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Six years ago, an Ohio boy arrived in town and quickly stepped into the morass called the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Finances were a mess. Debts ballooned. The subscriber and donor bases had dwindled. And the orchestra’s relationship with its own musicians looked headed for a strike that erupted five months after Paul Hogle arrived to become executive vice president of the DSO.

What a difference six years can make. All it takes is smart leadership — in management, on the board and among the musicians — to reckon with reality as it is, not as they want it to be. That, and a realistic vision of an orchestra’s place in today’s community.

“When I got here ... I fell in love with the place,” Hogle, 51, said in a interview Thursday, one day after confirming he would be heading (almost) home to become CEO of the prestigious Cleveland Institute of Music. “I found an orchestra, particularly on the other side of the strike, that for being old and well-regarded in the industry, was very nimble.”

It had to be. Play and they will come, time-honored tradition in the symphony world, is so last century — a lesson Detroit learned sooner than august peers burdened by high self-regard. Increasingly, patrons and subscribers weren’t coming, even as the DSO played in a revitalized Symphony Hall.

But they were still there: In Southfield and Bloomfield Hills. In Canton, Clinton Township and West Bloomfield. They were on the internet, through webcasts that have made DSO performances one of the hottest classical offerings on the web. And at Carnegie Hall, where the DSO played back-to-back performances after a 17-year hiatus.

Hogle cannot claim credit for all that, and he doesn’t even try. But there’s no question he played a key role, with CEO Anne Parsons and the last three board chairs, in helping to reimagine, restructure and reposition the DSO, its funding base and the way it interacts with its patrons and their communities.

It’s all good. The donor base swelled to 10,000 from 4,000 patrons over the past six years. Subscribers now total 7,000, up from 3,000. Annual fund-raising nets roughly $17 million, up from $10 million. And additional fundraising is expected to double the endowment to $80 million on the way to an ultimate goal of $150 million.

“When I first got here, it was still fashionable to be critical of Detroit,” Hogle says. “The move downtown, the relocation to Midtown — all those things were just coming through the surface.”

That was then: “It’s fun to go to conferences. Being from Detroit is like wearing a name badge that says I work for the coolest place in the coolest city for the coolest institution. Everybody wants to talk with you.”

For lots of reasons, of course. For the fact that Detroit’s most prestigious arts organizations reckoned with their past and their financial challenges long before the city itself did. For the epic bankruptcy that helped put City Hall, basic services and a growing number of neighborhoods on the mend.

For the downtown boom powered by mortgage impresario Dan Gilbert and other investors eager to join the party. For an undeniable revival of Detroit’s automakers, whose products and bottom lines are delivering consistently strong results — if not the kind of civic leadership their predecessors did.

Hogle’s a thinker. Over the years, we’ve had wide-ranging conversations about the seismic changes affecting cultural organizations, their funding, the value of the arts in building (or rebuilding) a vibrant community, and the changing nature of leadership. Thursday was no exception.

Detroit’s cultural inheritance, epitomized most by the DSO and the Detroit Institute of Arts, is the legacy of titans named Ford and Fisher, Taubman and Manoogian. In their place today? More foundations than individual philanthropists devoted to building the cultural heritage of their hometown.

“I wonder to myself who the city builders are in today’s generation,” Hogle says, crediting Gilbert and the Ilitch family even as he suggests that Detroit’s automakers tend “to be in this city but not always of this city. Where are the titans that are taking the long, civic view about everything from hospitals to education to meds to arts to business to schools — all those things?”

Gone, mostly, replaced by Gilbert and the Ilitch family’s unofficial partitioning of downtown; General Motors Co.’s business objective-influenced philanthropy; Ford Motor Co.’s still-deep commitments to its hometown; and a foundation community funded by fortunes made during Detroit’s heyday.

“That’s the next evolution that has to happen here,” Hogle continues. “It would be completely fair and appropriate to acknowledge that the position of city builder is being either assigned or been opened to the professional philanthropic foundations. It’s hard not to say that Hudson-Webber and Kresge and Wilson and the Community Foundation are not ... quietly managing that table here.”

That’s because they are. So are the Ford and Knight foundations, the W.K. Kellogg and Charles Stewart Mott foundations — almost all of them backers of the “grand bargain” that rescued the DIA’s collection from creditors and bolstered pensions of city retirees.

Or so it appears to Hogle and me, a couple of Ohio boys who tend to call ’em as we see ’em.

Daniel.Howes@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.

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