There was a time when Judy Lisi thought the name of the city was “Tampa Bay.”
It was the early ‘90s, and Lisi was in charge of the Shubert Performing Arts Center in New Haven, Conn., when she got a call to move south and run the relatively new Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.
“Honestly, where I’m from in the New York area, Tampa wasn’t really on the landscape,” she said. “You didn’t even think about it.”
But she’d read about the new venue in trade magazines. After flying down to see it in person, “I was kind of bowled over,” she said. “They built this place for the future, and they really put it on the map.”
For 30 years, Lisi has kept it there, expanding the venue, building its coffers and boosting its national profile. Now she’s decided the curtains are nigh. Lisi will retire as CEO and president of what is now the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts next September, she announced Tuesday.
“I love this job, but it’s a very demanding job, as you can imagine,” Lisi, 75, told the Tampa Bay Times. “We’re not getting any younger, and my husband is retired, so it’s just going to be a nice time for us. I figured, 30 years, they’ve had enough of me here.”
Lisi’s tenure at the Straz has spanned five mayors, and multiple expansions and fundraising campaigns. When she arrived in 1992, the center was in a budgetary deficit; today, it has an endowment nearing $70 million. She oversaw the founding of Opera Tampa and the Patel Conservatory, and will leave with a $100 million capital campaign, including an $80 million expansion of the Straz’s Riverwalk area, well underway.
“Every CEO should be able to feel so fortunate, when they look back on their time in an organization, that they made the mark that Judy has made on the Straz Center and on Tampa,” said Bill West, chairperson of the Straz Center’s board of directors. “She’s not irreplaceable, because nobody is, but it’s going to be difficult to find somebody who has all the characteristics that Judy Lisi has.”
Lisi brought to Tampa a unique combination of artistic, investment and boardroom experience. A Juilliard-trained soprano, Lisi is also a prolific financial backer of Broadway musicals, from The Producers and Hadestown to In the Heights and Dear Evan Hansen. Among her many career honors are lifetime achievement awards from the Broadway League and International Society for the Performing Arts.
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Lisi’s direct ties to Broadway have driven much of her career in Tampa. When she arrived in 1992, the center wasn’t hosting top-tier touring musicals, she said. The marketing felt sterile, and the building “looked like a big slab of concrete.”
“One of the first things I did was put up these neon signs,” she said. “There was no neon in the city at all. I said, This might be the shortest job I ever have. But we’re in show business. You have to have a marquee. You have to say who you are.”
Lisi pushed to bring bigger Broadway tours to town, building a base of season subscribers from which the center’s programming could grow.
One of her biggest priorities came to pass in 1995 with the founding of Opera Tampa, led by composer and conductor Anton Coppola — of the Hollywood Coppolas — whom she knew from her days in the Northeast. Opera Tampa has been the source of one of her proudest moments in Tampa — the 2001 premiere of Coppola’s original opera Sacco and Vanzetti — but also one of her the most trying, when Coppola’s replacement, Daniel Lipton, was accused of sexual misconduct in 2017.
Lisi built out the center’s Shimberg Playhouse, enabling smaller, local theater companies like Jobsite Theatre and Stageworks Theatre to take root. She was also an executive producer on one of the largest productions the Straz has ever mounted: The original musical Wonderland, which was developed in Tampa before bowing on Broadway in 2011.
And she took a lead role in securing the multimillion-dollar donations that helped build the Patel Conservatory, as well as the renaming of the venue last decade after a prodigious donation from the late philanthropist David Straz.
“We would have lunch once or twice a year, and finally, when the time was right — and it took like 20 years — he was ready,” Lisi said. “He was ready to step up. That was wonderful.”
It’s those long-running connections to the community, West said, that will make Lisi so tough to replace.
“She’s built this 30-year relationship with people, and they’re so solid,” he said. “It’s not easy. You get people coming and going as board chairs, board members, civic leaders, public officials, and she has to navigate through all of that to continue to press ahead with her vision for the Straz. And what a wonderful job she’s done doing all of that.”
The Straz has hired an external search firm to lead what West said will be a North America-wide search. A small internal group of leaders and trustees will review initial candidates, and then “as we get down to the finalists, we’ll expand the number of people who are involved to include a broader swath of the community,” he said.
In the year she has left, Lisi still has a long to-do list. Her contract was initially up in October, but she agreed to stay on as the pandemic ebbed and the Straz returned to life. And she wanted to ensure the venue got city funding for its expansion project —which it recently did, to the tune of $25 million.
When she retires, Lisi will keep a seat on the Straz Center’s foundation board. And she’s not quitting the creative side of the theater business. She plans to launch an investment company to develop and consult on new Broadway productions. And while she has no plans to sing on stage again, she is interested in directing an opera or smaller musical.
But before all that, she wants to take a break. She and her husband aren’t leaving Tampa; their son and 9-year-old grandson are here. Lisi aims to spend as much time as possible with them.
“I can’t wait to not be overscheduled,” she said. “In our business, it’s just one curtain after another curtain, after another curtain, after another curtain. And a lot of travel. I’m just looking forward to no scheduling for a few months.”