Michael Ross leaving top job at Center Stage

October 20, 2007|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,sun theater critic

Michael Ross, the ebullient and well-regarded managing director of Center Stage, is stepping down after six seasons.

Responsible for matters as diverse as fundraising campaigns and building plans, Ross was more than just the top administrator of the regional theater. He also was the very visible and public face of Baltimore's largest nonprofit professional company, allowing artistic director Irene Lewis to concentrate on selecting, casting and rehearsing plays.

It wasn't unusual to wave to Ross across the lobby at a symphony concert or art gallery, or to bump into him at a performance of a small, local troupe. He also arranged for smaller arts groups to obtain lighting and sound equipment that Center Stage no longer needed.

As Lewis put it: "It's been great working with Michael, but I respect his desire to dive into something else. Any choice that helps a person to grow or try new things should be encouraged."

"That said, I'd personally like to break his legs for leaving us," she added jokingly.

Ross, 48, will remain in his post through June 1. A national search will be launched within the month to appoint his successor.

When a high-ranking official leaves a job without another position lined up, it's often because he was forced out. Ross, however, says that his departure is strictly voluntary.

"While I was in this job, I occasionally got other offers," he says. "I didn't pursue them, but they stuck in my head. I began to wonder: `Is this really all I can do, or do I have the talents to try something else?'

"I love what I do, but it takes a lot of hours. It would be way too hard to even think about pursuing something else while I was still ... with Center Stage."

Ross says he has no idea what he'll do next. It might not even be a job in the theater, he says. He might try his skills in the commercial world. Or he might take a series of short-term positions leading struggling arts groups.

"I'm good at working with organizations in crisis," he says, "helping to turn them around and put them back on their feet. I think that would be really hard, really challenging, really exciting work."

Though Ross has only been at Center Stage for a relatively short time, his accomplishments are impressive.

The organization was stable and in sound financial shape when he arrived; the theater has balanced its budget for the past 30 seasons.

Corporate support has increased by 72 percent under Ross' tenure, and major gifts have more than doubled. The theater now has an endowment of $20 million -- a figure that is the envy of many larger troupes.

Ross also is proud of a program he expanded in which Center Stage provides free matinee performances for 2,000 Baltimore City public school students. Center Stage raised money not only to pay for the tickets, but also for the buses to transport the students.

Lynn Deering, president of Center Stage's board of directors, said that she accepted Ross resignation with "a heavy heart" and added: "Michael has done such a fabulous job at the theater that it is hard to think of it without him. He has brought great passion and leadership to the role of managing director."

Ross says that he wouldn't feel comfortable stepping down if Center Stage weren't at an artistic and financial peak.

"Becoming managing director of Center Stage has always been my dream job, and during the last five years, my dream came to life," he says.

"We just finished up one strategic plan, and we'll launch a new one in the spring. We just finished a $6.8 million fundraising campaign. A lot of good things are coming to closure. It's the right moment to think about wrapping things up."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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