Every arts organization is at a crossroads now. Do we do everything we can to return to business as soon as possible, or do we double down on planning for a future that looks different than our past? Do we restore the way things were pre-covid or embrace the opportunity for change the pandemic has brought?
This post, part 3 of 3 in this series (here are parts one and two), summarizes a dialogue I had with a group of artists and administrators this summer. We vowed to openly discuss issues normally reserved for behind closed doors, private conversations, and the bargaining table. Discussions took place over three days, with a different group each day to explore and unpack a different false dichotomy in classical music. You can view all three roundtables in their entirety for free here.
Restoration vs Opportunity // Tradition vs Innovation
The discussion began by unpacking what this false dichotomy of “restoration vs. opportunity” means to them. From sports metaphors (we weren’t using all our muscles pre-pandemic and we’re fighting injury now because of it) to acknowledging that a lot of what we do in classical music does rely on tradition (for literally hundreds of years even though art has always been a gateway to push society forward), challenging where the balance should lie came to the surface.
One participant said the traditional models of doing business aren’t just on stage. “As we do the same repertoire, it becomes easier and easier to interpret it the same way every time,” they said. “It also becomes easier and easier to follow the exact same models in all other areas, all the way down to the back office, to who’s on stage, to everything else that surrounds it.”
Another participant said we must be careful how we define what we do: “The definition of classical is absolutely key. Because if we what we want to do is present music that represents a narrow slice of history for a narrow slice of the population — that’s the only audience we’re geared to. In fact, I think people don’t say this [out loud], but I hear it again and again from leaders of major institutions—that’s really what they seem to want. To me, that’s a total misunderstanding of what classical music is.”
As leaders, we must be clear on what we want to do and who we want to serve, and if adhering to a past tradition is the goal, let’s be honest about that. I personally don’t want to cling to the past at any organizations with which I affiliate, but if some performing arts organizations named and embraced the specific audience they really do intend to serve, at least there’s clarity in that. Instead, so many organizations are trying to find their way, unintentionally not fully serving any particular group because of it, so now is the time to decide who we are actually, really here for. Because if we say we’re here to serve a lot of people or a lot of different types of people and yet continue to do the things we’ve always done, we are lying to ourselves.
“Right now, this moment has forced us into the place where we really do have to be self-critical and self-reflective and to reimagine all of our approach to just about everything,” concluded a participant.
Is This Turning Point for Real?
It’s one thing to pontificate about what the performing arts need to do or should do. It’s another to do it. As the group pondered if this inflection point felt real or not, one person said, “I do think this is a moment, a moment in time.” Another offered, “I’m not going to sit here and say this is going to be the moment where everything is going to change for the better forever. Because as optimistic as I am, I’m also a realist. But I do think there’s a legit opportunity here for us to put some points on the scoreboard.”
“If we say we’re here to serve a lot of people or a lot of different types of people and yet continue to do the things we’ve always done, we are lying to ourselves.”
It’s Going to Take Work
What rang true in this discussion consistently was that change is never easy. It’s almost always the road less traveled, and in order to seize the opportunity before us, it will take work.
“I think one of the important things to consider as we try to make change and to move things forward is that it takes a lot more effort. And there’s a lot of fear surrounding change,” someone observed. “I was in a conversation like this recently with somebody who said something along the lines of ‘Oh, but we’ll lose all of our donors and we’ll lose all of the people who are used to this traditional format.’ But I think the problem is that there’s fear that change will mean something bad or something worse will take away the good.”
Someone else chimed in, “If that effort is there, if that intention is there, then we make something that is better, that is stronger, that is artistically better and more valuable than before.” I’ve written before about fear-based leadership, and I know with so many things unknown right now, it is scary to be in leadership roles sometimes. Naming that fear is important, and then having the courage to make choices that move the org forward is paramount.
From there, the discussion steered toward the action needed to forge a path ahead, which came back to how we define our community: “One of the things we’re learning in the Covid-19 era is that is that community is not defined only by proximity, or space. It’s defined by interest, and I think a lot about the music that we have in our repertoire and the music that should be more a part of the traditional canon of our repertoire. There’s enough there to build a ton of intersections with our community…I think we tend to think of mutually exclusive things like ‘why would people from a predominantly Black neighborhood be concerned about Bach?’ And that’s just a ridiculous way to approach the topic.”
Bringing Audiences Along
As the conversation continued, the discussion around “community” became synonymous with “creating a welcoming environment”.
“People come to your concert or opera performance and then about 15 minutes in realize ‘this has nothing to do with me,’” said one artist. “To help me understand how this has anything to do with me, there are no people on stage who look like me: the person who wrote the music or is on the podium doesn’t look like me, the people who are working at the box office don’t look like me — there’s no place for connection. And then as a result, sometimes you zone out. And I think then the question is, is it because the person who’s in the audience is rude, or is it because the company itself has not been thoughtful about how they should engage these audience members?”
“There’s a lot of presumption about the community, about if the people the music is serving like that music, and about how the music should be delivered,” another panelist added.
A third jumped in, “I wonder what the burden is on the performing arts organizations to see to it that people have some type of baseline understanding of what’s happening, or even just a baseline level of enjoyment or engagement with it before they show up to the concert hall. I’m not sure that it’s a reasonable expectation to think that people can come in here for the first time and sit in the concert hall, and they’re just going to engage with it [the performance].… I mean, almost nobody goes to a pop music concert and the songs you’re hearing are for the first time. Usually you go to a pop music concert, and everyone is singing every word that is coming out of the singer’s mouth, because they’ve listened to it 500 times before they’ve shown up; they’ve had an incredible education in it in advance.”
In other words, as a participant concluded, “If people in the audience are incapable for whatever the reason of projecting themselves into a space…if they’re feeling out of place and weird, that’s a fault of ours. That is a fault.”
A lot of people act like we have something to lose by making change, by making our art more welcoming, more inviting, and less intimidating to newcomers. The fact is that we have far more to gain.
“I’m really not in reflection mode so much anymore. I’m really in activation mode.”
“If we want to call ourselves or be considered cultural facilitators in any way, how are we actually naming our values?”
“I’m just really hopeful and praying that this will transition to being woke, and that that will transition to legitimate work.”
To wrap up the final thoughts of this group: it’s go time.
“What I’m actually much more concerned about is when next season comes, or five seasons from now, will all the things we’re talking about now still look that way?” a group member posited. “I think there’s going to be a handful of organizations that take this very seriously, and I think there’s going to be another percentage of organizations that want to put out a couple of talking points, or tokenize a handful of black and brown people and hope that people will turn the page in general so they can continue with business as usual. And that’s going to be what defines the future of our industry.”
Despite fear of the unknown, or distaste for going back to the way things were, the group did end with hope: “During this moment, I think more and more people are realizing or recognizing that complacency has no place in art. Art has to be evolving. We have to always be learning, always pushing boundaries, always looking for more….This is what being an artist is.… I hope that during this moment we will continue to reshape our thinking, and I hope that we carry this realization and this awakening with us into the future.”
The opportunity ahead of us is that our work can shift. Anytime in my work when I/my team/my org have staked a claim for a value we hold, and shifted our work to execute on that value, more people came into the mix rather than left. Always. For anyone who does have fears about what there is to lose, whether that be donors or board members or something else, please hear that. In a conversation about restoration versus opportunity, the opportunity we have before us is to build.
Final Thoughts: Not My First Roundtable
As I was assembling the roundtable participants for this series of discussions, it occurred to me that the idea of assembling a group of people and listening to what they had to say wasn’t a new format to me.
Back in 2016, I ran a research study called the Orchestra X project. It ultimately became my most popular blog post, and it transformed my views and work forevermore. I said then that we as orchestras must change our willingness to have hard conversations, and that we have to stop relying on what we think is true, or default, or top-of-mind based on our own bubble of experience. I remember assembling a group of people, facilitating the discussion, listening to what they had to say, and having a rolling dialogue in my head about why I couldn’t make changes based on what I was hearing. And then I remember the counter internal dialogue telling myself I was at a crossroads and had a choice: 1) continue doing things the way I had been doing them the previous ten years, telling myself I needed more funding, more people, more resources in order to do it differently, or…2) respond to what I was hearing and work with what I had. As I wrote in the blog post that ultimately went viral, “If we are serious, we better stop talking about how much we care like so many organizations do, and actually take an interest in what people have to say.”
Today, I feel these same things all over again. These roundtable discussions offer a wealth of feedback from truly exceptional, world class artists and administrators, and before us, every person in classical music, every artist, administrator, and board member has a real choice on how to mentally proceed. We can dig in our heels, revert to the default mode of operation we know because despite it not really working, it’s comfortable, or we can choose to use this time to rebuild our organizations up differently and embrace feeling vulnerable in order to come out changed for the better on the other side of this. When I made that choice nearly five years ago, it catapulted forward my organization.
To everyone reading this or who listened to the original roundtables, thank you. I hope that you feel challenged, inspired, and prompted to reframe the false dichotomies in our field that are sometimes set before us. It’s not a zero-sum game if we don’t let it be.
About the Author
Credited by Southwest Magazine with “redefining the classical concert experience as we know it,” Aubrey Bergauer defies trends and then makes her own. Her focus on not just engaging — but retaining — new audiences grew Seattle Opera’s BRAVO! Club to the largest group for young patrons in the nation, led the Bumbershoot Festival to achieve an unprecedented 43% increase in revenue, and propelled the California Symphony to nearly double the size of its audience and quadruple its donor base.
Praised by Wall Street Journal for leadership which “points the way to a new style of audience outreach,” Bergauer’s ability to strategically and holistically advance every facet of an organization, instilling and achieving common goals and vision across typically siloed marketing, development, and artistic departments, is creating a transformational change in the audience, in the office, on the stage, and in the community. A graduate of Rice University with degrees in Music Performance and Business, Bergauer has shared these ideas in speaking engagements across North America, including conferences for Adobe’s Magento, TEDx, Capacity Interactive, Opera America, Orchestras Canada, and the League of American Orchestras. aubreybergauer.com