Arts Blog

Names: Donna Briggs, President & CEO and Teddy Abrams, Music Director and Conductor of the Britt Festival Orchestra

Organization: Britt Music and Arts Festival

Annual Operating Budget: $4,300,000

Learn more at

Donna Briggs’ and Teddy Abrams’ interview with Suzanne Nance originally aired on June 24, 2020. Listen below.

Quote from Donna BriggsHow are the arts playing a role during this critical time?
In this time of crisis and isolation, the role of performing art becomes more central to our lives, whether we realize it or not. Music is going virtual this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Concerts, performances, music lessons, jam sessions and other musical events are celebrating the joy of making music, connecting humanity in new ways.

What has been the most notable / most unpredictable / most challenging impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on your organization? Biggest financial challenge?
Zero earned income. Refunds to advertisers and Business Partners. Uncertain future!

To date, what steps have you taken to mitigate that impact?
Over the past seven years, Britt has endured smoke, weather delays, blackouts and now a pandemic. Today, we understand that our new reality will have long-term implications for Jacksonville businesses and the quality of life for our citizens. Our previous community leaders never could have foreseen these conditions. Britt operates under a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) that allows Britt to have concerts spanning from mid-June to mid-September.

Because of our new norm, Britt has applied to the City of Jacksonville’s Planning Commission to amend our current CUP to allow Britt to operate mid-May through mid-October. This extension would offer significant programming opportunities and revenue creation for our entire community. The extension could also serve as unifying and stabilizing forces for our region, both culturally and economically.

What kind of innovation in management has developed for your organization, and what challenges have you encountered when implementing new innovative ideas?
Britt festivalAt the onset of COVID-19, Britt went to full remote working stations. Luckily, our VPN access was up and running prior to the Stay-at-Home order. The work-at-home transition was relatively seamless.

In recent months, our staff have been dreaming about what a virtual summer season could look and sound like, and how to fulfill our mission in ways beyond live concerts. Our hope is to bring the unique Britt Festival magic of music, people, and nature into your homes. The virtual engagement will include BrittVids featuring regional musicians and of course, the BrittKids Koncerts. In addition, some of our favorite recordings from the past five years of Britt Festival Orchestra performances will stream on our Facebook page in July and August.

These will include Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, and Michael Gordon’s Natural History, the piece we premiered at Crater Lake in 2016. Recordings will be shown with discussions about the works with members of the BFO and Music Director Teddy Abrams.

Working and brainstorming 100% remotely is not ideal and leads to more time spent on follow-up on the part of management. While employees like it, it is difficult for management to oversee and hold staff accountable.

Britt Classical Banner

What are the short-term and potential long-term effects of this shut down for your organization and the arts in general?
Short-term: Furlough for 80% of staff beginning July 1. Britt contributes $10 M to the local economy each summer. That is gone this year.
Long term: According to a survey of National Independent Venues Association members, 90% of independent venues report they will close permanently in a few months without federal funding. Current PPP funding will not solve the crisis. Pollstar estimates a $9 billion loss in ticket sales alone – not counting food and beverage revenue – if venues remain closed through 2020.
● Live events provide 75% of all artists’ income.
● For every $1 spent on a ticket at small venues, a total of $12 in economic activity is generated within communities on restaurants, hotels, taxis, and retail establishments.
● The estimated direct annual economic impact venues bring to local communities is nearly $10 billion

Britt Stage

Photo by Al Case

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?
Social media collaboration with musicians and other venues such as OSF have been very successful. Working with industry consortiums on lobbying efforts has been educational and rewarding. It good to know we are not alone.

What is the biggest lesson learned as a leader during this crisis?
I am learning lessons on a daily basis.  Ask me this question eighteen months from now.

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?Generally, our orchestra is looking at programming pieces that require fewer musicians on stage that allow for social distancing in 2021. We are also developing ideas for programming that allows audiences to move around while social distancing. NOT sit in chairs next each other.

Quote from Donna BriggsRegarding 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?
Our valley is yearning for art and culture in this moment of great uncertainty. For Britt to make music this summer for our audiences—in whatever configuration is safe and feasible—will be a joy for our staff and wonderful musicians. We hope our virtual programming will inspire our virtual audiences through the great repertoire of past and present, reaffirming our humanity.

What message do you have for the artists and fellow art leaders in our community today?
“I don’t know when it will be safe to return to singing arm in arm at the top of our lungs, hearts racing, bodies moving, souls bursting with life. But I do know that we will do it again, because we have to. It’s not a choice. We’re human. We need moments that reassure us that we are not alone. That we are understood. That we are imperfect. And, most important, that we need each other” (Dave Grohl, Musician).

What question do you wish someone would ask?!
Is this flood of online creativity the wave of the future – or just a stopgap measure?

When looking to the future, what brings you hope?
The above quote!

About Donna Briggs:

Britt Festival logoDonna Briggs has been with Britt Music and Arts Festival since 2010 and has served as the President and CEO of Britt since November 2011. With 30 years of experience in executive non-profit leadership, and a strong record of accomplishment in fiscal accountability, Briggs has brought significant skills in non-profit management, strategic planning and implementing administrative and artistic goals to the role. Donna has a BA in Communications and Majored in Organizational Development while attending graduate school at Antioch University, Seattle, WA. Donna has been married to John for 40 years and has four grown sons and three grandchildren.  She is Vice President of the Jacksonville-Applegate Rotary Club, and led a team of 14 Rotarians to Yelapa, Mexico on a water filter project last November.

About Teddy Abrams:

An unusually versatile musician, Teddy Abrams is the widely-acclaimed Music Director of the Louisville Orchestra and Music Director and Conductor of the Britt Festival Orchestra. A tireless advocate for the power of music, Abrams has fostered interdisciplinary collaborations with organizations including the Louisville Ballet, the Center for Interfaith Relations, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Speed Art Museum, and the Folger Shakespeare Library. His rap-opera, The Greatest: Muhammad Ali, premiered in 2017, celebrating Louisville’s hometown hero with an all-star cast that included Rhiannon Giddens and Jubilant Sykes. Abrams’ work with the Louisville Orchestra has been profiled on CBS News Sunday Morning, NPR, and in The Wall Street Journal.

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