GRS Board Chair Luis Avila and his wife Amanda, avid supporters of the performing arts.
New GRS Board Chair Luis Avila
Interviewed by Jack Latta
Last spring Luis Avila took over the role of Grand Rapids Symphony Board Chair. Only a few months into a global pandemic that has made normal concerts impossible, Luis began to help us reimagine how we share music with our community and the world. GRSMA is grateful that he was willing to answer some questions to allow us to get to know him and to share some of his goals for the organization.
GRSMA: GRSMA musicians appreciate your service to the Grand Rapids Symphony. What led you to join the GRS Board of Directors?
Luis Avila: My wife and I are passionate about the performing arts generally and live music specifically. In 2011, we moved back to Grand Rapids after living in Geneva, Switzerland and immediately began attending GRS concerts after seeking out opportunities to watch high quality live music. After attending only a few performances, the GRS staff took notice of us and began inviting us to attend other GRS gatherings. Soon thereafter I joined the GRS's Community Engagement Committee and a couple years ago was invited to join the Board of Directors. My wife and I genuinely believe that the GRS is a pillar of the West Michigan Community and are truly humbled by the opportunity to lend our time, talent and resources to this great institution. Also, the musicians are awesome people. We love chatting with them and getting to know them outside of the Symphony!
GRSMA: Last May you started your term as chair of the GRS Board, a few months into the global pandemic and cancellation of concerts by all American orchestras. What are your thoughts for arts groups in terms of surviving this moment and thriving into the future?
Luis Avila: Let’s just say that I never envisioned taking over as Chair during a global pandemic that would force us to cancel dozens of shows and completely reimagine what a modern symphony show looks like. With that said, I genuinely believe that Board members can make the biggest impact during difficult times. So, I am grateful and proud to be in this role during this time. One of the most important things I have learned in terms of surviving this moment is that all stakeholders have to believe in the institution and its importance to our community and be willing to be flexible to ensure it survives. For leadership, that might mean patience and grace when things don't go as planned. For musicians, it might mean learning a new piece on very short notice or playing in a format they're not used to or comfortable with. For staff, it might mean working from home in less than ideal conditions. For patrons, it might mean giving a "virtual show" a chance and buying a ticket. For donors, it might mean stepping up our giving beyond our comfort zone. If everyone does their part, the GRS will not only survive, but emerge a stronger and more innovative institution.
GRSMA: Are you a lifelong resident of west Michigan? What changes in Grand Rapids have you observed since living here?
Luis Avila: I am not a native of West Michigan. I have bounced around a lot. I was born and lived roughly 17 years in Mexico City. I've also spent a combined roughly 12 years in Philadelphia, Miami, Ann Arbor, Farmington Hills and Geneva, Switzerland. With that said, I first moved to Grand Rapids in 2001. I can tell you unequivocally that Grand Rapids is an entirely different city today than it was almost 20 years ago. When I left Grand Rapids to attend law school, my wife and I had little interest in returning because it felt like an outdated city. However, we now can't imagine leaving! The City still has many areas to grow, but it is making great strides, in large part thanks to an intentionality from the City's leaders (both in government and private industry) in making our region a better place. We have very large employers, sophisticated industries, a booming culinary scene, and some of the state's top performing arts institutions. In short, this is a great City and region to live in.
GRSMA: Tell us about your musical background. Did you grow up playing an instrument or singing?
Luis Avila: I have played piano most of my life. I started taking classical piano classes when I was roughly 8 years old and continued into my late teens. I spent several years playing for various churches and praise groups. Unfortunately, a mix of professional and personal demands have kept me away from playing the last few years, so please don't ask me to play anything at the next holiday party as I am very rusty!
GRSMA: This issue of our newsletter introduces six new GRSMA musicians to our community. What welcoming words would you extend to them, and what local sights would you recommend as must-sees?
Luis Avila: Welcome! I can't wait to meet you! If the musicians are new to our community, I would ask them to give Grand Rapids a chance as we would love nothing more than for this city to become their home. We can be both a very welcoming community and a difficult community to find your place in. The last time I moved back to Grand Rapids, my wife and I barely knew anyone. However, we were determined to establish relationships and make friendships. Thus, we made it a point to get to know the community we live in. No matter what walk of life you come from, you can find a community within the larger West Michigan community. If you need some help getting plugged in, please, please, please reach out to me! I would be more than happy to help out! In terms of sights, I'm very Mexican and always recommend food first. I would encourage you to try dinner or drinks at some of our Mexican restaurants (Luna, MEXO or El Granjero are always top of the list!); picking some apples or walking a corn maze during the fall/winter (Robinette's has great apples, a fun maze, and donuts); if cold outside then go to the GRAM and explore our amazing world-class art exhibits!
GRSMA: Do you have a favorite GRS concert experience, and do you have a favorite section of the orchestra?
Luis Avila: Hands down my favorite GRS concert experience was two years ago when my wife, Amanda, got the privilege of conducting Sleigh Ride during the Holiday Pops show! Marcelo and Laura welcomed us into their home for a private conducting lesson a week before the show. Our two young boys attended the show, as did a large group of close friends. The entire evening was magical (even though she was terrified the whole time!).
I am very partial to the string section, specifically the violin. I love the violin in any musical genre, so hearing several on stage during any given symphony performance is incredible. Also, our oldest son, Luis, plays the violin which makes it even more special.
GRSMA: You currently serve as co-chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee at your law firm, plus you serve on the board of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Tell us about any ideas that you have for improving diversity in west Michigan, especially in the arts community.
Luis Avila: This is a topic that I have been struggling with for years. The arts organizations in West Michigan struggle mightily with diversity at most levels, but specifically in terms of leadership. This is different, though, than inclusion and equity, where I genuinely believe most arts organizations in West Michigan are actually ahead of the curve and are frankly quite innovative (see the Symphony's Score Card program or 5th Grade Concerts as great examples of equity and inclusion). In my humble opinion, perhaps the key way to achieve more diversity is through intentionality in decision making. For the GRS, it would have been very easy for us to make all of our decisions in 2020 based on the pandemic and its impact it has, and will have, on all areas of the organization. However, we have also been very intentional about ensuring that we are viewing decisions through a diversity, equity and inclusion lens. Sometimes that means making decisions that might not have an immediate positive impact, but that we know will plant the seed or lay the groundwork for a more diverse and inclusive organization. For example, that might be modifying our Board member requirements (to ensure more equitable, not just diverse, representation), or specifically seeking out non-traditional candidate pipelines when recruiting for a position.
GRSMA: It is impressive that you have been named five times to Grand Rapids Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 list. What do you believe are your most important career moments that led to this distinction?
Luis Avila: Probably two moments in my career have led to my receiving this distinction five times. The first was working for the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations in Geneva. While this was immediately after law school and before I returned to Grand Rapids, achieving this was like a dream come true and serves as a constant reminder that I can achieve any goal as long as I am willing to put in the work. That experience has helped me stay motivated while in Grand Rapids. The second was joining my law firm, Varnum, in Grand Rapids. The firm is incredibly community focused and has not only allowed, but encouraged, my community involvement. Thus, my entire career at Varnum I have been empowered to pursue my interests in the community, both through time and resources.
GRSMA: What is your biggest goal for the Grand Rapids Symphony during your time as board chair?
Luis Avila: As crazy as it might sound, I would love to see the GRS a stronger institution in May 2022 than it was in May 2020, when I took over. Based on everything we have done through this pandemic, I genuinely believe we can accomplish this. The entire GRS organization has shown tremendous resilience through all of this. Relationships between leadership, musicians, staff, Board, etc. have only grown stronger. If you look at other symphonies across the country, you can see this is not common.
GRSMA: What do you see as the organization’s most promising area for potential growth?
Luis Avila: Diversity. The organization will necessarily undergo some changes in structure, staff, programming, etc. over the next few years and we are approaching all of them with diversity, equity and inclusion at top of mind. It genuinely excites me to think about what we will accomplish in this space over the next few years.
GRSMA: When you are away from work, what do you do for fun or relaxation?
Luis Avila: When at home, aside from family time, I love to watch soccer and listen to heavy metal (yes, you read that correctly. My love for heavy metal is on par with my love for classical music). When not at home (and not in a pandemic), you will regularly see my wife and I out on the town with friends and clients having dinner at a local restaurant and/or attending a live event downtown, whether it’s a Symphony concert, the latest art exhibit at the GRAM, a GR ballet show, or the latest touring band at Van Andel Arena or 20 Monroe Live, we love to get out and experience live art.