Jerry Kern leaves Colorado Symphony with $88 million

Jerry Kern’s vanilla-and-caramel Havanese, Mikey, calmly eyed the knees of people streaming by in the Edge Bar, at the Four Seasons Hotel Denver, on Tuesday. He barked only once — and unsurprisingly, at another compact canine.

“He comes in the restaurant with me sometimes,” said Kern, 83, who lived in the luxury hotel for a time with his wife and philanthropic partner of 23 years, Mary Rossick Kern. “He’s always very quiet in there. Aren’t you, Mikey?”

Posting up on a couch with Mikey is not something Kern does frequently. On Sept. 9, Colorado Symphony officials announced his retirement as CEO and board chairman, following two on-and-off decades of financial and artistic growth and tumult. At the same time, leaders revealed the symphony’s endowment had reached $88 million, which Kern boasted as “unprecedented in the Colorado performing arts community.”

“It’s not tied to the pandemic,” Kern said of his departure, which the symphony attributed to personal reasons (while deflecting requests for more information). “I’m free to say anything now. But I’d rather talk about how it’s almost ten years to the day that the musicians reached out to us after the whole board left and they were about to declare bankruptcy.”

That would have been a staggering blow to Denver’s cultural scene, which in 2011 was matching its rapid population and construction growth. Colorado Symphony is one of the four main arts organizations at downtown’s Denver Performing Arts Complex, along with Colorado Ballet, Opera Colorado and Denver Center for the Performing Arts (theater and Broadway).

Kern first got involved in the early 2000s when his wife, who had been at the CSO (as it was called at the time) more than a decade, brought him in. They later stepped away from their leadership duties after helping launch innovative, lucrative programming. But they returned in 2011 when the symphony was on another path of doom — at one point $1.2 million on the red, and saddled with disgruntled musicians and nearly two dozen canceled concerts.

“We initially got very little support from the city, and we were being told on a regular basis that they didn’t believe in our longevity,” Kern said. “Now I’ve got a great relationship with the mayor’s chief of staff, Alan Salazar.”

The Kerns focused on fundraising, new revenue streams, lowering the average age of attendees, and fresh programming. All were successful, resulting in $4 million to $5 million in annual ticket sales, pre-pandemic. In addition to classical repertoire, the symphony is now known for its live film-score screenings; playing backup for acts such as The Flaming Lips, Tenacious D and Gregory Alan Isakov at Red Rocks Amphitheatre concerts and live albums; and holiday programming.

But Kern and city leaders have clashed publicly over finding the best long-term deal for the symphony. In 2014, they near-simultaneously announced different visions for the Denver Performing Arts Complex, which the city owns, and on which the symphony’s Boettcher Concert Hall sits. Kern revealed a $40 million Build a Better Boettcher campaign at a press conference; hours later, the city revealed its Next Stage plan to redevelop the larger complex.

By 2019, the symphony and the city of Denver signed an agreement effectively condemning Boettcher, which was built in 1978 and had become a liability with its empty seats and poor acoustics. The symphony also considered picking up stakes and moving to Cherry Creek, leaving Denver without one.

A larger solution never came to pass. As someone who makes things happen — Kern was a longtime lawyer for the cable industry and (briefly) Playboy Magazine editor who sits on various financial and academic boards — he was disappointed at the impasse. New leaders will chart their own path, he said.

But the Kerns remain energized and aren’t finished with their work. Given their success at fundraising — often at the request of various organizations — they’re hoping to focus on the fortunes of the University of Colorado next (or “fix it,” as Kern said). And you’ll see them at the symphony, as always.

“I have plenty of energy left,” Kern said, noting that his father lived to be 102. “But I need to take a week off from thinking about what I’m going to do next before I can do it.”

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