The nationally-recognized performing arts presenter San Francisco Performances (SF Performances) named Melanie Smith as its new president on Tuesday.
Smith, 52, succeeds Ruth Felt, who founded the organization nearly 40 years ago and has led it ever since. Smith, who resides in El Cerrito, begins her new role at SF Performances in August.
Under Felt’s longstanding leadership, SF Performances became known as an acclaimed presenter of chamber music, piano, contemporary dance, guitar, vocal recitals, and jazz concerts featuring some of the most prominent artists in the world. The organization, which hosts most of its events at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco's War Memorial and Performing Arts Center and has an annual operating budget of $3.2 million, has presided over the local recital debuts of the likes of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, and soprano Dawn Upshaw. Many of these globe-trotting artists have returned many times to perform under the auspices of SF Performances.
Business as usual
Felt has the 2016-17 season fully planned, and most of the 2017-18 season also mapped out. So Smith’s stamp on the arts offerings won’t fully come into play for at least another couple of years.
For the most part, the incoming president intends to continue building on what Felt did before her, both in terms of the programming choices, and the culture and feel of the organization.
“In a lot of ways I want to continue the amazing work that Ruth started,” Smith said in a phone interview. “This includes the less tangible stuff deriving from the warmth -- artists come to feel they have a home here.”
Early music focus
Smith said the main way in which she hopes to differ from Felt’s curatorial approach is by focusing more attention on Medieval and Renaissance music -- especially in smaller formats. As such, Smith said the lineup for future seasons might include concerts by solo lutenists and ensembles such as Tenet, an up-and-coming, New York-based early music group. (Not to be confused with the Canadian heavy metal band of the same name.)
“We may explore genres that haven’t necessarily been covered in depth historically at SF Performances, like early music,” Smith said. “We have great early music in the Bay Area from big groups like the American Bach Soloists and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. I’m considering a chamber version of that, which would overlap nicely with our existing guitar series.”
SF Performances board of trustees and an independent recruitment consultancy selected Smith after undertaking a year-long national search to fill the organization's top leadership position. Smith was a known quantity, having previously worked with the organization as its director of education/artistic administration for nine years from 1997 to 2006. She comes to her new position from the San Francisco Girls Chorus, where she’s served as executive director since 2006.
“Few people know the organization and the national performing arts scene as well as she does,” said Felt in a press release about Smith’s appointment. “She is widely respected and beloved by artists, arts organizations and the arts community.”
"Melanie is guided by a deep reverence for musical artistry and the role of the artist in our society and communities," said Lisa Bielawa, artistic director of the San Francisco Girls' Chorus in an email interview. "This passion will undoubtedly be evident to audiences, musical artists and colleagues alike."
Founder succession challenge
But the new job will doubtless come with challenges. Smith is well aware of the potential difficulties of taking over an organization that has been founded and run by the same individual for such a long time.
“Founder succession is one of the trickiest things,” Smith said. “This was Ruth’s masterwork, and change can be tricky. I’m not planning anything radical but it’s still going to be different.”