That's what some have called Scott Provancher, the new head of the Arts & Science Council. The cultural community hopes he has a few big hits in him
By Melissa Hankins
Provancher is only thirty-three, but he exudes confidence and isn't afraid to take risks. He's been skydiving 800 times.
The clock hanging over Scott Provancher's head revealed the meeting had run over, and as the thirty-three-year-old got up, smoothed the wrinkles out of his geek-chic getup, and started to speak, city council members glanced pointedly at it, shifting in their chairs.
Provancher had slides to show, pictures of trash cans rendered rainbow bright by a local artist who covered them with mosaic tiles. The cost to Charlotte: $42,000. Several people snickered. Mayor Pat McCrory scoffed. And the slides sped up: shots of murals on buildings flicked on and off the screen.
"Wait a minute," Councilman Andy Dulin said incredulously. "Wait a minute. Can we go back to the previous slide? Did we pay artists to paint on private businesses?"
Provancher blinked. "The painting's on vinyl," he answered. "Strung to businesses.
Later, he sat down, crossed his legs, and laughed. "Looks like I'm going to have to come up with some zingers," he said. "Art is always a very personal thing, and people have such different perspectives on what gets them excited," he added calmly. "What we're trying to do with the overall body of work we have is inspire the community. Ultimately, we all want visitors to think of this as a very creative place to live."
Provancher had just finished his first 100 days as president of Charlotte's Arts & Science Council, a nonprofit that calls itself "the community's chief advocate for the arts, science, history, and heritage," and is a major source of funding for almost every artistic endeavor in town. The ASC also runs the Cultural Facilities Campaign, an $83 million push to pay for endowments for the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center's new Knight Theater, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Culture, the Mint Museum, and Discovery Place. It is a crucial part of this young city's evolvement, and given the reception Provancher received from City Council during his presentation, you'd think he'd be worried about getting off to a bad start.
But he's not. Provancher exudes confidence. He sounds smart and dresses the part, and he took the ribbing from council members well, all part of what's garnering him a very good reputation at a very young age. That reputation adds pressure to a plum role at a nonprofit in transition, and it will do much to define his career. And the city's arts leaders are watching closely, as big chunks of their operating budgets hang in the balance.
Provancher is like a burgeoning rock star in the arts world. Former ASC chair and retired Wachovia Chief Risk Officer Don Truslow led the committee that scoured the country for candidates after Lee Keesler, another longtime Wachovia banker, announced his retirement as president after five years at the helm. Truslow says the committee looked at 200 industry leaders, but in city after city, art aficionados kept repeating one name. "Scott is nationally recognized as a rising star, and I think Charlotte was blessed to grab him," Truslow says. "As we talked to a lot of people during the search process, that was universally what we were told."
Provancher first drew notice as executive director of the Rockford (Illinois) Symphony at just twenty-four years old ("People wondered if I was there to fill up their water glasses, not attend their meetings," he quips, laughing), but he comes to us now from Cincinnati's Fine Arts Fund, the oldest and largest arts and culture fundraising group in the country. "Scott has risen fast and impressed a lot of people," says Mary McCullough-Hudson, president and CEO of FAF, who hired Provancher there. In a campaign that ended last spring, Provancher helped raise more than $12 million there in his role as vice president and director of the annual fund. Over the same period, the ASC raised just over $7 million, falling 37 percent short of its goal.
"He did just a tremendous job of raising money creatively in Cincinnati, and [increasing] the donor base, too," Truslow says. "When you meet him, you're taken aback a bit by how young he is. But then you see how deep his experience runs. He's very unique."
Provancher, who was born in Albany, New York, is an artist himself, trained as a percussionist at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. But it wasn't long before his need to lead overshadowed his desire to play. "Being a classical musician," he muses. "It's a very restrictive job. You're doing what you do in a very structured format. For me, I was destined to want more control over an organization." Provancher has a musician's heart, a chief executive's head, and a stuntman's daring, with a fondness for skydiving. He estimates he's done it on 800 occasions.
And so it seems like he has the perfect cocktail of personality traits to take over an organization that is the city's main artery for the arts, at a time when the blood flow is severely restricted. In the past, the organization has relied heavily on donations from Wachovia and Bank of America, Charlotte's two big banks. "It's a challenging time as far as the makeup of the city," Provancher says, "and the banking industry here. The question is, which organization will lead Charlotte forward? That causes a lot of instability as far as where we will make our dollars. A lot of people would have turned around and walked the other way."
But Provancher simply leapt from the plane. He scheduled a sit down with none other than BofA CEO Ken Lewis as soon as he got to town, and he says it didn't faze him at all that this was his very first meeting as head of the ASC. ("He's diving right in," Truslow adds. "It's absolutely amazing to me how he's already integrated with key leaders in the community.") Lewis is co-chairman of the organization's facilities campaign, but still, it was bold, calling up the suddenly infamous banker, at a time when his face was plastered all over CNN and CNBC, and practically on wanted signs, too, in D.C.
"For me, it was only fitting to get Mr. Lewis's insight on the future of the ASC," says Provancher, with a nonchalant shrug. Lewis gave him some advice, based on the banking crisis. "He said I needed to make sure I was observing the right symptoms before I gave the diagnosis," Provancher says. When it comes to reviving an organization, "he said every good business needs to first look back, to understand what happened," Provancher recalls, "before you assume you're better and you're ready to move on."
Provancher considered Lewis's advice carefully. "It made me think, how much of ASC's business model is strained because of the economy, and how much is because our model is just out of date," he says. "I decided we needed to think differently about how we connect with our donors and the community."
It used to be that the ASC relied on campaign drives at the kinds of corporations that seemed built out of cash. But even when times get good again, Provancher says he's convinced there's a better way of fundraising.
"In the past, we were so focused on how efficient the actual collection process was, we didn't build solid relationships with the people that are giving," he says. "We need donors—we want donors—to participate and engage. So the question is, how can we build appreciation, participation, and support from the community … not just collect their money?"
Provancher says the first thing he'll do at the ASC is turn donors from dollar signs into individuals. He says he wants people to understand what it is they're giving to, so they'll have a deeper connection (and, ultimately, commitment) to it. "A lot of nonprofits are talking about wanting to do something like this," he says. "But they haven't come up with meaningful ways."
Provancher is modeling his efforts in part after the Obama campaign. "They built a really tremendous resource online for people to sign up and support the campaign," he says, and he wants to canvas volunteers in the same way "to empower folks in the community to spread the word about arts and culture. We need the right technology to talk to people. And we need to meet people on their terms instead of our own terms."
Provancher says he's developing such methods, but he doesn't have much time. The ASC's 2010 campaign starts January 2 and runs through March 12. It's during this spurt that a vast majority of the funds are raised.
"This campaign is critically important to the health of the Levine Museum, as well as all the other recipients," says Emily Zimmern, who runs Levine Museum of the New South. "Our great hope is that we will receive an amount similar to last year, roughly $500,000." But even that amount is low—about a quarter less than what the museum received from the ASC a year earlier. "It's tough, campaigning in this environment," Zimmern says. "But it's needed to ensure the vitality of Charlotte, the soul of this community. It'll be interesting to see what ideas Scott has, being a newcomer and Generation X-er."
Provancher claims that the ASC has an advantage over other nonprofits. He says the economy won't be as big of a hurdle. "A majority of the organizations we support have actually had an increase in sales and attendance. To me, that says when times get tough, people look for things that inspire them."
Then why the slightly sour reception at City Council?
Councilman Dulin says if Provancher is not expecting a down year then "his glasses aren't clear. The trash cans were a tipping point for me," he adds. "There's no accountability. I mean, why would they think that decorating trash cans is a good thing in a bad economy?"
In fact, with times so tough, Dulin says he'd like to propose pulling the city's contributions to ASC altogether, to "roll it right into community safety and roads."
But Provancher says he's not worried about the city's devotion to the arts and nonprofits. (Last year, Dulin, a Republican, proposed a 7 percent cut to all charities, and other council members rejected the proposal.)
"When I first came to visit a few years ago," Provancher says, "I walked away very intrigued by the commitment to culture and the attitude here in Charlotte. Cincinnati is set in stone. Here, there's so much growth and such an eye toward the future." He cites the uptown cultural campus on South Tryon as an example. "I don't think there's any other city that has invested in such a world-class, culturally motivated complex. Charlotte is just beautiful."
Provancher has settled temporarily into a rental in Myers Park with his girlfriend, who moved with him from Cincinnati, and the two are enjoying the city "immensely," Provancher says. "We're interested in a lot of the eclectic restaurants in Plaza Midwood. We love to get a good burger at The Penguin."
It's easy to imagine him there. Provancher has a kind of cerebral hipster quality that adds to his allure and so-called rock star status—it's easy to imagine him playing on stage with some British alternative band.
But that's a far cry from standing front and center at the ASC, and Provancher still has a lot to prove.
"Oh, I'm flattered people think of me in that respect," he says. "I like the fact that it sets expectations high, because we have a lot of work to do. A lot of people we need to rally around the cause." He pauses, chewing on the rising-rock-star label. "I think I'm perfectly comfortable with it."
For the December issue, Melissa Hankins profiled Jane McIntyre, the head of the United Way of the Central Carolinas.