PRINCETON: Spotlight: Caren Sturges: Turning a page, con brio

By Pat Summers Special Writer
    What’s a woman to do after six years as president of Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s board of trustees, with eight active-member years before that?
    The question doesn’t stump Caren Sturges for a moment. She’s “got a little list.”
    Now she’ll have time to read beyond what’s required for her two book clubs. She’ll get back to playing the piano — and tennis, too. There’s more time to savor grandchildren. She can oversee landscaping planned at home and enjoy being with good old friends who go all the way back to school days.
    But before getting started on any of those plans, Ms. Sturges spent a chunk of afternoon the day she left office extolling the PSO board and reflecting on her years at its helm.
    Lithely fit, casually sun- dressed and seemingly makeup-free, with wavy dark hair and eyebrows nearly as distinctive as her hearty laugh, she tucked bare feet under her on a sofa and happily looked back for awhile.
    She had thought of leaving the presidency a year ago, she says, after the exhaustive two-year search that led to signing Rossen Milanov as PSO’s new music director. “Then I thought, ‘Gosh, it’d be nice to reap the benefits of all this hard work and, you know, get to know him and see how the board is responding.’”
    That was the right decision, Ms. Sturges concludes, having enjoyed seeing Mr. Milanov — “a hugely popular choice” — through his first year.
    The search was a key effort during her tenure as board president. “This organization had never done one, and there was so much we didn’t know.” She cites fellow trustee Robert L. Annis, dean and director, Westminster College of the Arts of Rider University, who provided guidance based on his own recent search experience.
    In retrospect, she added, the search process brought benefits beyond even Mr. Milanov. Chief among them was building bonds of mutual respect between board members and orchestra musicians.
    That had been attempted over years of dinners, post- concert receptions and such affairs, but the search proved to be the best catalyst. The committee included three trustees and three orchestra members, as well as three community representatives. “We met regularly and for as long as needed,” Ms. Sturges remembers, “and so the lucky ones on the committee really got to know the musicians.
    “I developed so much respect for the way musicians are interconnected with others all over the country and beyond,” she says, marveling at their sound judgments as well as their ability to contact music peers for tips or feedback on candidates. A bonus was “our learning to appreciate each other and understanding a little bit of how musicians think about who’s leading the orchestra.”
    Alluding to the surveys orchestra members completed after every concert during the search, Ms. Sturges adds, “Some times what the musicians noticed and said was so different from what we noticed in an interview or a social meeting.”
    The search also helped “grow” the board of trustees itself. Describing members as “super smart, with different and important skill sets,” she lauds their “team spirit and cohesion” as well as their appreciation and respect for one another.
    A needed culture change occurred because “We really had to learn how to become much more transparent during this process,” she says. “I feel as if the governance of the board is healthier now, more open and honest. I’m really happy about that.”
    One reason Ms. Sturges so adeptly “talks the talk” about organizations like PSO’s board is because she’s also walked the walk — her background is full of volunteer service and board involvements. She tosses off references to the Arts Council of Princeton, Friends of Channel 13, the Family Guidance Center, Martin House, Angel’s Wings.
    A docent for five years at the Princeton University Art Museum, she was also a pre- school volunteer. Trinity Church’s “Education for Ministry,” a four-year course in which she started as student and wound up as mentor for years afterward, earns her glowing praise. “People felt trusting enough to speak openly and during every class, there were opportunities to talk about personal beliefs and how to apply them to contemporary life situations.”
    Originally, Ms. Sturges had agreed to join the PSO board “to watch and see if I could pick up some leadership pointers. (But) I think you really pick up things by doing. You can watch a lot, but it’s not till you get stuck with things that you find out whether you’re good or not.”
    She ran benefits, served on nominating committees and generally got involved. Apprehensive when she became the obvious one to head the group, she remembers Melanie Clarke, PSO’s executive director, saying, “I will help you in whatever ways you need.”
    Not only that, but others on the board were there as mentor-resources. “They always came through, always made me feel I had back up,” Ms. Sturges says. “During this growth process for me, I came to understand there are a whole lot of people who are responsible, who help someone be a good leader.”
    And now, “I feel I’m leaving this organization in great artistic shape and great financial shape,” she responds to a question about her accomplishments as board president. “We actually are running at a tiny budget surplus for the year — and there are no orchestras with budget surpluses!”
    She credits the surplus to “our being really careful about our spending and being really fortunate with our fundraising. This is a good town to be in.” Resisting many ideas that came their way, the trustees didn’t get carried away, try to get too big or do too many things.
    “Let’s wait till we get our conductor and find out what he wants to do,” Ms. Sturges remembers saying. “Then we can get everyone behind it if we want to try some changes, like a family concert … “ She expects new president Dave Tierno and the PSO board to “build on strengths.”
    On the subject of “strengths,” Melanie Clarke offers a catalogue of those Ms. Sturges brought to PSO. Among them: “She is a hugely positive force and approaches all she does in a purposeful and strategic manner, marked by clear thinking, courage and utmost dedication to our mission … Above all, she is “patient and wise, which have been particularly helpful traits during a time filled with unexpected crises and challenges.”
    A Princeton Township resident for 37 years, all in the same evolving home (where her two daughters and son were raised), Ms. Sturges was born in Cleveland in 1947. One highlight of her “quiet country life” there was a school trip to Severance Hall for a Cleveland Orchestra concert. She still remembers her reaction: “This is really grown up and it’s splendid and not like anything I’ve ever known before.”
       After boarding school in Connecticut, Ms. Sturges attended Sarah Lawrence and then Hunter, where she earned a master’s in art history. When her former husband got a job in Princeton, the couple knew nothing about the place; now she remembers that “old Princeton” had a quirky, fusty-musty bookstore on Palmer Square, among other attractions.
    Her musical tastes run from Mozart to growing appreciation for Wagner to some contemporary composers — and she says her PSO connection has sharpened her listening skills. Beyond that, “I want to play piano and sing to my grandchildren!” she exclaims. She had two grandmothers who did that while she was growing up, and even now at family gatherings, she and her cousins still sing those old songs. With just one grandchild now and another on the way, Ms. Sturges has time to polish up her act.