11 Must-Haves for Growth at an Orchestra

Lessons After Four Years at the California Symphony (Plus Ten Years in the Field Before That)

Aubrey Bergauer
Aug 23, 2018 · 15 min read

The arts are a hard business. From Baumol’s cost disease due to being in a highly labor-intensive industry, to deep and long running emotions between management and musicians, to being under fire for lack of diversity, to a limited administrative talent pool, managing an arts organization is no cakewalk. But enough of victimizing ourselves — a meme unfortunately so prevalent in our field (more on stopping the negativity below) — this is a post about turning the victim into the victor, and how the last four years has taught me that growth at an orchestra is absolutely possible.

When the California Symphony was recruiting me during the summer of 2014, I knew it was in financial crisis. I also knew I had been developing and employing a lot of strategies and tactics with success in my previous roles at much larger institutions that I wanted to unite under one roof. And I decided this would be the place I would go to test, authenticate, and verify it all.

The following stats give away the end of the story. About a year ago I posted a similar chart, and this is the updated version as my fourth year here comes to a close.

How did we achieve this kind of growth? I get asked that a lot. The following outlines my top 11 must-haves for growth at an orchestra (note: this list may not be exhaustive — there are additional things besides these 11 below that can also contribute to growth — but this is the list of the non-negotiables for me):

1. A Focus on Patron Retention

2. Using Data…All. The. Time.

This approach is also called iterative design. Try something, measure its effectiveness, revise, refine, and try again in the next go-round. It’s trendy in other industries because it works. We now think this way in just about everything we do at the California Symphony.

3. Positivity

What does work though, is positivity. Martin Luther King Jr. was so motivational because he spoke about the world he could envision, not the one with which he was dissatisfied (remember, it’s about what we stand for?). Talking about the future we imagine for this orchestra has excited donors more every time over “give by June 30” (a deadline that’s relevant only to the organization, not the donor…see above point about putting the patron at the center); talking about programming and projects we are actively planning has proven better at the bargaining table with the musicians (in other words, talking about how much we want to be playing over what it may look like to not be playing); and using posts like this to talk about how the California Symphony is actively addressing problems instead of only pontificating about them has built a following. Our job is to believe in and articulate the future we are building for our orchestras (think how Dr. King literally said “I believe…” over and over in his speeches). When we are positive, others believe and buy in too. Positivity isn’t just a mindset, it’s a strategy.

4. Ability to Execute

If you’re tracking so far, this all goes hand in hand. The ability to articulate the vision for the future we want plus the ability to deliver results toward that vision, and then knowing how to use data to measure and evaluate those results makes the difference between a surviving organization and a growing one.

5. Prove It Again and Again

Author Simon Sinek said it this way in a recent TED Radio Hour podcast, “A movement is voluntary.” Call it a movement or call it a bandwagon, the point is, in order to grow, we need the audience and donor base to voluntarily buy into this work.

How we’ve done this: First, when we’ve focused on retention through all those strategies, projects, and tactics mentioned above, and when we’ve used data consistently, repeating success is feasible because it’s built into our daily operations. Second, and equally important, we’ve communicated that success regularly and contextually, meaning we’ve taken every opportunity to let people know there is a bandwagon worth joining. For example, we unfailingly choose language in public facing messaging that says our audience and donor base is expanding: in welcome remarks from the stage, intro letter in the program book, e-news communications, and acquisition materials for both marketing and development efforts. Psychologists call this normalizing the behavior. “It is normal to attend and support the symphony” is the message we are telegraphing. Deliver success again and again, and then make sure the market knows a lot of people are on board with that success, and they can be too.

6. Pay to Hire Talented People

Therefore, when I see that there isn’t a windfall of people who are the fully equipped jack-of-all-trades marketing/fundraising/operations/fill-in-the-blank rockstars required to do this work well, I see that I need to invest in talent and talent development for my staff. This is backwards from most non-profit organizations of any size that are strained financially: the hiring and professional development budgets are often what gets squeezed, which only perpetuates the talent problem. Over the last four years, I made sure every opportunity to hire was an opportunity to raise the standard for the talent needed to do this work well. And every time I looked at the budget and thought, “how am I going to pay for this?” Then every time, I made the leap, and then they were more productive and lucrative for the organization, and it paid off. Over that same time period, I also brought the professional development budget from virtually non-existent to having a stipend for every employee to use for their own training each year. And over that same time period, contributed revenue grew by 54%, earned revenue grew by 128%, and the number of people served by this organization annually has doubled. Paying highly qualified people to do high quality work is an investment right back into the organization to position it for growth.

7. Love the Musicians

8. Make Room for Experimentation

In year one of this job, it was pretty lean, as it felt at every sized organization for which I’ve worked, including some of this country’s leading institutions. Yet systematically, through a focus on patron retention, consistent use of data, positivity…(read the list down at this point)…we changed that, and have created a culture where pilot projects and experimentation are expected. By year two at the California Symphony, we were able to build in a few programmatic experiments (testing market expansion to Napa Valley, a new outdoor concert, a new gala model, and were doubling down on audience research projects. By year three we had new music on every concert in the season, made hefty changes based on the findings of said research (which was possible since we fired bullets before cannonballs), and in year four (this past season), we piloted a full new program testing if adult education can serve as a gateway to ticket sales (future blog post to come, I’m sure). Some of these experiments worked, and some did not. What we’ve learned from each was invaluable to the continued growth of this organization.

I had to create this culture; the board didn’t hand it to me. It’s up to the leader to build in risk capital in order to grow, not to mention finding the talented staff with whom to ideate, collaborate, and execute this work.

9. A Music Director Who is Your Partner

Peer ED: “How did you get buy-in from the board on all these changes? Who was your ally supporting you in all this?”

Me: “My music director.”

________

“Wait, how did you get that [insert complete management decision that is not musical at all in nature] past your music director?”

“Uh, I told him I was going to do this and he said ‘great.’”

“Why didn’t he protest or meddle?”

“He trusts me to do my job?”

________

“So when you were planning the season, how did you convince your music director to program more pieces by women and composers of color?”

“I said, ‘Hey, are there any women or composers of color you’d like to program?’ And then he said, ‘Oh yeah! I want to do this and this and this and this.’ And then I said, ‘How would you feel about making a commitment to doing that every year so we make sure we are always trying to represent the full breadth of talent available to us?’ ‘Love it — let’s do it!’

And then he made a list in our ongoing programming doc for future seasons of underrepresented composers whose amazing work he wanted to bring to our audience.”

[Sidebar: making a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion really was about that easy; and then when it was time to go to the board with it, as well as their piece in the organizational DEI plan, see the first example above as to how that played out.]

________

It wasn’t like this from day one; I had to work at building the relationship, just like any other relationship or partnership, which is important to say. It takes two to grow an orchestra, and now I have a really high standard for any music directors I’ll work with in the future.

10. Fire on All Cylinders (aka Do the Work)

This list isn’t a list of ideas to cherry pick. It’s a list of must-haves in my book, meaning we have to fire on all cylinders to do this work well. Managing an orchestra is a lot of work and even a test of will sometimes. All of the achievements here and in my previous roles have been a tireless effort, and while some things have gotten easier — momentum is a great thing — there is no silver bullet to solve all the challenges of managing an arts organization. So I’ll conclude with #11:

11. Persistence

About the Author

A graduate of Rice University with degrees in Music Performance and Business, for the last 15 years Bergauer has used music to make the world around her better, through programs that champion social justice and equality, through marketing and audience development tactics on the forefront of trends and technology, and through proving and sharing what works in the rapidly changing landscape of funding, philanthropy, and consumer behavior. If ideas are a dime a dozen, what separates Bergauer is her experience and record of execution and impact at institutions of all sizes. Praised for her leadership which “points the way to a new style of audience outreach,” (Wall Street Journal) and which drove the California Symphony to become “the most forward-looking music organization around” (Mercury News), Bergauer’s ability to strategically and holistically examine and advance every facet of the organization, instilling and achieving common goals and vision across what are usually siloed marketing, development, and artistic departments, is creating a transformational change in the audience, in the office, on the stage, in the community, and is changing the narrative for the classical music industry.

Aubrey Bergauer

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Working to change the narrative for orchestras. Executive Director of the California Symphony.