Name: Diana Scoggins
Organization: Metropolitan Youth Symphony
Annual Operating Budget: $906,000
Learn more at playmys.org
Interview originally published on April 21, 2020.
How are the arts playing a role during this critical time?
The arts provide a focus on and celebration of beauty, talent, emotion, humanity and connection. Provide us with hope and a place to rest and recharge, a place to learn, a place to be entertained. A place to be inspired, a place to find joy. It is fantastic that the arts are readily available online.
Separation shows us how much we need art in our lives, if you look at your social media feeds you’ll find so much music and art being shared, much of it created with incredible resourcefulness. Music is basic to our humanity, we learn how important it is to us in times of crisis.
What has been the most notable / most unpredictable / most challenging impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on your organization? Biggest financial challenge?
The inability to hold weekly rehearsals and to perform. We have over 500 students from 10 counties who gather on Saturdays at rehearsal sites in Portland and Hillsboro, and another 58 students in beginning strings classes, who can no longer meet for lessons or rehearsals. Four concerts, including our final concert at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall are cancelled. Placement auditions for the 2020-2021 season are via video submission vs. in person with our conductors.
One large financial impact was initially our gala, but in a fantastic partnership with Ian Lindsay Productions, we quickly created a fun online event and did better than we expected, although not what we would have through our live gala. We do have lost concert revenue, but that is partially offset by a decrease in concert hall expenses.
For us the bigger issue will be enrollment in the fall. It’s so hard to know what to expect at this point so we are planning for multiple scenarios. In what form will we be able to gather, will families be able to afford to enroll? We anticipate a jump in tuition assistance needs.
To date, what steps have you taken to mitigate that impact?
Our Saturday rehearsals have gone online. Music Director Raul Gomez hosts the entire day on the MYS YouTube channel as each conductor joins real-time by Skype. Sessions are geared to ensemble and skill level, and instrument groupings. Each student will have the opportunity to record a virtual performance video with their ensemble (we have 14!). The final videos will be premiered in a “virtual concert” in early June. In addition, tuition-free beginning strings classes and theory have gone online.
With regard to our program this fall, the cost of tuition will stay at 2019-2020 rates, we are working to ensure we have enough tuition assistance, and we are looking at a variety of scenarios for our programs.
What kind of innovation in management has developed for your your organization, and what challenges have you encountered when implementing new innovative ideas?
Our artistic team (conductors and teachers) have made the leap to online teaching as they coordinate with music director Raul Gomez. We will brainstorm new possibilities moving forward. Nothing has changed with administrative management at this point other than the fact that the team is working remotely. Our board is meeting more and asking great questions about short and long-term plans.
What are the short-term and potential long-term effects of this shut down for your organization and the arts in general?
For MYS, it depends on how long bans on group activity remain, and the size of the ban, stays in effect. Of course, our hope is to reconvene our program in September, but we will have plans in place to work within social distancing guidelines that last longer into the future.
The arts are a huge income generator for communities in general. There are economic costs to artists themselves, in our case our conductors and teachers, and developmental costs to our students. There are also huge economic costs to the arts infrastructure, everything from concert halls, to restaurants, to rehearsal venues, music purchase, etc.
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?
Within our organization, Virtual Hangouts and the possibility to learn from so many wonderful artists from across the world. Raul’s daily conversations have produced incredible collaborations with all sorts of members of the artistic community, inside and outside of Portland – including members of the Oregon Symphony, Johannes Moser, Kenji Bunch, Gabriela Lena Frank and even a player for the Portland Thorns (Raquel Rodriguez). We are so grateful to our guests for their tremendous generosity of spirit and time.
Once we know what our social distancing guidelines are for the next 12 months, we will be able to set more collaborative activity in motion.
What is the biggest lesson learned as a leader during this crisis?
To think creatively about short and long-term perspectives for program offerings, mitigate risk and protect the organization’s financial assets. To be flexible in the moment and build on new opportunities. To make decisions that prioritize people, both those who work for us and those we serve with the organization’s long-term survival. To move forward as a team and community: board, staff, artistic team, families.
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?
Social distancing guidelines will impact how we approach our program. Our ensembles range in size from 12 in a jazz ensemble to 90 in our large orchestras. If guidelines mandate no more than 50 people can be together, that influences our configuration, which in turn influences our repertoire. If we can rehearse live the students, we will find a way to perform, even if that’s online via livestream.
With regard to repertoire there are two possible perspectives: learning and playing music that intentionally reflects troubles of the time can be a cathartic and edifying process, but it is just as important to give students the chance to throw themselves fully into playing one of the great works of the classical canon that may seem like it has less to do with the moment. One of the great benefits of Beethoven, similar to watching Shakespeare or reading a great novel, is that it has the ability to lift you up out of your current situation.
Underlying our choices as an organization is our goal to program diverse repertoire that fits the music education needs of our students and keeps our commitment to perform new music written by young composers.
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?
Music Director Raul Gomez has started a fantastic series, Virtual Hangouts, where brings in artists from the local community and beyond to share their stories, wisdom, and to perform. Guests have ranged from composer Gabriela Lena Frank Bunch, to Portland’s amazing Oregon Symphony musicians, to Johannes Moser. We have worked with our 12 conductors to support their teaching and message to their students.
Personally, I just love listening to music lately. I’m missing live performances.
What message do you have for the artists and fellow art leaders in our community today?
To our leaders I would say stay strong, take a long view, shoot for the best art possible, keep communicating, look for opportunities, and be at peace knowing that this situation is so much bigger than we are but we are in it together.
To our artists, we love you and miss you!
When looking to the future, what brings you hope?
The people in our community! Our students, they have such huge capacity to learn, to lead, to excel, and to create. No matter the situation, music will never stop providing us with joy and beauty.
I believe that we will emerge with a stronger sense of community, and gratitude for what we have. That life ‘without the arts’ during this short time will lead to even greater support and participation afterwards.
About Diana Scoggins:
Diana has served as the Executive Director of MYS since 2010. A Stanford graduate, she has non-profit experience in Washington, D.C. and on an international level, and was an analyst with the Bonneville Power Administration for many years. Having played the violin with the California Youth Symphony, she is passionate about music and the impact it can have in the lives of young people. Diana, who was a MYS parent for nine years, loves to run, cook, read, drink coffee, and travel. MYS’ three international tours have been a high point (Eastern Europe, China, and last summer, Italy/Austria).