A major figure in San Francisco’s cultural life since 1990, Brent Assink, 61, announced today that he will step down next year from the position he held since 1999 as executive director of the San Francisco Symphony.
When Musical America three years ago named Assink one of the nation’s “Movers & Shakers: 30 Key Influencers in the Performing Arts,” the citation enumerated some of his accomplishments:
Many of the initiatives Brent Assink has set in motion during his [then 14 years of leading SFS] have been picked up by others in the field: Keeping Score, the award-winning radio, TV, DVD, and interactive website series hosted by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas that has introduced millions to classical music; the launch of the ensemble’s own label, SFS Media, in 2001, which accounts for seven of the orchestra’s 11 Grammys; the revitalization of “Adventures in Music,” now part of the San Francisco public school curriculum for grades one through five; sfskids.com, a website devoted specifically to the younger crowd; and much more.
Running an organization presenting more than 220 concerts a year, with an operating budget close to $70 million (and including the crisis years of the Great Recession), Assink guided the orchestra through many challenges, saved it from going deeper into debt, even during the unusually expensive season celebrating the Symphony’s centennial in 2011, and allowed it to maintain high standards.
Assink received a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota in musicology and business administration (a perfect doubleheader for what became his career), and had been active as a pianist and organist. But instead of a performance career, he started as an administrator at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, eventually becoming manager of the orchestra. In 1990, he was named SFS General Manager, then returned to St. Paul in 1994 as the organization’s President. He was named SFS Executive Director in March 1999.
A major crisis facing the Symphony was the musicians’ 18-day strike in 2013, and Assink had a prominent role in re-establishing communications between the administration and musicians, eventually leading to an agreement and subsequent labor peace.
Extending into the remaining months of his tenure, Assink’s major quest is capturing larger audiences during the current economic expansion in the Bay Area, which in downtown San Francisco – Assink says – creates “more residential construction than since the 1906 earthquake. So what’s happening is young, highly educated professionals are moving into the city, and the question facing our orchestra in this particular environment is, how do we become a part of their lives?”
Assink is only the fourth executive director of the San Francisco Symphony since 1939, when the organization created its top management position. Howard Skinner served from 1939 to 1964, Joseph Scafidi from 1965 to 1978, and Peter Pastreich from 1978 to 1999.
“I cannot imagine a life more fulfilling and enriching than the one I have been privileged to lead here since 1999,” Assink says. “These have been years of enormous change—in society, in technology, in the way Americans think about orchestral music and its place in their lives. What could be more exciting than to have been part of this! I will always cherish my time here and marvel that I have been able to lead an organization unafraid of change and eager to embrace challenges that opened new ways of experiencing music.”