Leslie Jackson Chihuly’s remarkable tenure as Seattle Symphony Board Chair

Chihuly’s leadership led to a decade of growth and transformation for the Symphony.

By Rosalie Contreras & Heidi Staub

The Seattle Symphony’s transformation over the past decade, from tremendous artistic growth to community relevance and financial stability, is the result of the dedication and innovative spirit of hundreds of people involved in the organization, and many more thousands of supporters. In large measure this metamorphosis is due to the tenacity of Board Chair Leslie Jackson Chihuly, who concludes her nine-year leadership of the Seattle Symphony this August. In her years as Chair, Chihuly methodically and courageously steered the organization from a time of instability to the thriving institution it is today.

Like many volunteers starting to get involved with the Seattle Symphony, Chihuly joined a special events committee in the early 2000s and in 2004 was invited to join the Seattle Symphony Board of Directors.

Chihuly with WQXR’s Elliott Forrest at the orchestra’s Carnegie Hall performance in February 2014. (Photo: Brandon Patoc)
Chihuly with WQXR’s Elliott Forrest at the orchestra’s Carnegie Hall performance in February 2014. (Photo: Brandon Patoc)

In 2009 Chihuly was elected Board Chair. It was a time of transition not only in board leadership, but in both the Music Director and Executive Director positions, as well as a time of difficult financial circumstances which contributed to many issues including a strained relationship with musicians. Chihuly’s bold strokes in hiring visionary new leaders, including Music Director Ludovic Morlot and President & CEO Simon Woods (now CEO of the LA Philharmonic), created a catalyst for positive change in the organization. In addition to appointing new leadership, Chihuly worked tirelessly to create a new relationship with musicians and collaborated with her fellow board members to systematically build a strong and effective board.

The organization underwent many changes and the past few years have been marked by exciting moments of collaboration, with a crowning achievement in March where, at the Annual Meeting, the Symphony and musicians announced a four-year extension of the musicians’ contract and innovative solution to financing the orchestra’s pension program — five months prior to the expiration of the current contract.

Chihuly at the first Club Ludo in 2012 taking a photo of Ludovic Morlot playing violin with Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready on guitar. (Photo: Phototainment)
Chihuly at the first Club Ludo in 2012 taking a photo of Ludovic Morlot playing violin with Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready on guitar. (Photo: Phototainment)

“The Seattle Symphony has totally transformed under Leslie’s leadership. We have stretched and grown in every way imaginable, and our internal culture has changed remarkably,” Seattle Symphony Flute and Piccolo Zartouhi Dombourian-Eby said. “One thing that really stands out about Leslie to all of the orchestra musicians is her deep love for music and her deep love and respect for the musicians of the orchestra. That means the world to us.”

In addition to using the mission and values of the orchestra as guiding principles for all decisions, Chihuly leads with her belief that the Seattle Symphony and Benaroya Hall should be a home for all kinds of music and that everyone in the community should be invited to experience its transformational power.

Chihuly with John Luther Adams in Berkeley after the California premiere of Become Desert in April 2018. (Photo courtesy of Leslie Jackson Chihuly)
Chihuly with John Luther Adams in Berkeley after the California premiere of Become Desert in April 2018. (Photo courtesy of Leslie Jackson Chihuly)

“I’ve had the opportunity to serve beside Leslie throughout her entire tenure as Board Chair and watched her make one critical decision after another during some pretty stressful times,” said Dick Paul, the Board’s Vice Chair of Governance for the past 10 years. “There are so many adjectives to describe Leslie’s leadership style, but the ones that pop to the forefront for me are courageous, transparent and inclusive. Our organization is on an entirely different level today as compared to nine years ago, and that success can be attributed in very large part to Leslie, the one constant throughout that entire period.”

Chihuly has wholeheartedly supported a number of projects over the course of her tenure as Board Chair, including endowing the position of President & CEO in 2015; serving as a strong advocate for the Simple Gifts initiative launched in response to the Seattle/King County State of Emergency on homelessness; supporting the effort to present Music Beyond Borders: Voices from the Seven in February 2016 in response to the travel ban; helping to create Friends of the Desert so Seattleites who spend the winters in Palm Desert can stay connected to the Symphony and Symphony musicians can be involved in school activities and chamber performances there; and with her husband Dale, personally sponsoring the commission of John Luther Adams’ Become Desert, which was performed on tour in Berkeley, California this spring after its premiere in Seattle.

Larry Estrada, Macklemore, Chihuly, Russell Wilson and Ryan Lewis in May 2017 at an event announcing the Youth, Equity and Access to the Arts benefit concert. (Photo courtesy of the Why Not You Foundation)
Larry Estrada, Macklemore, Chihuly, Russell Wilson and Ryan Lewis in May 2017 at an event announcing the Youth, Equity and Access to the Arts benefit concert. (Photo courtesy of the Why Not You Foundation)

“Her personal qualities contribute to her ability to be a successful leader: she’s very smart and analytical, she has good vision, she’s straightforward, but she’s also got a warmth and sincerity,” remarked Dan Baty, Chihuly’s friend and fellow local community and business leader. “If she wants something, she asks for it. And if she asks you for something she’s already done it herself. She’s contributing her time, and she contributed significantly financially herself to the Symphony.”

Chihuly has helped to transform the Symphony’s many fundraising events including the Opening Night Gala and Holiday Musical Salute, and she worked to create new events like Club Ludo and the recent fundraising concert featuring Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Ciara and Russell Wilson. She has also been key in special fundraising campaigns, raising millions of dollars for current and future sustainability.

René Ancinas, Renée Fleming, Dale Chihuly, Leslie Jackson Chihuly and Charles Simonyi at the Opening Night Gala in September 2017. (Photo: Alan Alabastro)
René Ancinas, Renée Fleming, Dale Chihuly, Leslie Jackson Chihuly and Charles Simonyi at the Opening Night Gala in September 2017. (Photo: Alan Alabastro)

Looking forward, the Symphony is in another period of growth, and able to face the coming transitions in artistic, executive and board leadership with a strong and stable foundation. René Ancinas, the Symphony’s Board Chair-Elect, co-chaired the CEO Search Committee with Chihuly, paving the way for a smooth transition for new President & CEO Krishna Thiagarajan who arrives in September 2018. Last November the Symphony announced that Principal Guest Conductor Thomas Dausgaard will become Music Director in September 2019 following Morlot’s farewell at the end of the 2018–2019 season.

The artistic and social initiatives of the orchestra in the past ten years reach far beyond the concert stage. The collaboration between board, staff, orchestra and chorale, volunteers, and so many others in the Symphony family has been made possible by an organizational culture based upon common values. With thanks to Leslie Jackson Chihuly’s immeasurable service to the Seattle Symphony, the organization will continue to grow and expand its community long into the future.

Posted on August 24, 2018

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