Arts Desk

What Is Terrence Jones’ Legacy at Wolf Trap?

If Terrence Jones wants to be remembered as anything, it's probably Treehugger-in-Chief of the arts. The president and CEO of the Wolf Trap Foundation, who recently announced that he will retire after 16 years, is a crusader for carbon neutrality, and he showcases Wolf Trap as a model for sustainable business practices.

But the foundation's board of directors isn't exactly leafy green: along with a handful of schmaltzy performers, including Tony Bennett and the Smothers Brothers, it comprises a coterie of suits from the likes of ExxonMobil, Boeing, AES, and the National Association of Manufacturers. Appropriately, Jones' philosophy on environmentalism, on which he elaborated in a 2007 speech at the National Press Club, has a nice libertarian ring to it:

The arts seek to raise mankind's collective level of consciousness, challenge convention and inspire societal change. Some of the arts might still question, "Shouldn't we really leave the heavy lifting and substantial environmental work to the government, to big business or to the large environmental advocates? Aren't they ultimately better equipped to share research and technologies and work together to mitigate the global environmental change?" Well, while these entities are certainly a critical part of the big picture solution, we must realize that every citizen has a voice, has the ability to promote awareness and become a better steward of our environment. I believe there's no better example of the power of the individual than what we see in the arts. The arts are truly a testament of what I like to call the power of one. One person alone can compose a symphony that changes the way the world sees itself. And one person, through the arts, can encourage harmony within the natural world and inspire others to change. It all begins with that person that you see in the mirror each morning. It begins with you and it begins with me.

All of this must be reassuring to corporate donors that Jones is the kind of eco-activist who expects them to be self-actualizing agents of change rather than, you know, clean up their oil spills.  But even if Jones' commitment to Mother Earth isn't shared by the whole of Wolf Trap's leadership, one thing is clear: Under Jones, Wolf Trap has stayed afloat—even thrived—during tough economic times.

As with all arts organizations, Wolf Trap’s fortunes have seesawed through booms and busts, and most of Jones’ term fell squarely in the category of busts. 9/11 pummeled ticket purchases, exacerbated by budget cuts by the Virginia state legislature in 2001, which caused Wolf Trap to ax its collaborative arts program with Virginia public schools for at-risk kids. But ticket sales rose again, and Wolf Trap completed construction of its delayed Center for Education in 2003.

Jones also tweaked the foundation’s development strategies. In 2009, Wolf Trap cut both its opening night gala and annual luncheon, and focused on raising more money with fewer fundraisers—which it did, pulling in more than $1 million with this year's Wolf Trap Ball. Jones also introduced new efforts to attract what he calls “special audiences,” telling the Washington Post in 2004, “We have reached the Latin and black audience through programming and targeted marketing," such as distributing fliers at local clubs.

Wolf Trap’s programming isn’t cutting edge, but that’s exactly the point. It’s the place you go to see what you already like, something Jones understands. Over the years, orchestras and operas have taken a back seat to, say, Riverdance, and the remaining classical offerings tend to be middlebrow, as critics here and elsewhere have noted. Not that Wolf Trap doesn’t do opera anymore—in fact, while most arts organizations ride out recessions by falling back on familiar crowd-pleasers, Wolf Trap has stood out by commissioning 72 new works under Jones, including 2004’s Volpone, which got a Grammy nomination, and this year’s The Inspector, which I didn’t like. But kudos to them for trying.

Jones' love of the outdoors appears to be genuine enough. He is a soon-to-be published photographer with a book of photos taken at 88 national parks due out next March. So while Wolf Trap's LEED-certified buildings will remain long after Jones' 2012 departure, let's hope its commitment to new art will stick around, too.

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