With over 400 years of history behind the orchestra, arts administrator Aubrey Bergauer is looking to the future. She’ll be at Vanderbilt Blair School of Music next week to discuss the 21st-century solutions she’s been applying to audience building.
Bergauer recently became the executive director of San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Center for Innovative Leadership following a tenure at the California Symphony in Walnut Creek that saw a doubling of the orchestra’s audience, and a quadrupling of their donor base. She answered a few questions about her forward-thinking approach.
Nashville’s arts scene is growing rapidly alongside the city’s fast expansion, including several “new” musical ensembles. What should we be doing to create a healthy musical ecosystem?
Working together. Arts participation begets more arts participation. Bigger organizations can highlight when their musicians are performing elsewhere; smaller organizations can work together to highlight mutual artists, or to create programmatic themes across their respective seasons, or to share and trade marketing lists for future mailings. As long as the goal is to build up a citywide patron base that loves all kinds of classical music, everyone wins in pursuit of that goal.
To ask directly about one aspect of your writings in particular: how is it a myth that orchestras need new audiences?
We’ve all probably heard that orchestras need new and younger audiences, but the data doesn’t really support that. Nationwide for orchestras, around 90% of first-time attendees never come back again. That’s a huge number of people giving orchestras a try and then not returning — so it’s not an acquisition problem; it’s a retention problem. And similarly with first-time season ticket holders, about half don’t renew that subscription. In other words, the data shows that orchestras are actually great at attracting new audiences; we’re just generally really terrible at retaining them.
Outside of being a complete reflection of their community, why should arts organizations emphasize diversity? And what benchmarks do you think orchestras should be evaluating?
Orchestras should emphasize diversity because it drives business results. Research across all industries says that more diverse teams bring a broader range of perspectives and approaches to problem solving, which in turn ensures a wider range of options is considered. Additionally, focusing on diversity in our talent pipelines — on stage, in the office and in the boardroom — means that we are expanding the talent available to us and that we are more likely to bring in the exceptionally skilled people we need in all facets of this business, whether in making the art, or producing/marketing/fundraising for it, or governing the institution. Then, when the internal makeup of our organization changes, not only are more high performers in the right roles, there is a broader representation of the community bringing a broader perspective, and that leads to smarter, more inclusive decisions being made, including the types of repertoire we perform, the way we market our performances, and the way we engage with our patrons and donors. And when that happens, the audience begins to expand and diversify as well because we’re no longer a homogeneous group making music for a homogeneous audience.
This is good news for leaders in the field. Focusing on diversity leads to increasing our customer base, which means there is revenue on the table. Combine that with a focus on retention as I mentioned above, and we can affect real change in the composition of who is in our concert halls — and real change to our bottom line.
You’ve recently left your role with the California Symphony for the San Francisco Conservatory. What, in hindsight, are some of the most important lessons you learned with the orchestra?
There are two big lessons that stand out for me. The first is that there is no silver bullet solution to addressing the challenges facing orchestras across the country. The second is that we must have an iterative, data-driven, always-learning-and-adapting approach in order to do this work well. People ask me all the time what was one the thing that drove the growth at the California Symphony, and the answer is that there is no one thing; it was a series of changes that all together added up. On top of that, our culture was that we don’t like to guess about what works and what doesn’t, so pretty much everything we did was either in response to data or research, or in absence of those things, a pilot test that we then measured and refined. This mentality of having courage to try new things, continually examining and evaluating our work, seeking out research or conducting our own, and following the data over subjective opinion is the foundation for the Center for Innovative Leadership we’re launching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. It’s almost like “teach a person to fish …” We’re not starting a program to tell people “this is how to run an arts organization;” we’re starting a center to train creative thinkers how to strategically unleash their ideas.
You’re open about men having told you to “tone it down” in your bold discourse. What is your response to that feedback?
Speaking of research! Study after study reveals that 1) careers advance more when you advocate for and bring visibility to your own work; and 2) that women are often penalized for exhibiting such behavior because it breaks with unconscious mental stereotypes that females should be nurturing and caring rather than loud and driven, which tend to more stereotypical male qualities. It’s called the “double bind,” and women face it all the time. Leaders need to be assertive, decisive and cast a bold vision, and those are accepted and praised characteristics among men; yet when women exhibit those same traits, they sometimes are viewed as “aggressive” or “self-promoting.” In the end, women leaders are often seen as competent or likable, but rarely both.
In terms of my response, I’ve had to learn that the more I speak up, the more it puts a stake in the ground for what I believe, and while for some people that’s a big turn-off like the research says, equally if not more often is the case that others who share those same values and thoughts come into my orbit or say they’re inspired in their own work because of what I’ve shared, which is amazing.
Performing artists are not always known for being data-driven. What do you suggest as a good first step for a musician who wants to consider the business side of their career more carefully?
I think the first step for anyone, whether musician or administrator, is to acknowledge that being data-driven is a lot of work. Just like it’s work to practice slowly instead of quickly run the piece through, to always go back to scales and the basics, to play it again and again perfecting the passage more and more each time — such is the work of being data-driven. We have to run the report from our database or look at the analytics, we have to think critically about what story that data is telling us and then decide how to respond to it; then we have to use that intel to inform how we will do XYZ going forward, and then we have to do that all over again (run the report, analyze the results, assess how to move forward), and again. That’s the whole nature of an iterative approach. To do all that takes time and work, just like being in a practice room for hours in order to refine the craft. The good news is that it can be done. And just like how an excellent musician eventually needs to practice less because they’ve mastered the repertoire and their instrument, so it is with data as well: we get faster at harnessing the CRM, we get better at interpretation, and execution becomes closer to second nature.