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Catalyze 2022: Florida Orchestra CEO Mark Cantrell

Bill DeYoung



We’re asking thought leaders, business people and creatives to talk about 2022 and give us catalyzing ideas for making St. Pete a better place to live. What should our city look like? What are their hopes, their plans, their problem-solving ideas? This is Catalyze 2022.

The Florida Orchestra broke even in 2020, while the pandemic was raging. And, President and CEO Mark Cantrell reports, the organization is on track to do the same – or better – for 2021.

They did it, Cantrell explains, by budgeting conservatively and, when things were at their worst, Covid-wise, implementing stringent social distancing policies. The orchestra played 86 live concerts, without intermissions, to small and spaced-out audiences. TFO was one of the few performing organizations to put itself out there; Cantrell is proud of that particular “dedication to the community.”

Now, here comes 2022. Cantrell, who’ll celebrate his third anniversary as first-chair executive in March, has set a lofty personal and professional goal for the bay area’s longest-lived cultural nonprofit, which is based in St. Petersburg but also performs regularly in Clearwater and Tampa.

“The cities need to stop looking at their performing arts centers as profit centers,” he says. “They need to start looking at them as community assets, like you look at a park. Like Vinoy Park and things like that. Where they’re not there to generate profit. No one would think of charging admission to go into Vinoy Park, or to the beach at The Pier.”

The Florida Orchestra’s $11 million annual budget comes from donor contributions and proceeds from a few meager investments. Ticket sales account for around 35 percent.

Out of that, $1.5 million, or approximately 11 percent, goes toward rent at the Mahaffey Theater, Ruth Eckerd Hall and the Straz Center for the Performing Arts.

“I’m not suggesting that we don’t pay any rent,” Cantrell says, emphasizing the orchestra’s “strong and positive” relationships with the cities. “Some places do that, and for an orchestra all that money’s going to go right back into programming.

“We’re not here to turn a profit; we don’t have any shareholders to take care of. Our investors are people who contribute money to the orchestra.”

He doesn’t want to come off, he insists, like he’s complaining; he prefers to be seen as the squeaky wheel, in search of grease. “So many nonprofits out there say ‘Oh, the city doesn’t take us seriously ‘ … that’s not what it is. I can’t blame the city. They have things, important things, to do. They’re not meaningfully going ‘Oh, we don’t care about what you’re doing,’ and pushing us over to the side.

“We’ve not, in the past, done a good job of demonstrating our value and why we’re needed … and that’s why it’s been looked at as a profit center.

“In the three years since I’ve been here, that’s what (Musical Director) Michael Francis and I have been doing, trying to state the case for our value. For how important it is. It’s not because of anything the cities are doing wrong, it’s because of what we’re doing.”

Some form of rent abatement would sit well with him. “We’re not going to the city, or the county or the state, going ‘If you don’t give us money, we’re not going to be here.’ We want support so that we can do more things and have more impact.”

Cantrell has thought it through, from different angles.

“The last thing I want is for The Florida Orchestra to build a concert hall,” he explains. “Number one, it takes $200 to $250 million dollars out of fundraising for other nonprofits in the community if you successfully do that. A huge capital campaign is a big hit on everybody else.

“And … we don’t need it. We have three concert halls here. So if the mindset can shift to where these are seen as real community assets, it changes the game for how The Florida Orchestra, in particular, can grow.

“Am I saying ‘The City should just give us the Mahaffey?’ No way, I don’t want to manage that thing. We’re only in there a couple of nights a week. Why would we want to take a city asset away that could be used for other things?”















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