Laura Burns was ready for a new challenge. So when she heard Opera Naples sought a new executive director, the longtime arts and nonprofit leader went for it. And after a national search she got the gig.
“I just feel honored and privileged to have been selected to lead this great organization,” says Burns, 50.
But while she was looking for a new career challenge, the former executive director of the United Arts Council of Collier County had no idea just how difficult things would get. Burns had a scheduled start date at Opera Naples of Oct 3. As she waited for that day to arrive, she also watched Hurricane Ian make its approach toward Florida.
Burns knew Opera Naples’s Wang Opera Center was in a vulnerable spot, especially with the storm surge predictions experts were making. “I was hoping for the best and completely prepared to show up and do whatever was necessary to get us through this catastrophe,” she says.
The worst happened when Hurricane Ian made landfall in Southwest Florida Sept. 28, with two to three feet of storm surge flowing into the Wang Opera Center. Many of the opera’s props were damaged. The flooring had to be ripped up because it was so swollen and bubbling, and electrical equipment was also destroyed by the storm.
“All of our administrative offices suffered damage, so we don’t have access anymore to some of our files,” says Burns. “We can’t get drawers open in desks; they’re swollen and molded shut.”
It was not the start she had expected. But Burns has worked alongside staff and volunteers to rip out carpet and drywall, while also trying to salvage the organization’s season and start the rebuilding process.
“What I didn’t realize was that I would be a project manager on a major reconstruction,” she says bemusedly about her new role. “The good news is I have experience in the building realm in my former life before I converted to the arts. It’s just been a lot of coordination and decision making. What is the most important thing to handle today to move forward and to keep in mind the bigger picture for the long haul for this organization and our facility?”
She’s gotten a crash course on Opera Naples, working quickly to familiarize herself with its longtime supporters and donors and its dedicated staff and volunteers. “It’s been one heck of a team-building opportunity,” says Burns. “We all just had to jump right in and get to know each other with a lot of hands-on work.”
“But it’s been good to get to know the team on a different level as opposed to only administratively.”
Opera Naples is assessing the cost of damages, with Burns estimating it will be in the high six figures or possibly seven figures. The organization has a longtime relationship with Heatherwood Construction in Bonita Springs, and it’s working with that company to get the building situated so it’s at least usable for rehearsal space.
As far as Opera Naples’s 2022-23 season goes, Burns is trying to maintain as many events as possible while having to cancel or reschedule some. She’s grateful previously scheduled performances at Artis—Naples and Cambier Park will allow the show to go on at those sites. “We really only have a few things we are looking to relocate,” she says.
She’s drawing on knowledge and contacts gained while at the United Arts Council of Collier County, where she collaborated with 23 different organizations on arts surveys and studies, festivals and other projects. “It’s absolutely been really helpful in our community partnerships and knowing who to reach out to in other organizations when Opera Naples is needing some help,” she says. “Working in the capacity of executive director at the council really has just allowed me to be embedded in the community and reach out just on behalf of a different organization this time.”
Burns doesn’t expect any job cuts as a result of the storm damage. “We are as busy as ever when it comes to administering and working with our patrons and ticketing and our community events and education,” she says. “So all of our staffing will remain in place, thankfully.”
But she now has “a six-figure hole” to deal with. The opera has put together a Hurricane Relief Fund to which supporters can contribute, and donors have reached out, asking how they can help. The find recently picked up $18,000, after a fundraising performance entitled "Ole! A Celebration of Spanish Song"
Burns has long been a major advocate for the arts in general and the arts in Southwest Florida, and she’s determined to find success through adversity as she weathers this challenge. “Those of us that do this stuff, it’s because we love it,” she says. “And so that’s the driving force.
Nokomis-based freelance writer Beth Luberecki, a Business Observer contributor, writes about business, travel and lifestyle topics for a variety of Florida and national publications. Her work has appeared in publications and on websites including Washington Post’s Express, USA Today, Florida Trend, FamilyVacationist.com and SmarterTravel.com. Learn more about her at BethLuberecki.com.