Name: Katherine FitzGibbon
Organization: Resonance Ensemble
Annual Operating Budget: $297,000
Learn more at resonancechoral.org
Interview originally published on June 19, 2020.
How are the arts playing a role during this critical time?
The arts, as always, have the power to provide comfort and solace, and I know a lot of people have been tuning in to new online content and to broadcasts of past performances. But the arts also have the power to allow people to sit with discomfort, to ask the big questions, to think about injustice, and to learn from many people’s perspectives. I believe that we need this; we need to harness art’s power to provoke, to foster empathy, and then to motivate people to take action in their own lives and institutions.
What has been the most notable / most unpredictable / most challenging impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on your organization? Biggest financial challenge?
We were deeply disappointed to reschedule the world premiere of An African American Requiem, Damien Geter’s bold concert-length tribute to the victims of racial violence in this country, to be premiered by Resonance with a huge and diverse choir from around the region, with our partners at the Oregon Symphony. It was to be broadcast live coast-to-coast by our partners here at All Classical Portland, in collaboration with WQXR-New York City. Financially speaking, we committed to paying all of our artists a portion of their fees, which we have done
It’s been challenging not to know when it will be safe to sing together again. It’s our priority to ensure the health and safety of our artists and our audiences, and the research we read indicates that singing may be a higher-risk activity than many because of the potential to disperse more “viral load” in aerosols. There are more studies coming out this summer that specifically address singers and wind players and what we can do to make music safely, but it’s possible that we won’t be able to have a traditional concert in person until there is a vaccine.
To date, what steps have you taken to mitigate that impact?
We have been applying for grants to support our financial goals so that Resonance can continue to offer programming (live or virtual) that reflects our times. As I wrote above, we believe the arts have the power to highlight injustice and foster understanding, and especially with the Black Lives Matter work taking place in our region and around the world right now, Resonance wants to continue our work of using music to promote meaningful social change.
In addition, we took an unusual step for an arts organization a few weeks ago. Following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, Resonance’s board of directors wrote an open letter to Governor Brown, Mayor Wheeler, and other state and local officials. We gathered more than 1,000 individual signatures and more than 200 arts organizations standing together condemning racism and demanding systemic change to our policing in Oregon. Our feeling is, if we are unable to make change through live performance right now, we can help bring the arts community together to advocate for change.
Finally, as far as our artistic planning goes, we have also been envisioning and designing multiple types of scenarios for each of our planned concerts this coming season. We want to be ready for whatever the pandemic brings while still being ready to provide timely and provocative arts programming.
What kind of innovation in management has developed for your your organization, and what challenges have you encountered when implementing new innovative ideas?
I was going to say that we are very fortunate to have a deeply supportive board that encourages innovation, but I think that’s due to the organization’s intentional efforts to develop a board that values the mission of Resonance and brings many perspectives to our work. I feel lucky to work with our board.
One of our challenges has been that the organization’s programming and scope have grown significantly in the last few years, and we are “catching up” with hiring new staff to support the work.
What are the short-term and potential long-term effects of this shut down for your organization and the arts in general?
Many arts organizations are having to furlough workers, postpone concerts, and even cancel seasons if there are not safe ways to make music together in front of audiences. And people are accustomed to viewing online content for free, so it’s harder to develop a revenue stream from virtual programming. So, in the short term, I think arts organizations are having to rely more on individual and foundation support rather than earned income. In the long term, my concern is that it may take a while for people to feel comfortable attending large concerts again, although it is my fervent belief that the arts will never have been needed more.
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?
I’ve enjoyed the work several of our arts organizations in the region have done to create ongoing virtual programming that embraces many artists across genres and “home” arts organizations: Artslandia’s happy hours, Joe Kye’s kid-friendly Cup o’ Joe, the Portland Social Distance Ensemble of 45th Parallel.
What is the biggest lesson learned as a leader during this crisis?
As a person who is usually a planner, I’ve had to “go with the flow” and be open to many different possibilities for the next year or so.
Also, I’ve been struck by the permeability of my work life and home life right now. I have two small children who are now often parts of my work calls and rehearsals. In the past, I felt as though I could compartmentalize my professional self and my parenting self. But there is something refreshing (if often deeply chaotic!) about sharing all parts of myself with both my professional colleagues and my family. And I see this with my colleagues, students, and collaborators, too. We share our full selves out of necessity, and the resulting humor and honesty can help build deeper relationships.
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 think it depends on the arts organization. At Resonance, our upcoming season was already focusing on timely issues: violence against African Americans in the African American Requiem, and a Pride concert that is focusing on trans experiences. But for one concert world premiere with a local composer (not yet announced so I am being vague for now!), we had been planning on centering the new work on some environmental themes, and now we are working instead on gathering stories of Oregonians during this pandemic to create a new work that responds to these challenges.
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?
This has been hard, honestly…. I am accustomed to making music with people, in a room together, exchanging ideas and energy and sound in service of a musical idea. I miss it tremendously. I have Zoom classes and rehearsals that scratch the itch a little, but there’s nothing like the real thing! It will feel so amazing to be able to sing together in person in the future.
On June 16, I had the opportunity to speak on a panel with Damien Geter, Melissa Dunphy, and Mari Esabel Valverde to address questions about Music as Activism, new music that tells stories that have been underrepresented in art music, and community partnerships that promote social change. I appreciate having the opportunity to engage artists across the country in thinking about these complex issues.
What message do you have for the artists and fellow art leaders in our community today?
Damien and I were just talking about how the pandemic provides everyone an opportunity to pause and think deeply about their mission. In particular, what can arts organizations do to work against traditions of white supremacy and to work for a more inclusive and equitable vision of the arts? What does that mean in each arts organization? For musical organizations, how might you rethink programming, hiring artists, staffing, board, messaging, etc.?
What question do you wish someone would ask?!
How can I support the arts organizations during this time as they work to pivot and innovate?
When looking to the future, what brings you hope?
Organizations like BRAVO Youth Orchestras, Kúkátónón, the Morpheus Youth Project, SEI, and many others are working directly with youth in our region in culturally responsive ways that foster creativity and a passion for the arts. My students at Lewis & Clark are amazing and thoughtful and want to go out and make the world a better place.
We’re living in the middle of what I hope is a great societal awakening to the myriad ways that racism has been a horrible cancer in our country; we know it has been a shameful part of Oregon’s state history. I see many white people (myself included) committing to listening, learning, and then working actively to eliminate systemic racism in our country, starting in our own spheres. People of color have been sharing their perspectives for generations upon generations without necessary action taking place. I believe the arts are uniquely situated to be part of a great cultural shift, and we can all work to understand the ways racism has been a part of the fabric of our country so that we can dismantle that and build something new.
About Dr. Katherine FitzGibbon:
Katherine FitzGibbon is Associate Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities at Lewis & Clark College, where she conducts two of the three choirs and oversees the vibrant voice, choral, and opera areas. In 2014, she was an inaugural winner of the Lorry Lokey Faculty Excellence Award, honoring “inspired teaching, rigorous scholarship, demonstrated leadership, and creative accomplishments.” She has also conducted choirs at Harvard, Boston, Cornell, and Clark Universities, and at the University of Michigan and has served on the faculty of Berkshire Choral International.
Dr. FitzGibbon founded Resonance Ensemble in 2009, initially dedicated to thematic, collaborative vocal performances with artistic partners. In the last several years, she and Resonance have shifted their mission, using the same innovative thematic programming approach to amplify voices that have long been silenced, focusing on underrepresented composers and communities. In June of 2019, Chorus America honored Dr. FitzGibbon with the prestigious Louis Botto Award for Innovative Action and Entrepreneurial Zeal in recognition of her work with Resonance Ensemble. Chorus America’s press release noted, “As founder and artistic director of Resonance Ensemble, FitzGibbon has captained a bold organizational shift—from its original mission exploring links between music, art, poetry, and theatre, to a new focus exclusively on presenting concerts that promote meaningful social change.”
With Resonance, she has collaborated with the Portland Art Museum, Third Angle New Music, Portland Chamber Orchestra, Thomas Lauderdale and Hunter Noack, poet/performer S. Renee Mitchell, the Chuck Israels Jazz Orchestra, and many actors, composers, visual artists, and dancers. Resonance has been described as “one of the Northwest’s finest choirs” (Willamette Week) and “the best damn choir show in town” (Oregon Arts Watch). She has commissioned new works from Melissa Dunphy, Renee Favand-See, Damien Geter, and Joe Kye.
Dr. FitzGibbon is a national board member of the National Collegiate Choral Organization, and her choirs have performed at the NCCO, ACDA, and OMEA conferences. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in music from Princeton University, Master of Music degree in conducting from the University of Michigan, and Doctor of Musical Arts degree in conducting at Boston University. Her research has been presented and published internationally.