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Hollis Welsh

The new executive director of Boise Philharmonic shares a renewed sense of harmony

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It won't be difficult for the Boise Philharmonic to introduce its new executive director to the community. As an actress, Hollis Welsh has performed on stages across the region. She was also one of the co-founders of Alley Repertory Theater, has penned plays and, until very recently, was the interim managing director of Boise Contemporary Theater. Now, she has the corner office at the Boise Philharmonic.

Among the first items that Welsh brought to her new office were photos of her daughters, 5-year-old Ode and 7-year-old Sibelle. She also hung a few pieces of personal art on the walls, but admitted she was only just digging into the files and documents left on her desk by her predecessor. It was only Welsh's third day on the job when she sat down with BW, but she was anxious to talk about getting to know her colleagues; the professional challenges ahead; and how Idaho's largest and oldest performing arts organization honors its history, has a firm foundation in the present and sets its sights on the future, all at once.

Please take this the right way: It was surprising when the Philharmonic announced that you would be its new executive director.

I think you're not alone in that. I was surprised, too, in a wonderful way. I think it was the right fit for the Philharmonic. They wanted someone who has experience running a performing arts organization, but who is also local and knows this community.

Were you ready and looking for a change?

I was the interim director at BCT and they were doing their own search for a new director. So, my feeling was, well, I'm going to do my own search to see what options [are] out there.

When did your search start?

Fairly recently. February.

Wow, that is very recent.

I think my resume came to [the Philharmonic] under the wire. I had a wonderful meeting with the Philharmonic board in early March and the announcement was made March 7.

What did the board say they were looking for?

Outreach. They want help in expanding our audience, to tap into people who have recently moved into town and to tap into a constituent base that maybe we haven't yet appealed to. We have this amazing, wonderful patronage that returns year after year. And beyond these people, we clearly need to continue to grow.

Being from Boise, I'm assuming you knew exactly what they were talking about.

Starting as an artist and becoming an arts administrator, I like to think that I had my finger on the pulse of what draws people to shows, to concerts, to events.

Sometimes you'll draw a new audience with a game-changing event, but sometimes you'll draw a new audience through a slower, more gradual evolution.

I think it's a bit of both.

Speaking of game-changers, when I saw that the Philharmonic would be featuring an evening of Star Wars music, all I could say was, "Just tell me how much and when. I'm there."

What's really thrilling is that we've created a separate Pops series. In the past, our Pops concerts have been part of [our] classical series, but now, we have a separate Pops series.

That's long overdue.

I'm glad to hear you say that. And you can't get much bigger than Star Wars to start this new series off. I think it will help us reach some new people that hadn't thought about the orchestra as something relevant to them before.

Will you always look at what you do through the lens of being an artist, or is it a different lens you're looking through now?

I know what it's like to be an artist, to communicate to an audience. And through our artists, our orchestra, that's how we're communicating with our audience. I know how critical that is. I know that happy artists create really beautiful work. They thrive and help the organization grow, so I'll always be an advocate for artists. That said, I also know how to represent what is being offered to our community and say, "This is why this is valid. This is why this matters to all of us."

These are interesting times for the arts: Congress recently approved funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. But here we are again, with some political leaders, including President Trump, threatening to cut funding to the arts.

We know that kids who study music are better mathematicians, they're more engaged citizens, they're more supportive of a community. It's a fact. And the kids who deserve exposure to the arts have infrequent access. So, we're big advocates of exposing our children to the arts. The Philharmonic has an incredible education wing which I don't think the general public knows too much about. We reach thousands of Idaho children through our Artists in the Classroom and Conductors in the Classroom programs. Then we have programs where we'll bus school kids to the Egyptian Theatre to watch a free concert. I would love to see more children's concerts at some point.

Let's talk about this community's commitment to the arts. We are a fickle lot. We know what we love, and we love what we know.

But one of the great opportunities the Philharmonic has right now is to give our audience what they've come to know and love: music they're familiar with. But then, we can introduce, in little morsels, new music from new artists that will be the canon of classical music 100 years from now. What feels new to us right now won't in 50 years.

Let's say you're at the Saturday market and you meet a young couple or family. What's your pitch to them if they've never attended the Philharmonic before?

Music matters to all of us. There's something that comes alive in us when we hear live music, especially on such a grand scale as the orchestra. It can be quite sweeping, moving and uniting. You can experience the Boise Phil for less than $50 a couple and less than $70 for a family of four. Subscribers save even more.

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