Interview: New AT&T Performing Arts Center CEO Mark Weinstein

The current tough fundraising climate for the arts is an opportunity, not a challenge. That’s the upbeat early word from Mark J. Weinstein, who’s been appointed the new president and CEO of the AT&T Performing Arts Center effective June 1.

A veteran arts executive, Weinstein, 55 (“a young 55,” he jokes), most recently served as executive director of the Washington National Opera alongside artistic director Placido Domingo. Prior to that he spent 10 years with the Pittsburgh Opera, where he was general director, and 13 years with the New York City Opera, the last three as executive director.

We reached Weinstein by phone this afternoon at the Park Place Motorcars offices of Ken Schnitzer—the Dallas auto executive headed up the PAC’s CEO search–where Weinstein was meeting people and making calls.

FrontRow: Have you spent much time in Dallas?

Mark Weinstein: Over the years I’ve been here a couple of times and, of course, over the last couple of months I’ve spent a lot of time here. A couple of things have struck me about Dallas, right off the bat: How warm and friendly all the people are, and [the fact that] this seems like the land of opportunity. Dallas is growing, and you can see there’s optimism everywhere.

FR: Tell me about your family.

MW: I met my wife [mezzo-soprano Susanne Marsee] at the New York City Opera. She was performing in Carmen, and had been Beverly Sills’ mezzo-soprano partner for years. We were married 24 years ago this past Sunday. (We went to dinner to celebrate at Charlie Palmer with [AT&T PAC) board members Bess Enloe and her husband and Deedie and Rusty Rose.) Susanne and I had a kid, Zack, and he’s now a six-foot-five junior at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He’s studying philosophy and history, so he can become a good cab driver.

FR: The AT&T PAC ran a $3 million deficit and is still $40 million short on its capital campaign. I know it’s early, but how do you see the challenges there?

MW: More than challenges, I would call them opportunities. What they’ve done here is build two of the most creative, state-of-the-art theaters and the campus to along with it. They are incredible buildings that are ready to blossom along with the [rest of the Arts District]. There’s a little bit of stuff that has to be done closing out the capital campaign and establishing a [longterm fundraising] campaign. But there’s a huge opportunity in the months and years ahead for [the PAC] to be a gathering place for Dallas. I’m committed to low ticket prices—as well as high ticket prices!–and to diversity in the audiences.

FR: Doug Curtis, the interim CEO, will be overseeing day-to-day operations as general manager, as I understand it. So what will you be doing exactly?

MW: We haven’t worked that out exactly yet. Doug has done a tremendous job holding everything together, and we will be partners in everything. My job is leadership, vision, helping us accomplish the mission.

FR: These are especially tough times for arts fundraisers, as you know. Based on your experience, what are the keys to success there?

MW: Fundraising is a good opportunity to share involvement in things that people consider important. I think of it as an investment. I come from a business background, so I focus on return on investment, or ROI. In contrast to the for-profit, which talks about a monetary return, when the PAC talks about ROI, we’re talking about the impact on the community at large—the educational impact, for example. So it’s a more complicated return.

FR: How will you go about getting acquainted with the people here that you’ll need to know?

MW: I recognize that Dallas is very special and different, so I need to understand what the Dallas way is. The people who will help me are my board of directors and my staff. They’ve already pledged to help me do that.

FR: The Washington National Opera is now “merging” with the Kennedy Center, which means the Center is taking over the Opera’s business and administrative functions, in what’s essentially a rescue operation. Weren’t you hired there to help Placido Domino “save” the opera, to turn it around, in 2008?

MW: Yes. Placido had built up the greatness of the artistic product, but … I turned to raising money and increased ticket sales. We had a balanced budget for two years in a row, which hadn’t been done for 10 years prior. It became clear that the best way to operate for the future was [with the Kennedy Center merger], so my job as executive director became redundant with the merger, which I believe is effective June 30. I started in 2008 and was there for two and a half years. We went from a $13 million budget before I got there to $20 million, two or three years in a row. There was a $9 million loss the year before I got there.

FR: But, there were difficulties that resulted in budget cuts, staff layoffs, and scaling back the number of productions during your tenure, weren’t there?

MW: If we hadn’t cut back, we would have needed more than $20 million. If we raised $20 million we’d break even, and that’s what we did.

FR: If things were being “righted,” why was the merger with the Kennedy Center necessary?

MW: We were good for a couple of years, but it was not sustainable. So we started talking with the Kennedy Center about a merger.

FR: You were laid off well before the merger, weren’t you? The merger was just announced in January 2011.

MW: I was laid off June 30, 2010. When you were laying off other people, I thought it was only fair to save my salary during that time as well. Placido has now left the [Washington National Opera] as well.

FR: Did you learn any lessons during your time with the Washington Opera that might apply to your new job here in Dallas?

MW: Yeah. I’ve learned all through my life; the more I get to know, the more I realize what I don’t know. Specifically from that time period, though, what I learned is the importance of making sure that the board fully understands the implications of the strategies that they pick. I’m always for openness and transparency, but sometimes I have to move a little slower to make sure everyone’s on board before we institute change. Consensus-building is very important.