speak, though, it carried a whole lot of other translations, and they were not flattering.

 

It’s a Sunday morning in early October, the first low-humidity day in months, and van Bergen is enjoying a stroll through Naples Botanical Garden. She appreciates artistry in nature and has always sought out gardens and parks like this as she’s moved about the country. At the Naples garden, she found a willing partner in outgoing director Brian Holley, who has worked with her to stage small concerts and to install a massive Origami in the Garden sculpture exhibit by artist Kevin Box, which opens this month.

“Look at this—it’s brilliant,” she says, pausing by the Roberto Burle Marx mosaic wall and pointing to pools of water that flank the walkway—sans fencing. The black water looks endlessly deep, but it’s maybe 2 feet at best, safe even for wayward toddlers.

Van Bergen is the kind of person who pays attention to, and delights in, the details. During a previous encounter at her office, she’d taken note of the roofers’ light-footed movements as they went about their tasks. Like choreography, she’d said. The trait stems from her music training, where she developed an ear for the subtleties of pitch and an eye for the nonverbal cues of fellow performers.

“You have to be feeling and sensing, and that’s a heightened perception,” she says. “I find myself doing that when I come into a room. It does remind me of chamber music.”

Van Bergen is a polished woman, who dresses with artistic flair even on this weekend morning. Her simple black sundress is augmented by a wide necklace and playful yellow sandals. Her close-cropped haircut would connote “practical” if it weren’t for a styling job that gives it a chic, tousled look.

She stoops to show off the cottage in the children’s garden, a favorite play spot for her nephews when they visit. Van Bergen’s physical presence—she’s 6 feet—might grab attention, but her demeanor is reserved, private. And that has meant she’s had to adjust to the very public nature of her job.

She reflects on that point over breakfast. She was used to representing the organizations for which she worked, but she’d never held a job that carried the community prominence of this one. “It’s different here,” she says. “I knew the position that Myra held in the community, but I didn’t know if that was something that just stayed with the founder.”

It didn’t. In Naples, the directorship of the region’s cultural headquarters is regarded as something akin to public office. “It is a responsibility I happily accept, but it is not one I am totally comfortable with,” she admits. She seeks opportunities for private time through travel, or in quiet moments at home where she likes to cook or tend to her container garden.

Van Bergen doesn’t really like to dwell on the period immediately following the name change, though she indulges a question about how she weathered the fallout, which had included demonstrations, a well-circulated petition and a public back-and-forth on newspaper opinion pages. Unnervingly, letters showed up at her home, too, of the type she’d prefer to forget.

“I definitely pulled back and found some space to think. You go into it with the full intention of success and growth and that you’re doing the right thing. … We expected a little bit of controversy. We just did not expect organized opposition.”

The debate was framed as “Myra vs. Kathleen,” a painfully personal narrative for what van Bergen had regarded as a strictly professional decision.

But to Neapolitans, it was personal—an outsider tampering with something they felt belonged to them. “When a New York ad company gets involved, it’s not Naples anymore,” says longtime resident Joyce Malone. She’s talking about the consulting group that had recommended the rebranding. “I still miss a lot of the old things about Naples. I miss the landscape at (what is now) the Waterside shopping center. And I feel that way about The Phil. The Phil was Naples, and this is not Naples at all.”

Three years later, van Bergen acknowledges (as do some board members) that they might have rolled out the changes differently, but she doesn’t waver otherwise.

“I could have just left,” she says, “and I didn’t do that, either. I really did believe in it.”

 

The name change was really just a kickoff, the foundation for a wave of initiatives van Bergen and her team wanted to roll out.

And that’s what they are eager to talk about.

“We are on a path of more and more experimentation, making sure we are responding to our community and our changing demographics,” she says, back in her office.

As her board had encouraged, van Bergen looked for ways to broaden the base. She launched Art After Hours, the monthly, admission-free evenings at The Baker Museum. She introduced Live and Local, a series featuring cocktail hours and local bands. She invited other arts groups such as Gulfshore Opera and the Naples Concert Band to perform at Artis, and arranged for free-of-charge chamber concerts around the community. Exhibition notes—at least for the permanent collection—are translated into Spanish, a nod to the growing Hispanic population and to the museum’s sizable Mexican art holdings. She introduced rush tickets for Philharmonic concerts and reconfigured Hayes Hall ticket prices, creating premium seating at exclusive rates but also less expensive tiers for those with smaller entertainment budgets.

 “To me, as an outsider, what she has done is open up the doors and the stage and the seats to much more of the community than was ever perceived in the past,” says Naples resident Fred Katz, who is active with the Naples Concert Band and who, with his wife, offers music appreciation lectures. “Myra has done such an incredible job establishing the treasure we have here and making the arts such an important part of the community. But the one weakness … was a perception, even if it wasn’t actually real, that it was a bit on the elitist side.”   

There is no longer a suggested dress code in the program book.

Music Director Andrey Boreyko (left) and Concertmaster Glenn Basham. (Courtesy Artis—Naples)

Programming changed, too.

Van Bergen and her team challenged the notion that Naples was as staid as its reputation suggested and brought in acts like iconic rockers ZZ Top and shows like the irreverent Book of Mormon and the potty-mouthed Jersey Boys. The latter show got some pushback, but the former went over far better than she expected.

“I didn’t actually sit in the hall,” she says of Mormon’s opening night. “I was in the lobby to see what happened. We were ready to act—the whole patron services team.”

As if on cue, the house door opened about 25 minutes into the show, the time when performers delve into the musical’s the most controversial number. But only a single person emerged, an older man holding a listening device that he said was broken. “I thought, ‘OK, he either cannot believe what is coming out of it, or it really isn’t working,’” van Bergen says. “It definitely wasn’t working, and I remember thinking maybe that’s a good thing it wasn’t working for that song!”

“I was really proud of our community,” she adds. “Not everyone loved it. But they felt prepared and they were able to talk about it.”

Boreyko made changes on the orchestra side, too. He’s known for his affinity for lesser-known works, and was happy to find an administration that encouraged his pushing of the genre.

“(Van Bergen) always puts art first, and thanks to her work and support, I am able to explore a variety of artistic projects that would probably not be possible with many other orchestras,” Boreyko says in written remarks (he was in Europe during the reporting of this story).

This might not resonate with those who ascribed to the “music you know, music you love” slogan of years past, but those looking for a more contemporary spin on classical music are welcoming the conductor’s choices.

“I couldn’t take any more Brahms,” quips concertgoer Richard Newton, who enjoyed Tan Dun’s Water Concerto, a piece for percussion and orchestra that involves, quite literally, the playing of water as an instrument.

Board member Liza Wong and her husband, Terry Johnson, were in the audience for that one, too (they attend about 100 events per season). A fellow subscriber commented that the piece “opened a window in the mind,” Wong recalls. “(Boreyko has) challenged the audience. I was taken by how classical music can be so modern.”  

That’s not to say the conductor has abandoned classics. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 and Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien were among his choices this season and last.

There had been some early pushback. In the press, some residents decried a “youthanization” of the institution and derided the introduction of “bar bands.”

But in recent conversations, other patrons understand what van Bergen’s doing—and they approve.

“She was brought here to make change. She was not brought here to preserve the status quo,” Newton says. He likens the response to the leadership change to that of a young Riccardo Muti replacing the legendary conductor Eugene Ormandy at the Philadelphia Orchestra. “The complaint was he wasn’t Eugene Ormandy.”

Even those still critical of the name change compliment the effort to reach new audiences. “I think they’ve touched a younger group of people with some of the programs, and I think that’s ideal,” Malone says. “One show is not going to appeal to everyone.”

 

For the last couple of years the artistic team—van Bergen, Boreyko, Verpoorten and Filner—have talked about creating multidisciplinary events. That was, after all, one of the drivers of the name change—the idea of creating one united arts organization, not a museum and an orchestra that happen to share a campus.

This season, they’re doing just that.

They created two thematic units, “Scale” and “Muse.”

Scale considers our interpretations of works large and small—how viewers regard an oversized piece of art compared to a miniature one—and explores how the listening experience changes when concertgoers hear a full orchestral work versus an ensemble piece.

“We wanted to look at what is it about scale that makes something artistically great?” Filner explains.

Muse examines how an individual can inspire an artist. In this case, the administrators chose two women, Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler, and traced their influence. The work of Schumann, a composer like her husband, Robert, is reflected in the music of Brahms and Mendelssohn. Mahler, the widow of composer Gustav Mahler, inspired quite a few painters, including Oskar Kokoschka, whose work depicted their tumultuous relationship. The exhibit of Kokoschka’s work runs through April 16. The education division will host lectures on both topics, offering a new depth of experience for patrons. 

The prospect of collaboration was one of the primary reasons Boreyko came to Naples.

“For many years I have had ideas about making connections between the visual arts and music,” Boreyko says. “In most other orchestras or arts organizations, it is very difficult to create true collaborations between these art forms, so we have a chance to do something very unique in the world here in Naples.”

 

"We're not just changing the name; we're changing the way we think."—Kathleen van Bergen

 

Some predicted a full-blown collapse after the ill-received Artis rollout, but that hasn’t happened. Net assets have increased from $90.5 million in fiscal year 2012 to $101 million in fiscal year 2015.

Year-over-year comparisons of ticket sales are hard to make due to the variables such as the number, mix and popularity of shows—as well as factors out of the organization’s control such as regional economic health and household discretionary spending. Under van Bergen, admissions generated $14 million, $12.7 million and $13.5 million in fiscal years 2013, 2014 and 2015 (she did not set the programs for her first year, FY 2012). They were $13.6 million and $13.9 million and $15 million for the fiscal years preceding her, 2010-2012.

The subscription base has grown, administrators say, from 14,559 to 15,979 between fiscal year 2011 and fiscal year 2016. The average revenue per package is $301.

Contributions have vacillated from $11.8 million in FY 2012 to $7.2 million in FY 2014, but that line item is about to surge when the FY 2016 figures are released. Over the past year, Artis—Naples has gotten two headline-making contributions: a $15 million gift from board member Kimberly Q. Querrey and her husband, Louis A. Simpson, to launch a $50 million capital campaign; and $10 million from board member Timothy Ubben and his wife, Sharon, to endow the music director position.

Add to that two major gifts of art. In November 2015, prominent collectors Paul and Charlotte Corddry announced they were donating 50 works of art by masters such as Picasso, Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg. That was followed last summer by the news the administrators had longed to hear: Olga Hirshhorn, who died in October 2015, had willed her collection—some 400 works—to The Baker Museum.

“Seriously, we got a little teary-eyed,” Verpoorten remembers of the meeting with Hirshhorn’s representative. “You think it’s an endorsement, it’s a vote of confidence, especially when you learn how relatively recently—in the last year or two—that she wrote that into her plans.”

Selected works from the Hirshhorn collection are on display through July 23.

“These kinds of gifts don’t come without them believing there is good leadership in place to handle the funds,” notes board member Robert Edwards.

Indeed. Ubben called van Bergen “the finest nonprofit CEO that I have known,” and Querrey says it was her “vision for the future” that inspired her and her husband to kick off the capital campaign.

“She is bringing world-class symphony orchestras to Naples, like the Vienna Philharmonic,” Ubben says. Naples is one of just three stops on its U.S. tour this season. “That is a feat probably admired by her peers who wonder how in the world can a little orchestra, a town like Naples, be able to attract the first- or second-best orchestra in the world.”

Van Bergen started the capital campaign by seeking board contributions and will take it to the public within the next few months. With the money, she wants to grow the endowment to $100 million; provide funds for Boreyko to create new artistic and community initiatives; increase the museum’s permanent collection; and upgrade the organization’s 8.5-acre campus to create a more community-friendly environment that draws visitors even when they don’t have tickets to a show.

 

Back at the Botanical Garden, van Bergen is gearing up for a quick trip to celebrate her nephew’s 4th birthday in St. Louis, to business in Chicago, and then it’s full-throttle into season.

“I do think my relationship with the community has evolved. I do feel people have given me the opportunity to express myself and express what we can do as a united Artis—Naples, celebrating both the visual and the performing arts, and education and everything we offer under one umbrella,” she says. “We’re not just changing the name, we’re changing the way we think. I think people understand it’s a different approach.”

There are those she’ll never win over, those who’ll always see her decision as an affront to the founder, and those who just don’t care for the programming she’s staging there.

Nevertheless, van Bergen is pleased that she’s won over many of those former detractors, and, quite frankly, she really doesn’t mind if her patrons hold on to the old name, along with their old affinity for the place.

As for that new name, well, van Bergen confides that she’s ready to start doing a whole lot more with it.

“At the time we were choosing it, we knew this Latin word that means ‘collection of the arts’ is actually two small words,” she explains. “There’s a playfulness to it … but we never really got to roll that out in 2013.”

“Artis—Naples,” she says, “Art is Naples.”

On that point, there is no dispute.