Shirley Helzberg resigns as head of KC Symphony board

Shirley Helzberg, whose involvement has been essential to the recent successes of the Kansas City Symphony, is stepping down as chairwoman of the orchestra’s board.

Helzberg, who led the board for 18 years, will be succeeded by longtime board member William M. Lyons. Helzberg will remain engaged with the Symphony, serving as the board’s chairwoman emeritus.

The news seemed unsurprising, given Helzberg’s recent appointment as president of the trustees of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and Helzberg said Monday that the Symphony succession plan has been in place for several years. She remains on the boards of many other arts and educational organizations and foundations.

“I am very pleased with where we are,” Helzberg said. “The organization is extremely successful, financially, and I’m so happy to pass it on into such good hands.”

Helzberg noted that Lyons has been on the board’s executive committee and was instrumental in the board’s effort to significantly increase the Symphony’s endowment.

Helzberg’s role with the Symphony goes back to the mid-1990s. She helped the orchestra craft a new labor agreement with its musicians, hire executive director Frank Byrne and music director Michael Stern, build the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and renovate a nearby historic building for the Symphony’s headquarters.

“Shirley has truly been a transformational leader for the Kansas City Symphony,” Stern said in a statement.

Lyons, a former president and CEO of American Century Investments, has been on the Symphony’s board for five years.

Helzberg said the challenges ahead include continuing to build the Symphony’s audience at a time of many sold-out subscription concerts and maintaining fiscal responsibility while many orchestras in medium-size and large cities are struggling or engaged in labor disputes.

“We always want to be attracting musicians and would love to be paying them a better salary,” she said, “but at the same time we know we can't pay more than we’re in a position to, given what’s in our coffers.”