A View of the Field After 50 Clients

Lots to Do, But It CAN Be Done

I recently signed my 50th client (!!!); THANK YOU to the organizations who have partnered with me over the last two years. You’ve given me an elevated view of the performing arts landscape I never would have seen otherwise, all during an unimaginable time. Photo by Ivars Utināns on Unsplash.

When the announcement went out in 2019 that I decided to move on from the California Symphony to make a broader impact beyond one organization before leading another classical music institution, the floodgates opened in the best way. A few months later, all our work changed more than we ever thought possible as the coronavirus abruptly halted business as we knew it, opening up new questions and challenges for our organizations and field.

Despite this awful, turbulent time, it’s simultaneously been stimulating, interesting, and ultimately an honor to partner with you, now 50 clients later — a number I think would have made sense pre-pandemic, but today feels like a gift. You have shown me a multitude of markets and communities, budgets spanning $300 thousand to $300 million, hundreds of staff and board members, and an increasing number of incredibly engaged and enterprising artists. Thank you.

The original idea was to share mountains of multi-season revenue growth data in return, but despite the best laid pre-corona plans, there are still trends in this data set. Albeit different findings than initially sought, the following are observations of the field gathered over the last two years:

While the dual pandemics of Covid-19 and systemic racism affected every person on this planet in ways specific to each of us, many leaders used the upheaval to reset their thinking. There is still so much work ahead, but it’s as if our industry was finally given collective permission to thoughtfully interrogate the way business has always been done. The organizations I hear from know they can no longer rest on their laurels, are facing the path ahead, and crafting strategies to build a future that looks different than our industry’s past.

Every organization and community is unique: different demographics, neighborhoods, relationships with local government, and funding sources to name a few ways. The challenges for organizations who contact me are consistently around increasing revenue, growing audiences and the donor base, integrating technology, pursuing inclusivity, and wanting greater relevance.

Every one of the evidence-based strategies I’ve become known for is replicable within the parameters of a given market: listening to our audiences through user experience research, creating a culture of equity, diversity, and inclusivity, focusing on patron retention and loyalty over the long haul, and using iterative design and data to show the way. I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve learned that when organizations do those things, I don’t have to — the market and community in which they’re based is their guide.

“It’s as if our industry was finally given collective permission to thoughtfully interrogate the way business has always been done.”

I now think that knowing how to think about data is a part of company culture. Some organizations have this culture and some don’t. Knowing what to pull and when, starting with a question and then knowing how to access the data to answer that question (whether that be by Tessitura, Google Analytics, or research in the field…more on that last one below) is a skill that can be developed.

Too often, organizations are either trying to measure too many things at once, are looking at the wrong metrics, or staff are too under-trained to fully harness the tools available to them. I have noticed organizations that do this well and not-so-well across budgets small and large. It’s not about how robust the CRM is (some are definitely better than others, but no matter how shiny your Cadillac, the engine won’t run if you don’t have the keys), it’s knowing how to think about the data you need and then knowing how to extract it.

This has always been true, and the pandemic intensified it even more. Some organizations, for example, did not scrap professional development this past year, committing to invest in growth of their employees even as the going got tough. Many organizations paid artists at least a portion of regular compensation while some doubled down on substantially supporting their players even as earned revenue was obliterated, and some as we know made less generous choices.

Having worked at organizations of all sizes, both as an employee and consultant, budget size is not the metric we sometimes think it is. A budget of $2 million pre-pandemic put you in the top 10% of orchestras nationally, while the majority of all orchestras in the U.S. have a budget of $300k or less (Sources: NCAR and the League Orchestra Statistical Report). The dollars and cents of it is doable with strong financial acumen regardless of how many zeros hit the ledger; the story behind all that reflects what the organization prioritizes.

Almost all organizations have goals. What varies wildly in my experience is the ability to articulate strategies to get there, and a pervasive issue I’ve come to see is how some organizations struggle to execute against those goals. We joke about strategic plans sitting on the shelf collecting dust…because it’s often true.

To be fair, some of this wheel spinning is because the pandemic has been debilitating. Everyone is exhausted and burned out, and the idea of one more plan or pivot makes our stomachs churn. But that’s why the skill to move teams forward towards a new paradigm is all the more needed — especially during times of challenge.

“I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve learned that when organizations do those things, I don’t have to — the market and community in which they’re based is their guide.”

As more organizations outside the U.S. engage me, I’ve come to realize how lucky we are to have an incredible amount research and data available to us in the States from organizations here such as the League of American Orchestras, National Center for Arts Research (NCAR), IMPACTS Experience, WolfBrown, TRG, Americans for the Arts, Capacity Interactive, LaPlaca Cohen, and others. On the whole, we are massively underutilizing this available asset. In my work with clients, I’ve been struck as I’ve gone back to old reports in the field that were generally ignored, by myself included:

  • In the 2016 Orchestra Facts report: “Orchestras are complex organizations, which — like many nonprofit arts organizations — face new challenges in a changing world” (emphasis added). Five years before “changing world” was part of the daily vernacular.
  • A 2010 WolfBrown presentation called Activating Your Audience: “Be careful about vocabulary (i.e., level of difficulty).” Yet I’m still asked when I talk about this very issue in our marketing if we’re “dumbing it down” too much.
  • In the 2009 League Audience Demographic Research Review: “Americans are turning to performances online in record numbers.” Fast forward more than a decade after that finding debuted, and many organizations were underprepared for a forced-pivot to an online concert platform.
  • A 1991 report, The Participation of Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native Americans in American Orchestras, shared by Richmond Symphony Director of Artistic Planning and Operations Jennifer Arnold at this week’s League Conference keynote: “Racism, both overt and covert, is real. Acknowledge it. Discuss it. Attack it. Take measures to frustrate it.” That report came out 30 years ago. Wise and prescient then and now.

The trends that existed in our industry pre-pandemic aren’t going away. If anything they have accelerated (more evidence here, here, and here). We have an arsenal of information and recommendations from within our own field at our disposal—abundant knowledge and resource to claim.

Iteration is the cornerstone of success I am now convinced. Organizational psychologist and Wharton Business School Professor Adam Grant says great institutional achievement is about improving mastery over time. This is true for arts organizations too. So often, teams try to roll out a grand program and expect results out of the gate. That’s very difficult and expensive to do. The safer and smarter approach is to test, analyze, adjust, and repeat. Call a new idea a ‘pilot test’ so people know it’s just a test. Tell everyone internally you’re going to try something new for three months or six months and see how it goes. Do this on a small scale before putting tons of money behind it. The teams I see focusing on iteration over innovation ironically tend to be labeled the most innovative.

So many new season announcements coming out right now are an exciting step forward for the field in terms of de-siloing programming and creating more diverse programs representing the full spectrum of incredible talent available. And the organizations that believe programming is only one facet of institutional transformation are better positioned to further excel. Those holistic companies and leaders will successfully galvanize stakeholders, raise their visibility, maximize philanthropic capacity of the market, and rebound from this crisis faster. An increasing number of organizations and individuals are thinking beyond the music like this, a trend I know is necessary to combat the challenges still remaining.

“Iteration is the cornerstone of success I am now convinced.”

…they have articulated behaviors and actions that demonstrate those values. Over the last 14 months it’s become excruciatingly clear that words are not enough. When organizations identify types of actions that reflect their values, it doesn’t just impact DEI initiatives, it permeates every employee’s behavior on stage and off. The strongest organizations are then able to use those actions as a measurement tool for performance evaluation, customer service, candidate interviewing, board recruitment, community engagement opportunities, and public relations…to name a few areas. “Actions speak louder than words has never rung more true.

I jokingly say all the time that “lean scales.” No matter the budget, every arts organization I’ve served feels lean. We are always running on thin margins, never flush with cash or enough people. Yet the projects and organizations I’ve been a part of that have garnered the most success are the ones where we didn’t use meager resources as an excuse to wait to take action. Even though everyone is particularly lean right now, more and more people and organizations are choosing this tremendous opportunity not to wait to pursue something they believe in. I stan you.

Creating transformational change requires more than a strong vision from a strong CEO. It requires a culture of empowerment. While I receive regular calls from senior leaders and board members wanting to build a sustainable future, I also hear from an alarming number of people who don’t feel empowered to make change in their role asking if it’s that way everywhere.

The most forward-thinking institutions empower their employees to try new things. The other side of that coin is that employees need to be able to deliver on their ideas, which goes right back to needing to plan, execute, and measure the success of a pilot test. Time and again, the teams that embrace this Spiderman principle — with great power comes great responsibility — cultivate better ideas, see more engaged employees, and enact better results.

I’ve recently been interested in (read: obsessed with) Simone Biles. She left her sponsorship deal with Nike to sign with smaller company Athleta because it better matched her values, is organizing a gymnastics tour on her own outside of USA Gymnastics, and is returning to the Olympics to raise her voice. Her sport — while she is the greatest gymnast of all time — is her vehicle to lead the change she cares about. The ideals of pursuing excellence while excellence itself isn’t the finish line can coexist. I see a glimmering spark of this mindset building all over, and I am here for the fire.

“More and more people and organizations are choosing this tremendous opportunity not to wait to pursue something they believe in.”

In sum, what I’ve learned over the last two years is that many organizations do embrace the future. There is still so much work to do, and the challenges ahead remain significant, but if the 50 organizations I’ve witnessed first-hand plus other great examples I’m seeing and hearing about are any indication, flourishing in a post-pandemic world isn’t a pipe dream—it can happen. It’s a choice before us all… and the momentum is building. Thank you for this view of our industry; I am forever grateful to be a part of it with you.

Hailed as “the Steve Jobs of classical music” (Observer) and “the Sheryl Sandberg of the symphony,” Aubrey Bergauer is known for her results-driven, customer-centric, data-obsessed pursuit of changing the narrative for symphony orchestras. A “dynamic administrator” with an “unquenchable drive for canny innovation” (San Francisco Chronicle), her leadership as Executive Director of the California Symphony propelled the organization to double the size of its audience and nearly quadruple the donor base. Her drive to see opportunity in place of unsolvable challenges or irreversible trends produces different results than the norm, secures new revenue streams, and galvanizes audiences and donors.

A graduate of Rice University with degrees in Music Performance and Business, her work and leadership has been covered in national publications including Entrepreneur, Thrive Global, Wall Street Journal, and Southwest Airlines and Symphony magazines, and she is a frequent speaker at universities and conferences across North America. Bergauer’s ability to cast and communicate vision moves teams forward and brings stakeholders together across the institution, earning her “a reputation for coming up with great ideas and then realizing them” (San Francisco Classical Voice). In 2020, she launched the Center for Innovative Leadership at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music while continuing her consulting practice empowering large nonprofits to deliver game-changing results. www.aubreybergauer.com

“The Steve Jobs of classical music.” (Observer) Working to change the narrative for this business.