Name: Abigail McKee
Organization: Portland Baroque Orchestra
Annual Operating Budget: $1,100,000
Learn more at pbo.org
Abigail McKee’s interview with Suzanne Nance originally aired on May 20, 2020. Listen below.
How are the arts playing a role during this critical time?
I think it’s clear how much we are all missing the experience of live arts performances. I look at any social media and see new posts every day from dancers, musicians, or visual artists creating new work from home. The arts are a way for all of us to transcend whatever is happening around us and step into something larger. In many ways, they engender empathy, allowing us to step into the shoes of the person who created the art. They’re transformative, they spark our imaginations, and they unlock places in our hearts that need tending, now more than ever. The experience of live performance, in particular, builds community. It’s an ephemeral experience that we share with everyone else in that performance space, and I miss it terribly.
I love watching how the arts are inspiring people to be creative right now! I’m sure we’ve all seen evidence of this, whether it’s compilation videos of people dancing, collaborative art projects, or musicians creating full ensembles of themselves on Zoom! One of my favorite web-based projects right now is by Portland illustrator and artist Carson Ellis. She’s created a Quarantine Art Club, and people all over the world are participating by sharing their projects on Instagram. It’s so much fun to watch!
What has been the most notable / most unpredictable / most challenging impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on your organization? Biggest financial challenge?
It’s hard to imagine what the immediate future holds; everything changes so much each day. Right now, I’m convinced that we are going to have to think creatively about all of next season. How do we bring Great Music and Great Art to people who cannot gather together in one room? It’s heartbreaking to ponder, but it’s also critically important to consider and begin to plan for. Of course, that also presents the biggest financial challenge: for an organization whose funding is 55% ticket sales, how do we proceed in a world where we cannot sell tickets? Our expenses are 77% programming, so it’s not as though we have huge administrative costs that we can cut. We run a very lean shop! So how do we sort out sustaining our extraordinary programming without selling tickets? We are considering many options, but everything is a gamble. Most importantly, we want to be the best possible stewards of our organization, so that we can welcome our audiences back as soon as it is safe to do so. We cannot wait to do that. We ache to do that.
To date, what steps have you taken to mitigate that impact?
As soon as San Francisco closed down its public events, we began planning a livestream protocol. We’ve built this really incredible single-camera livestream kit that is fully mobile and high definition, and that’s been something of a game-changer. We’re on pause right now, because of shelter-in-place, but as soon as we are able to livestream chamber music, we’ll be doing that.
Obviously, we are also applying for relief funding, and we’ll be working on new ways that people can help contribute to keep us making music and art!
What kind of innovation in management has developed for your your organization, and what challenges have you encountered when implementing new innovative ideas?
After our first weekend of livestreaming, PBO’s Board of Directors unanimously approved a temporary mission change. In addition to presenting and livestreaming its own concerts, PBO is offering livestreaming technology and support to other Portland-area arts organizations. We’re also launching a new website, greatartsperiod.org, which will be a hub for livestreamed performances from Portland.
This is new to us! Our existing team is learning a ton of new skills as we navigate this change. But we are enthusiastic, determined, and very nimble. I believe in us!
What are the short-term and potential long-term effects of this shut down for your organization and the arts in general?
On my best days, I see this as a time of challenge and opportunity. During our first livestream, we had a global audience, 40% of which was under the age of 45! When we talk about the sustainability of the arts, succession of the audience, and building greater awareness of our incredible orchestra, that’s an inspiring result!
But other days, I think it’s impossible not to feel a lot of grief. This is a scary time for all arts organizations. We’re staring down the barrel of an unknown shutdown. Our revenue models have been put through a metaphorical (and perhaps literal) paper shredder. And the artists that we love, employ, and support are suffering severe income loss from every one of their gigs. That is terrifying!
Underpinning all of this, though: the arts comprise the most creative, savvy, determined, stubborn, and brilliant group of human beings in the world. We are SCRAPPY! And we’re incredible problem-solvers. If anyone can figure this out, it’s the world of the arts!!!
What is a positive collaboration or initiative born as a result of this situation within your organization or that you’ve seen from your peers and colleagues in the arts industry?
This livestream collaboration is incredibly exciting to me! I’m so looking forward to what we can all create together!
What is the biggest lesson learned as a leader during this crisis?
I’m not sure yet what those lessons will be. At the moment, it still feels a bit like the movie Groundhog Day (which I’ve never seen because I grew up without television… but I’VE HEARD ABOUT IT). I will say that I’m learning more and more how to trust my gut and follow my instincts. When I first brought up the idea of preparing to livestream, three days before Gov. Kate Brown announced the closure of live events, a lot of people thought I was being alarmist. I’m glad we did it, and I’m thrilled that we have the humans on our team that we do, because now we are poised to offer this service to our community for the next year.
I also think it’s important to remember that we ARE a community. We need to stick together, form a plan, and carry that through. Let’s be real: in the arts, the rising tide hasn’t always lifted all boats. We are a sector that struggles mightily with equity, inclusion, and all kinds of diversity. But I think we have an opportunity and a responsibility to band together, lift each other up, and move forward in a new way. That inspires me.
Understanding that the future is hard to predict, how might the lasting impacts of COVID-19 change your upcoming season? Should the tone of pieces or performances change?
I cannot, in good faith, plan to hold a “normal” season this fall. I think we’re looking at a year of impact, and we’re trying to be creative. I’m incredibly fortunate to have Monica Huggett as my artistic director and partner in this, and we are constantly talking about how to pull off extraordinary art in this extraordinary time. I don’t know what that means, because it is changing almost daily, but I am determined to make it happen, whatever it looks like.
Regarding the creative process, what has been a source of inspiration for you/your organization at this time or how has your creative process changed and evolved? What outlets or channels have you sought out to continue to express your creativity, personally and/or professionally?
My boyfriend and partner, Adam Lansky, was the person who helped set up and pull off the livestreaming project. He’s been working in the arts in Portland for a long time as a filmmaker and recording engineer (especially for classical organizations), so he knew exactly what we were looking for with the project, and he figured out how to pull it off affordably, quickly, and using the human resources we had at our disposal. It’s really different to livestream a concert, compared to performing it for a live audience. As we look ahead, we’re thinking more about what needs to change so that the audience experience is better and better.
On a personal level, I’m one of Those People; you know, the ones who just got a sourdough starter! I’ve joined the legions of older Millennials who are making our own bread and posting too much about it on Instagram. I’m also a person who sews her own clothes, and while my time for that has been woefully short, I have been sewing masks for people. (Sidebar: I never would have predicted a few months ago that the shortages in flour and quarter-inch elastic would be such ongoing issues in my life, but here we are.)
What message do you have for the artists and fellow art leaders in our community today? Friends, we can do this! We can! It’s going to be the hardest thing we’ve ever done (and I know that’s saying something!), but if anyone can do this, it’s us!
When looking to the future, what brings you hope?
Artistically, I’ve been deliberately seeking out works of art that are byproducts of traumatic global events. I find it helpful to remember that artists, poets, writers, musicians… creatives of all stripes CREATE, no matter the circumstances. I wonder what we’ll look back on as the emblematic works of this crisis? This gives me hope and lights up my imagination.
About Abigail Mckee:
Abigail McKee has served as Executive Director of Portland Baroque Orchestra since 2017. McKee’s previous roles include Executive Director of Bach Collegium San Diego and Director of Cultural Events at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. She specializes in program development, audience engagement, and sustainability, with a passion for multidisciplinary arts projects presented in nontraditional or unexpected spaces.
Her collaborators have included Archbishop Desmond Tutu, actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, artist Anne Patterson, cellist Joshua Roman, the Choir of New College Oxford, playwright and activist Eve Ensler, Damask Vocal Quartet, the Bay Brass, American Bach Soloists, and others.
Abby has been awarded fellowships and prizes by the Presser Foundation, the Music Academy of the West, the Aspen Music Festival and School, the Sarasota Music Festival, Rice University, the John Philip Sousa Foundation, and the University of South Carolina. A longtime and accomplished professional flutist, she holds an artist diploma from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, a master’s degree from Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, and a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Carolina, where she was a McNair Scholar.