It sounds like Scott Provancher said goodbye to a great situation.
In Cincinnati, he managed an $11 million-a-year arts drive - a big job to be entrusted to a 32-year-old. He could take pride that his 2009 campaign suffered only a mild hit from the recession. His work helped fuel a cultural scene including the acclaimed Cincinnati Symphony - a fitting reward for someone who first felt the pull of the arts when he attended an orchestral concert as a boy.
Yet Provancher left all that to come to Charlotte, where the recession has clobbered local pride and prosperity. He is about to lead his first campaign as president of the Arts & Science Council, whose 2009 drive took the hardest blow of any campaign in the United States.
A reasonable person might wonder: What was he thinking?
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Provancher acknowledges that Charlotte and its cultural scene aren't as well established as what he left behind. Rather than being a drawback, he says, that's what drew him to Charlotte. He wants to help discover "what's going to be inspiring to the community."
"To me," he says, "Charlotte feels like it's in the process of...envisioning what's next as we build the city. I think it's positive that it's not built and done. I think that's particularly exciting."
Provancher said he believes the ASC's most valuable contribution to Charlotte should be to attract more people to the arts as concert-goers, museum visitors and theater buffs. Being a fundraising machine, he says, is only part of the group's role.
At the moment, though, it's the urgent part.
The ASC drive that starts Tuesday follows a 2009 campaign that raised $7 million - far short of 2008's $11.2 million. The ASC shared the woes of Charlotte's bank-centered economy. A furor over executive pay at United Way probably cast a shadow, too.
The ASC's 37 percent year-to-year plunge was the deepest of any campaign in the country, says Americans for the Arts, a nationwide advocacy group. The average drop among the 65 campaigns the group tracks: 11.5 percent.
His drive began early
Provancher, now 33, got hooked on classical music as a boy in Albany, N.Y., when his father took him to an orchestral concert. He earned a degree in percussion, hoping for a career playing in orchestras. But a one-year job with the Syracuse Symphony's fundraising staff changed his course. He liked "the idea of...trying to make an organization successful that you have a real passion for."
As executive director of the Louisville Orchestra, he worked closely with the city's arts fund, which provided a financial lifeline that kept the troubled orchestra going. Dealing with the fund "piqued my interest in...moving to a broader kind of leadership organization." He landed the job in Cincinnati in 2006.
Provancher's work brought him to Charlotte early in 2008. He brought colleagues from Cincinnati to share ideas with leaders of the ASC and Milwaukee's arts fund. The ASC impressed him, he says, with its "solid thinking" - for example, setting up a Web site to promote cultural events, www.charlottecultureguide.com. Cincinnati's arts fund had nothing like it.
When the ASC began looking for someone to replace Lee Keesler, who stepped down in June, Provancher returned to Charlotte as a candidate. He says he was struck by Charlotte's "spirit and optimism and tangible feeling of progress."
Changing the formula
The ASC has to put that spirit and solid thinking to work. The annual drives will never get back to the sums they used to bring in, he says, if they and the ASC remain set up as they are now.
"We've been doing it this way for 52 years. Now it's starting to show its age," he says. He laughs and adds: "I hope it's not going to take another 52 years to turn it around."
The economy is only part of the challenge, he says. The ASC has been heavily reliant on just two companies: Bank of America and the former Wachovia, whose corporate money and employee donations have accounted for half the annual drive. The ASC's workplace campaign may suffer as more businesses let other nonprofits take part.
In the campaign that starts Tuesday, Provancher says, the ASC will try to bring back donors who dropped out last year. It will start tailoring its workplace drive to particular groups of employees, a tactic he tried out in Cincinnati - where it helped the campaign at Procter & Gamble keep growing despite the recession. It will use Facebook and Twitter in hopes of generating buzz.
Looking further out, Provancher says the ASC has to make more progress attracting donors who are outside the reach of its workplace drive. That won't be easy, he says. He also says the ASC must go beyond being "a collection agency" and aim to draw more people to the arts. He wants to use surveys to "catch more information about people's passions."
"How do we convince our donors to be not just givers," he asks, "but goers?"
Provancher has to accomplish this with a staff that was cut sharply after last year's campaign drop-off. The employees welcome a future revamping, he says, in hopes that it will rescue them from the last few months' routine: "work, work and overwork."
Soon after Provancher started to work in Charlotte in July, his father - who put Provancher's life on course with that long-ago symphony concert - was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Doctors said he would probably live a matter of weeks.
"I just decided that pretty much every weekend, I was going to go up and be with him," Provancher says.
During the week, Provancher immersed himself in his new job, says Mary Lou Babb, chair of the ASC board.
"I really admired how well he held his head together," Babb says. Without depending on her to chaperone him, she says, he made the rounds of leaders in the arts community and beyond. He also met with organizations the ASC helps support.
As he visited those groups, his background in the arts enabled him to catch onto their situations quickly, says Ron Law, executive director of Theatre Charlotte.
"He gets the art part," Law says. "There's not a learning curve. He understands what it takes to do the performing arts."
'A common goal'
Those visits weren't just pleasantries. Provancher had to step right into the ASC's dealings with the groups - most conspicuously, the Charlotte Symphony.
The orchestra had been in financial trouble even before the recession. A few weeks before Provancher started to work, the ASC cut its support to the orchestra from $1.9 million to $900,000. The ASC's leaders said they didn't want to keep giving so much money to a group whose financial viability was in doubt. They required the orchestra to deliver a turnaround plan by September.
Provancher didn't decide all of that, but he backed it when he took charge. The ASC wanted the orchestra to become healthy again, he says, but it also thought the orchestra needed to take more responsibility for its own future.
When the orchestra delivered the turnaround plan, Provancher was on the receiving end.
Thanks to his firsthand experience with the struggling orchestra in Louisville, Provancher understood the Charlotte Symphony's challenges, says Jonathan Martin, the orchestra's executive director. But he has never told the orchestra what to do.
"He and I can have discussions almost in shorthand," Martin says. "With Scott, I have the sense that I have a partner."
The orchestra still has to carry out the turnaround plans it laid out for the ASC, including increased fundraising and ticket sales. "But we have a common goal," Martin says.
The orchestra eventually qualified for the ASC's $900,000.
Provancher sometimes meets Charlotte Symphony backers who were angered by the $1 million cut, he says. When that happens, he says, he explains the ASC's rationale. He also notes that even if the orchestra had been problem free, the ASC would still have had to cut the support by about $700,000 - because it had to reduce everyone's grants.
Some symphony supporters still say they're going to donate money solely to the orchestra, Provancher says. But "some are coming around" to the ASC.
A lasting reminder
While learning his new city and dealing with the orchestra, Provancher commuted between Charlotte and Albany to visit his father. He typically flew up on Friday night, then back on Sunday night.
"In some ways," Provancher says, "I was fortunate to have a major career change to distract me."
In October, Provancher's father died.
"It's going to take me a while to get over it... But you learn from that," Provancher says.
"It did serve as a reminder to me that all of us have important work to do....You're working to build a better community, and to build a better life with your family."
"The experience with my father has made me think a lot about that."