When Joe Loehnis (MBA ’18) became CEO of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO) last year, he knew that what seemed like a dream job would not be without challenges. He just had no idea how big those challenges would quickly become.
Unlike many performing arts organizations, the WCO wasn’t winding down its season when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March. Loehnis and the WCO were busy preparing for the organization’s signature event in the summer: Concerts on the Square, a nearly 40-year-old free music series in which upwards of 60,000 people gather on the Wisconsin State Capitol grounds.
“Our season was just getting started.” Loehnis says. “We just kept going.”
The six-concert series became four. The location switched from the grounds of the Capitol to a drive-in movie setup at a baseball stadium for two rebroadcasts of popular concerts in June and July, as well as two live concerts at another Madison stadium in August and September.
Beyond the summer events, musicians began performing live music from their homes, dubbed the “#CouchertoSeries.” That created a place for musicians to share their music while also allowing the audience to get to know them better.
“The pandemic has accelerated some of the things we wanted to do as a business, such as streaming and online distribution,” Loehnis says. “We thought that was a two- to three-year plan, turned out it was a four-month plan.”
Moving ahead with rebranding
One of the first things Loehnis did as WCO’s new CEO was to launch a rebranding exercise for the organization, an initiative that he says inadvertently laid the foundation to respond to COVID-19 challenges.
“The mindset that we committed ourselves to at the beginning of the pandemic was one of nimbleness, innovation, and relevance. Because we were four months into our rebranding, we had been in that mindset for some time, which helped lessen the shift needed to pivot our thinking.”
Through the rebranding, the goal was for the 60-year-old organization to become even more accessible to the community by better connecting the musicians’ stories to the audiences, as well as finding ways to engage new audiences through different distribution strategies and programming enhancements.
The rebranding effort wasn’t complete when the pandemic hit, but Loehnis decided to forge ahead despite no guarantees when the orchestra would play in front of a live audience again.
“What I felt we had to do was to consider whether it was better for the organization and our patrons to stay relevant through innovation, or, shut down operations and conserve resources to emerge later?” he says. “And if you go the latter route, how much additional spending and resources would it take to rebuild your base of patrons and support?”
It’s a challenge all arts organizations face now as music events and festivals worldwide have been paused. In Wisconsin alone, Loehnis says, the arts employ more than 90,000 people and have an economic impact of $10 billion. Part of that includes what Concerts on the Square does for businesses in downtown Madison.
Well-skilled in music and business
Music and the arts aren’t just Loehnis’ profession but lifelong passions. A cello player, he earned his undergraduate degree in Cello Performance from Lawrence University while also playing on the school’s golf team. He became a professional golfer, and then Executive Director of the nonprofit First Tee of South Central Wisconsin.
While at First Tee, Loehnis earned his Wisconsin MBA. The Evening MBA program was the right choice to prepare him for running the WCO, Loehnis says.
“The WCO has a long history of playing music at a very high caliber. My focus was on the business. I had to do a lot of reconfiguring, from HR, operations, marketing, and finance,” he says. “As a manager, it helps to be able to understand all facets of the business to guide in your strategic decision-making. The Evening MBA program at the Wisconsin School of Business provides a comprehensive cross-functional training so you are equipped with tools to make better decisions.”
Loehnis admits that when he hears of other people taking new leadership positions in the midst of the pandemic, he does wonder what they are thinking. Then he realizes that he probably would have done the same thing.
“Whether there is a pandemic or not, that doesn’t change the mission of the WCO,” he says. “Arts organizations exist to enrich the lives of community members. Finding ways to innovate and remain relevant during a pandemic requires us to respond to a different set of business circumstances while continuing the work.”