Scott Provancher's first Arts & Science Council campaign is going down to the wire. A few days ago, with a little more than a week left, the donations totaled $5.5 million. The goal: $7.3 million.
"I was on the phone this afternoon getting a few more pledges," ASC president Provancher says a few hours after announcing that tally.
Last year, as the recession clobbered workers and businesses - and especially banks, in Charlotte - the ASC's annual campaign suffered the largest year-to-year decline of any in the country. This year's drive, which ends Friday, simply tries to equal the total from 2009.
"It has been as difficult as we expected," Provancher says.
Provancher, who took the ASC's top job in July, is familiar with difficult assignments. At 33, he has packed a lot of experience in the arts world - not all of it easy - into a few years.
Savvy from early on
A typical first reaction to Provancher goes roughly like this:
"He looks so young!"
What may get to people is that he could probably pass for even younger than 33. No frown lines, grey hairs or gnawed fingernails betray the fact that he:
First took responsibility for meeting a payroll nearly a decade ago, as manager of a small orchestra in Rockford, Ill.
Confronted the orchestral business' most fearsome challenges at 27, when he took over the debt-plagued Louisville Orchestra in Kentucky.
Began managing an arts drive the size of the ASC's at 29, as vice president of Cincinnati's cultural fund.
If people are struck by Provancher's age now, imagine the response to a 27-year-old vying to lead Louisville's venerable orchestra.
"His age at first gave us some concern," says Joseph Pusateri, a homebuilding executive on the search committee in Louisville. But when the group went on to interview him, "he seemed much more savvy and experienced than his age would suggest."
"Being of a younger generation, he was more tech-savvy than (administrators) we had had in the past," Pusateri says. Provancher was at home with databases and number-crunching.
"I'm a very analytical person," Provancher says. As a high school student in love with orchestral music, he bought printed scores of symphonic works and tried to figure out how the music ticked - never mind that he had little schooling in music theory.
Looking back, he thinks that mindset is behind the way he has tackled his jobs.
"I can get just as excited about a business plan," he says, "as I can about a piece of music."
Music he heard as a boy lured Provancher toward the arts world.
He had dabbled with the drums. But he didn't take much interest until his father - a postal worker who loved classical music - took him to hear the orchestra in his hometown of Albany, N.Y.
"I think there's something inspiring about the sheer magnitude and power of something so dynamic as a symphony playing," Provancher says. "It kind of mesmerized me."
He began studying with one of the orchestra's percussionists. In time, he developed "a one-track goal of going to a conservatory and being a classical percussionist." A second track appeared when Provancher reached the conservatory: He found he liked organizing concerts as well as playing them.
After graduation, a one-year job with the fundraising staff of the Syracuse Symphony settled it. Provancher enjoyed "building an organization that you have a real passion for."
"It provided an avenue for leadership that is sometimes hard to find, particularly when you're a classical musician in an orchestra," he says. "That's a very regimented job."
That signaled the end of any percussion career. Provancher still plays as a hobby, focusing on the marimba and other mallet instruments - the ones that can sing rather than boom or crash. A room in his Charlotte townhouse is set up for practicing.
"I need to be careful not to keep people up," he explains with a laugh. "Because usually when I get to it, it's later in the night."
Learning by listening
At his first full-fledged job, as head of the tiny Rockford Symphony in 2001, Provancher did "a lot of listening" to the public, he says. He arrived at what he thinks is the key question for all arts groups: "What does the community need and want?... How do we become more connected to the community?"
After about three years, he learned about an opening at a bigger group that needed help with that: the Louisville Orchestra. The ensemble had an honored tradition of playing and recording American music. But it was hobbled by morale problems - and $1 million in debt.
When Provancher sounded out mentors and colleagues, he recalls, "everyone I called told me not to take the job." But he figured that if worst came to worst, he was young enough that he could still rebuild his career. He started in Louisville in spring 2004.
Provancher threw himself into the job, Pusateri recalls. He held forums with subscribers who had drifted away. He studied the orchestra's operations and costs.
The orchestra did have one thing going for it: a financial lifeline from Louisville's arts fund. The fund kept watch on its money, says Allan Cowen, the fund's president.
Provancher, Cowen says, "was a solution kind of guy."
But financial progress was slow in coming, and time ran out on the arts fund's help. The orchestra's players balked at a pay cut. Threatening bankruptcy, the board set a deadline of April 2006.
'Every ounce of energy'
In March, Provancher - who had been approached by Cincinnati's arts fund - announced he would step down.
The job "had taken every ounce of my energy and thought and personal commitment," he says. Cincinnati, whose arts community was better-established, "seemed like a better place to be for me to recover."
Provancher's plans for building Louisville's audiences and streamlining expenses eventually paid off, Pusateri says.
Provancher loves orchestral music, he says, but he doesn't like running orchestras.
"I can analyze the hell out of an orchestra's budget. I can tell how it ought to be fixed," Provancher says. "That doesn't mean I can do it."
In Cincinnati, Provancher found he could relax during concerts and enjoy the music, rather than worrying about putting them on.
At the Fine Arts Fund, he mainly managed the annual campaign, which typically raised about $12 million - the same range as the pre-recession ASC. The focus was on enhancing it.
Tailoring the pitch
As with Charlotte's ASC, a workplace-giving drive was the centerpiece. Provancher used the biggest corporation that took part, Procter & Gamble - with 14,000 employees in the metropolitan area - as the guinea pig for a new tactic.
Provancher and his staff tailored their pitch to different groups, P&G executive Natalie Hughes says. For workers with children, there were family events that highlighted how arts can enhance education. Mixers for singles were aimed at young professionals. P&G's part of the 2009 campaign, Hughes says, brought in more money despite the recession.
Provancher, she says, is "good at having an idea, percolating an idea, and figuring out how to make it come to life."
A strategy for Charlotte
Ideas for Charlotte are on the agenda now.
Provancher thinks the workplace campaign can be more successful if it's refined as in Cincinnati. If the thousands of employees at Bank of America receive the same e-mail, he says, it looks like "just another memo from human resources."
Provancher believes a Cincinnati strategy the ASC hasn't tried - finding donors to bankroll matching grants - could also pay off. Like arts leaders across the country, he wants to work on understanding social media's potential.
Figuring things out, Louisville's Cowen says, is Provancher's strength.
"Look at Charlotte right now," Cowen says. "There's no reason not to try anything. That's how you have to be in these moments.
"You have to try lots of different things, because understanding the right solution will not be obvious (at first)... You want a kind of leader who is comfortable in that environment. That's what I think you get with Scott."