ISO hires former Omaha Symphony, New York Pops leader as CEO

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The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra on Tuesday announced the hiring of Omaha Symphony leader James Johnson as the ISO’s new chief executive.

Johnson spent seven years as president and CEO of the Omaha Symphony in Nebraska following a 10-year stint as CEO of the New York Pops in New York City.

James Johnson mug ISOJames Johnson

Johnson is expected to begin the new job April 30. He’ll replace former CEO Gary Ginstling, who left the ISO in August after more than four years in the position to become executive director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.

As CEO of the ISO, Johnson will be in charge of the largest arts-related employer in Indiana. He will oversee 55 administrative staff members, 74 full-time musicians and a $26 million operating budget.

The ISO did not immediately respond to a question about Johnson’s pay. Ginstling received almost $339,000 in compensation in 2015, the latest figure available.

“We are absolutely delighted to announce James as the newest member of the ISO family,” said Yvonne Shaheen, chair of the ISO board of directors, in written comments. “With his long history of leading successful arts organizations and commitment to the values shared by our musicians, staff, and board, we look forward to embarking on this next chapter in the ISO story.”

Johnson is credited with negotiating a five-year collective bargaining agreement with the Omaha Symphony’s musicians’ union in 2014 that improved the orchestra’s finances and led to budget surpluses and endowment growth.

“Under his leadership, the Omaha Symphony launched a film series, increased attendance for its classical series, and forged community partnerships to create connections with a more diverse patron base,” the ISO said.

The Omaha Symphony has 41 full-time musicians augmented by 29 contracted players. It set an attendance record last season of 120,000 over 54 performances. It brought in more than $2.3 million in ticket revenue, a 53 percent increase since 2012.

“James has been a tremendous asset for the Omaha Symphony and our community,” David Slosburg, chairman of the Omaha Symphony Association said in a written statement. "We appreciate all that James has accomplished here and wish him continued success.”

At the New York Pops, Johnson was credited with initiating “successful” digital marketing initiatives, securing the orchestra’s first government grants, revitalizing family programs for Carnegie Hall, and negotiating national television appearances for the orchestra.

Johnson, a former double bass player, was previously director of operations for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in New York City, and general manager of the Martha Graham Dance Co., also in New York City. 

Johnson is a Seattle native and has a master’s degree in arts administration from Southern Methodist University.

“The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra is a treasured member of the community,” Johnson said in written remarks. “I am honored the board of directors has asked me to serve an organization dedicated to providing inspiration, entertainment, and educational opportunities to the city and region.

The ISO is coming off a record-breaking year for ticket sales and has met budget projections in four of the past five years.

"I look forward to working with [music director and conductor] Krzysztof Urbanski and [pops conductor] Jack Everly in support of their artistic initiatives," Johnson said. "I can’t wait to be in the audience to listen to the ISO’s superb musicians and be delighted and amazed at their versatility. Working with the orchestra’s dedicated board, staff, and volunteers, I will strive to make even deeper connections to the community.”

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