by Kate Branum • Photography by Two Eagles Marcus
Grand Rapids boasts a vast history of fine art, dating back to the creation of our booming Midwestern town. While many of the original entertainment halls and galleries have since been removed, one of the city’s most important art-centric landmarks continues to thrive.
St. Cecilia Music Center (formerly St. Cecilia Music Society) first opened in 1894, making it the oldest arts organization in the region. The historical building towers regally on the corner of Fulton Street and Ransom Avenue in downtown Grand Rapids, and prides itself on housing world-renowned artists and crowds of enthusiastic music aficionados; however, the driving force of the organization reaches far beyond entertainment. The efforts of a dedicated staff and board, including executive director Cathy Holbrook, have made it their mission to continue steering the center in the right direction.
As the daughter of a piano teacher, Holbrook developed an appreciation for instruments early on. Naturally, she took up playing the piano, and later decided to learn the French horn, which she perfected all throughout grade school and high school.
Though she had always had an interest in music, Holbrook decided to take a different path once she left high school. In college, she chose to pursue a degree in public relations and marketing. After graduation, the Grand Rapids native packed up her life and began a new chapter on the other side of the country.
“I started my nonprofit arts life at the La Jolla Chamber Music Society as the Public Relations and Production Manager,” Holbrook said. “I didn’t pursue music as a major, but it has always been a huge part of my life. When I found this area of work, it felt like a really good fit.”
She went on to become a personal assistant for world famous composer and pianist André Previn, and later took a position at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl and the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, where she worked as the executive director for 11 years.
Though Holbrook had built her career in California, she made plans to move back to Grand Rapids in 2006.
“As I was planning to move back to Grand Rapids, (I learned that) my mom had been coming to St. Cecilia for concerts,” Holbrook recalled. “She would take a friend who had been in the Grand Rapids Symphony for 50 years, and she had heard of an opening (at the center). I had a preliminary meeting with them before (the position) was even open.”
While Holbrook’s interest in the job opening at St. Cecilia never faded, she found herself swept up in the process of moving, and the center temporarily fell off of her radar.
Not long after she settled back into Michigan, Holbrook received a call from St. Cecilia notifying her that the search to fill the open position was about to close.
“I thought to myself, ‘Well, I better do this!’,” Holbrook said.
She submitted her extensive resume and crossed her fingers.
“It was a really great fit for me, because I had been running an orchestra in Santa Barbara, which involved producing concerts, and in La Jolla, we did a lot of what we do here at St. Cecilia, which is presenting concerts and bringing outside artists in; I had both backgrounds.”
Holbrook’s wait was short; she was called for her first interview at St. Cecilia in February of 2006 and officially hired as the new executive director in March. Right from the get-go, she hit the ground running with big plans in store for the rapidly-growing music hub.
“We changed the name of St. Cecilia Music Society in 2007 to St. Cecilia Music Center to more accurately reflect who we are in the community,” Holbrook explained. “The center is not a closed-off society, it’s not a membership-only organization and we wanted to make sure that wasn’t the concept that people had of the organization.”
St. Cecilia had always been renowned as a classical music organization, drawing in traditional fans devoted to the elegant, long-standing genre.
“We used to have a three-concert series that was sort of a variety of different music, and I changed things up a bit,” Holbrook divulged. “We (now have) a chamber music series, a jazz series and we’ve also started a folk series in the last few years.”
Holbrook helped forge a solid partnership between St. Cecilia and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York and collaborates frequently with a committee of jazz professionals at Blue Lake Public Radio and WGVU Public Media to seek out world renowned touring artists for the jazz series. She also works closely with Rob Reinhart, the host of Acoustic Cafe Radio Show, to book nationally broadcasted artists for the folk series.
“Our jazz series is very popular,” Holbrook pointed out. “We’re really filling a unique niche in Grand Rapids with it–people love jazz here. Last year was the tenth year that we’ve put on the jazz series, so we are calling this year our Encore Series. We are bringing back some of our favorite artists from the first ten years.”
Hand-picking artists to invite to the center may seem like a relatively simple endeavor, but Holbrook assures that there are a number of elements to take into consideration before the contracts are signed.
“It takes a lot of different aspects to make (a concert) happen; things have to fall into place,” she explained. “We have a budget that we set up for each year that I need to stick with, and we need to take into account how many tickets need to be sold and the marketing that has to be done. We also rely on sponsors for each concert series to make sure the budget stays intact and ticket prices remain reasonable.”
Last spring, the 122-year-old building underwent a $2.4 million renovation that remodeled the lobby, recital area and ballroom, added new seats to the auditorium, new practice rooms and renovated staff offices, as well as lighting throughout the building, a new roof and HVAC system.
“A huge thing I wanted to see happen was this renovation, so I am beyond thrilled that we were able to do this; it’s an effort that I am very proud of,” Holbrook expressed.
“I think there are still many people in Grand Rapids who don’t really know about St. Cecilia Music Center, so I would really like to see us be well-known throughout the community for excellent musical offerings, and I hope that we can expand the number of concerts here, as well as some additional genres that we aren’t covering right now.”
Career wise, Holbrook is in it for the long haul, and happily dedicates herself to leading St. Cecilia strategically and ambitiously as it continues to flourish.
“I put a lot of myself into this organization,” Holbrook smiled. “I see myself here in the future, continuing to grow the organization and other people’s’ knowledge of it.