After 30 years backstage, new Ruth Eckerd Hall CEO Susan Crockett steps into the spotlight

The soft-spoken leader’s “unprecedented” knowledge of the venue will shape her ambitious plans for its future.
Published June 14
Updated June 18

CLEARWATER — Duncan McClellan spread a stack of sketches and renderings across a conference table in Susan Crockett’s office at Ruth Eckerd Hall.

“This is not a formal presentation,” said the St. Petersburg glass artist, invited to design an eye-popping sculpture for the hall’s new entrance. “I’m going to show you a bunch of different ideas, and I’ll tell you what my favorites are.”

One was a trio of totem-like columns of giant glass beads. Another resembled a feather plume swaying in the wind. One everyone liked was an array of giant spheres with designs inspired by mandalas and musicology, resting atop a plinth of falling water.

Crockett, seated at the head of the table, said the least of anyone. She studied the rendering, fingers tented across her lips, as others asked about the materials, the maintenance, the cost. It’s a big decision for Ruth Eckerd Hall, one every patron will walk past for years. But for Crockett, the venue’s newly appointed president and CEO, it’s only one of many. She’s got deadlines to meet, donors to dine and a stack of carpet samples in the corner.

It isn’t just the entrance in her hands. It’s the whole place.

Crockett, 55, is the venue’s first homegrown leader in three decades, rising from assistant house manager to CEO over a span of 31 years. It’s a high-profile job that, for the longest time, she didn’t want. Yet when Zev Buffman retired last fall, sparking a global search to replace him, Crockett threw her hat in the ring. So vast was her knowledge of the hall, so detailed her vision for its future, that the search committee ultimately canceled its final round of interviews. Crockett was that clear a choice.

As the others grilled McClellan over the beads, plumes and spheres, Crockett’s eyes lingered on a photo of a wall of glass discs he once made a client in Sarasota. They weren’t right for the entrance. But Ruth Eckerd Hall is a big enterprise, ever expanding, and Crockett’s got her eye on every inch. There’s always room to improve.

“So pretty,” she whispered. She can see it.

• • •

Tacked behind Crockett’s desk is a short quote that explains a lot. It’s from Pope Francis: “Authentic power is service.”

Crockett attends Espiritu Santo Catholic Church in Safety Harbor, near the home she shares with her husband Grant and Chihuahua mixes Pippa and Mason. She doesn’t often talk about her spirituality (“It sounds so hokey”), but that quote offers a nice contrast between the 30 years she worked mostly behind the scenes and the position of power she now wields.

“I’m here to serve,” she said. “I’m not doing it for the money. I’m really not. I’m doing it because I think it’s the right thing to do. And I mean that. Because if (the job) got to be about me, it becomes overwhelming. It can’t be about me. If it gets to be about me, I’m not going to do the job that I want to do.”

Crockett grew up the youngest of five children in Long Island, N.Y., in a house where there was always jazz and opera in the air. Her father had season tickets to the New York City Ballet and Metropolitan Opera, and Crockett played violin (“not well,” she said).

All the other kids went into the sciences. But Crockett, imprinted with the notion that the arts had real value, got a job with a theater in New York. In 1988, after her parents moved to Florida and her then-fiance entered the Tampa Police Academy, she applied to be an assistant house manager at Ruth Eckerd Hall.

Meeting celebrities was fun, especially teenage faves like Peter Frampton or Hall and Oates. But Crockett knew early on she wanted to manage a venue. So she moved from department to department, learning the entire operation from the ground up. She wrote grant proposals and made cold calls for arts education funding, developed new ticketing procedures while working in the box office. She was a business analyst, a human resources officer, a chief information officer. If it took place behind the scenes, she did it.

“If I had to make a difficult decision, I wanted to get her input,” said Robert Freedman, Ruth Eckerd Hall’s CEO from 1998 to 2011. “She’s very calm, even in the face of a lot of adversity. Very calm. Maybe fastidious isn’t the right word, but finding a way to solve problems and look forward.”

Buffman elevated Crockett to chief operating officer and groomed her as his emergency successor. But that was as far as she wanted to go. To use an industry metaphor, CEOs work the front of the house, COOs work the back. Crockett, a self-described introvert, was hesitant to be the person in charge, the face everyone wants a meeting with.

“It’s something that doesn’t come naturally for her,” said Grant Crockett, who runs a landscaping business.

But when she became acting president after Buffman’s retirement, she surprised board members – and herself – by how quickly she took to the role.

“The first time that I was completely blown away by her and her presence in a speaking role was the annual report to the Clearwater City Council,” said Ray Bouchard, secretary of Ruth Eckerd Hall’s board. “She will say that she’s nervous, but when she begins to speak, her confidence and her knowledge really comes out.”

Crockett is among the few employees who have worked with almost every hall leader, from original executive director Arnold Bremen to cofounder Marcia Hoffman, the namesake of its performing arts institute. Those names go a long way with season ticket holders or donors who haven’t given in years.

Earlier this year, Crockett reached out to philanthropists Nancy and David Bilheimer, longtime Ruth Eckerd Hall patrons who had recently donated $2 million to the Dunedin Fine Art Center. Crockett took them on a tour, showing off a side of the hall they’d never seen. The result: A $2.5 million check for the Hoffman School, which resulted in downtown’s Capitol Theatre being renamed in their honor.

“She brought that thing home,” Bouchard said.

Crockett believes in “calculated risk” when it comes to potential infrastructure investments, such as a parking garage outside the hall: “I’m much more disciplined about saving for a rainy day.” One top priority is building Ruth Eckerd Hall’s endowment from around $3 million to $25 million, in part to prepare for those storm clouds.

She has ambitious plans to expand the hall’s educational outreach. Last year, the Hoffman School served 41,000 music students at more than 25 locations around Pinellas County. Her goal: 100,000 within the next three years.

“I think we’re going to do it,” she said. “There’s 100,000 out there. That’s part of what I’m good at. I have staff that is really good at coming up with the programming and identifying the right people to deliver it, and I’m really good at saying, how do you go from here to here without imploding?”

It’s a big part of what separated Crockett from the other CEO candidates.

“The depth and breadth of her experience is unprecedented in this role,” said Holly Duncan, the hall’s vice president of development when Crockett started, and now a fundraising consultant. “She’s really done everything in the hall. She’s not only saying, I feel your pain or I understand or Here are some good ideas. She actually has done it. And that’s a big difference.”

• • •

On June 10, Ruth Eckerd Hall threw Crockett a welcome reception at the Bilheimer Capitol Theatre. Adorning floral centerpieces in the lobby were an assortment of her many vintage company name tags. (The original plan was old photos. Crockett nixed that idea right away.)

The tags normally hang behind her desk. Otherwise, her office betrays no hint that she works in the performing arts. There are no autographed posters or photos with singers and celebrities. Those are all stored at home — and even there, they take a backseat to quieter hobbies like European history and genealogy.

One wall in her office is filled with 20 black-framed photos from a European trip Crockett took last summer with her daughter, Lauren, 20, a student at Ave Maria University. Crockett debated hanging anything in the temporary space. But she needed personal touches to sustain a sense of work-life balance.

One day, she arranged and hung them herself. The task was too personal to outsource.

“This is the balance for me,” she said. “This is such a big part of my life, the hall, and there’s family, and there’s travel, and there’s my faith. This kind of keeps me cemented.”

She sat beneath the photos during a recent lunch to discuss fundraising strategy with Duncan. Duncan was an early inspiration to Crockett, as was Elissa Getto, the hall’s last CEO to be promoted from within, back in 1989. The talk turned to how Crockett’s prim office differed from those of her predecessors.

“You remember Arnold had all those pictures, every artist who performed, as they performed?” Duncan said.

“Arnold had every picture,” Crockett said. “Robert had some.”

“You’ve always been behind the scenes, making everything happen,” Duncan said. “Now, you can jump through to the other side. You were the one getting the pictures for Arnold to hang in his office, the one getting pictures for Robert. Now it’s time for us to do it for you.”

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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