By Dale King
Judith Mitchell was hired as fundraising director for the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in 1989 when the 10.5-acre venture was simply an under-construction dream of local philanthropists intent on creating a major performance venue in downtown West Palm Beach.
A bit more than 30 years later, inside the elegant showplace that now stands on that parcel, and on the heels of a highly successful production season sadly cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, Mitchell told her full time staff of 200 she’ll retire Dec. 31.
Both she and Board of Trustees Chairman Jeff Stoops said making her upcoming departure public now has nothing to do with the global health crisis that forced cancellation of all Kravis productions through May.
“I’ve been in discussions [about the retirement] for months,” Mitchell said during an interview on the patio of her home in Stuart. “It takes time to do a search when you have a long-tenured position to fill.”
Linking her retirement with the virus outbreak “couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Stoops. “It has been in the works for some time. We were going to do it in the fall, but we were involved in the capital campaign and the expansion of the center.”
He explained that a national search will be conducted to fill the soon-to-be-vacant post. Michael Bracci, immediate past board chair, will lead that panel with a goal of searching both internally and externally for Mitchell’s successor.
“While we would all like Judy to serve as our CEO forever, everyone is entitled to their next chapter,” the trustees chair added. “No one deserves it more than Judy, as her contributions to the Kravis Center and our community over her 30 years of service have truly been extraordinary.”
Mitchell recalled she was reluctant originally to take the promotion to CEO. “I felt very comfortable as the director of development. I took the job on a temporary basis so we could get the center open.”
Alexander Dreyfoos Jr., the philanthropist who spearheaded efforts to build the Kravis Center and a lifetime board member, said Mitchell’s move into the executive suite solidified the task.
“When, in 1980, we were in the early stages of exploring the possibility of a performing arts center for Palm Beach County, there were many initial disappointments and many naysayers in the community. We forged ahead, but the real turnaround began when Judy came on board.
“Judy is one of the top and finest executives I have ever worked with,” he added. “She is the person I always counted on to be smart, thoughtful and methodical about our goals and challenges and she has done a remarkable job. She leaves the Kravis Center in the best of shape and with an incredible staff in place.”
She remarked that having a “business-savvy board to mentor me” helped get her through those hesitant early days that required her to “take one step at a time.”
The Kravis Center opened for its first full season in 1992 – totally funded, with the majority of the construction costs donated by private individuals.
With Mitchell at the helm, the Kravis Center has been an economic catalyst, contributing an estimated $750 million to the local economy.
In the nearly three decades since opening, it has provided more than 15,000 performances, sold more than 9.5 million tickets, provided free performances and arts education opportunities to nearly three million students and drawn more than 10 million visitors to the area.
Her role has included supervising the center’s overall operations, planning and implementing corporate policies, overseeing employees as well as more than 700 volunteers and generating and managing a $31 million annual operating budget.
The Kravis in 1992 was “not at all like it is today,” she said. The variety of programming expanded along with the educational element “for students of all ages.”
“We try to do things seamlessly. It looks very organic, but it is definitely eclectic. There is something for everyone – the classics, orchestral music, dance and theater, but also country-and-western music and real variety.”
She said the nonprofit Kravis Center “did a full marketing study” that showed “the public wanted more comedy. This was a good exercise for us. More comedy wasn’t even on our radar.”
Mitchell said she’ll leave the CEO search to the appointed committee. But she’ll be in the executive post and available until year’s end. “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be here. It’s not like I’m taking another job.”
Stoops called Mitchell “the model and inspiration” for a CEO, but said the new chief exec should be “strong and capable. We don’t want to stifle them.”
Facing eventual departure of the coronavirus outbreak, Mitchell added: “I intend to continue steering the Kravis Center through the current health crisis, and of course, will always be available to make this the most seamless transition possible.”
Mitchell said her retirement plans include working on special community projects along with time for family and her dogs. Boating, snorkeling, hosting dinner parties and traveling are high on her retirement “to do” list.
Husband Jim Mitchell will remain in his role as chief operating officer for the Kravis Center as he continues to oversee operations and shepherd the center’s enhancement project to completion this year.
“I look forward to welcoming this great center’s next CEO,” said the current boss. “Starting with working with the very best team on the planet, the gifts I have received from working here and being part of this amazing community gathering place are too numerous to count.”