Unitey Kull of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra speaks on the arts panel organized by Explore St. Louis.

Gateway to the Arts: A Conversation with Unitey Kull of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

Friday April 7, 2023

By Rachel Huffman

We took the show on the road! On March 30, leaders from some of St. Louis’ most important arts organizations gathered at Lightbox in New York City for a media event spotlighting the impressive cultural scene in our region.

Hosted by Explore St. Louis, the event engaged the media in the story of St. Louis as a hub of artistic activity and a leading city on the national arts stage. More than 30 members of the media joined us for the experience, representing platforms such as AFAR, Condé Nast Traveler and Forbes. At the end of the discussion, Explore St. Louis’ Cat Neville extended an invitation to join us in St. Louis in May for an arts-focused media tour, which will connect media directly with the people and places that bring our city to life with creativity and vision.

The conversation, moderated by Vanessa Cooksey, president and CEO of the Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis, uncovered details of why St. Louis deserves serious attention as a destination for those interested in experiencing groundbreaking exhibitions and performances.

Here, we present the conversation between Cooksey and Unitey Kull, vice president of marketing and audience experience at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. To learn more about the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, visit its website.

Vanessa Cooksey moderated the New York City arts panel organized by Explore St. Louis.
Vanessa Cooksey of the Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis | Photo by Kelly Williams

The world-renowned St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is the second-oldest orchestra in the country, and it’s currently on tour in Europe. Tell us why that’s significant.

I’m actually here in place of president and CEO Marie-Hélène Bernard – she’s in Madrid right now as part of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s five-city, four-country tour. We were in Vienna, Amsterdam, Eindhoven, Brussels and Madrid, and it’s not only fabulous from the perspective of cultural exchange, but it’s also wonderful for building camaraderie and attracting and retaining the very best musicians. We have an incredible orchestra, so the [St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is acting] as an ambassador of the U.S. [while it’s] in these cities [playing] to sold out audiences.

Powell Hall, which houses the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, is 98 years old, and it’s undergoing a major expansion. Tell us about the expansion and what visitors can expect.

This is the biggest undertaking that we’ve done in our 144-year history. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra has been in Powell Hall since 1968. It was opened as a movie theater in 1925, and the last time it was renovated was 1968. You can imagine how our audiences have changed, [which means] our needs have changed.

Powell Hall is stunning. It’s a beautiful space with chandeliers and red carpet, and the hall is acoustically renowned. So, it’s a real balancing act for us to preserve the acoustics and the hall – what everyone loves – while adding 65,000 square feet. We will be [preserving] and enhancing the interior of the hall and adding a modern expansion that will double the number of restrooms, double the number of bars [and add] an education and learning center. It’s incredible how little backstage space we have, [but soon] we’ll have recording studios, practice space and new dressing rooms. We’re very excited.

We’re starting construction right now, and the orchestra will [perform throughout] the community for the next season and a half. We have a couple anchor venues, and we’ll be using this opportunity to meet audiences where they are. In 2025, when [we’re back at Powell Hall], we can celebrate the centennial of the building.

Tell us about the 2023-2024 season and what excites you the most.

We kick off every season with a huge concert in Forest Park [that draws approximately] 20,000 people. It’s a beloved tradition. Then, this year’s series kickoff will be with superstar violinist Hilary Hahn, who has not been to St. Louis in 21 years, so our audiences are very excited about that. We’re closing the season in May 2024 with cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

In between, we’ll present all five Beethoven piano concertos, each with an acclaimed piano soloist. We’ll do a jazz festival in collaboration with Jazz St. Louis. We’re working with the Aaron Diehl Trio. We’ll be premiering several works with the jazz series [including] a new piece by Jeff Beal for violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins. We’re doing a co-commission of Julia Wolfe and a co-commission of Adam Schoenberg. We’ll be presenting new work by Big Muddy Dance Company. A lot of collaboration.

We have a long-standing series with the Pulitzer Arts Foundation featuring new work inspired by the art on view. [In collaboration with the Sheldon Concert Hall and Art Galleries] we’ll also have a chamber series, a special performance at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis and our film series, [where we perform the scores of Home Alone, Nightmare Before Christmas, Star Wars and more live]. As you can see, we have a pretty diverse program.

Around the country, many arts organizations across disciplines are still struggling to attract audiences post pandemic. Can you share your secret sauce for growing your audiences?

I think that there has been a pent-up demand for live music. It was a slow start in the fall, but we are seeing filled out audiences now, and I think that it’s the versatility of the orchestra that enables us to go from [the score of] Black Panther to core classical music to an indie rock presentation. Honestly, I’m feeling optimistic.

We’ve been experimenting with different marketing strategies, too. I think younger audiences are looking for more collaborative multimedia experiences, and our average new-to-file rate is 35 percent right now. There has been attrition with the older subscriber base, but we are welcoming younger and more diverse audiences all the time, which is great.

[I’ll just add that St. Louis makes the arts extremely accessible.] We have so many free attractions that, if you’re not free, you have to keep your ticket prices really low because that’s what people expect. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra has $15 tickets. I’m going to the New York Philharmonic tomorrow, which I’m very excited about, but the tickets were not $15.

When we look at our long-term model, we are not raising prices. We have a real mission to be welcoming and keep the arts accessible for all. As a cultural consumer with young children, I think that’s amazing. So, you should come [to St. Louis and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra] for that reason, if nothing else.

Audience question: Would you say that St. Louis shows more contemporary art, or do you revisit past works, focusing on the historical context of them?

Before coming to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, I was at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis for 10 years, which is right next to the Pulitzer Arts Foundation. There is a very strong contemporary art scene in St. Louis. The Saint Louis Art Museum also has incredible contemporary art, and our music director, Stéphane Denève, is passionate about living composers and building the repertoire for tomorrow. So, it’s hard to encapsulate because we have such a balance; we have so much diversity. There’s just so much going on.

Another interesting tidbit: Artist Katherine Bernhardt recently moved to St. Louis. She grew up here, moved away and has come back. Now, she has a great gallery, Dragon Crab and Turtle, and she’s renovating a very cool house. Anyway, it’s fun to see people realizing that the arts are flourishing here and making St. Louis their home.