Name: Peter Bilotta
Organization: Chamber Music Northwest
Annual Operating Budget: $1,800,000
Learn more at cmnw.org
Interview originally published on May 19, 2020.
How are the arts playing a role during this critical time?
I look out across social media right now – because it’s the only social life we have – and music, theatre, art, and poetry are everywhere. Everyone is playing, singing, dancing, writing, reading, streaming, and choosing to make the arts a part of their life. I can’t believe the number of people (yours truly included) who are finally learning to play that instrument (that would be me – badly, I might note), take a virtual voice lesson, learn to paint or craft, see a play, or explore another form of creative expression – all the things they have wanted to do for years, but have never quite gotten around to.
I think the arts are changing us as much as this crisis is – right now, and very rapidly. We are taking a big step back to appreciate how vital they are to our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Many of us will be forever changed for the better.
What has been the most notable / most unpredictable / most challenging impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on your organization? Biggest financial challenge?
Not being able to make and share music with our audiences and community other than virtually is the greatest challenge by far. We exist to celebrate and share inspiring, moving, engaging, and powerful music. It’s unbearable to imagine that we will not be able to bring people together to do this again for quite some time.
Our biggest financial challenge is that without making music, we can’t pay the amazing artists who create it – our musicians. We have nearly 100 incredible people who are dear members of our Chamber Music Northwest family who have lost virtually their entire livelihood because of thousands of concert cancellations.
To date, what steps have you taken to mitigate that impact?
Last month, as presenters, festivals, and arts organizations started cancelling performances worldwide, we realized quickly that the people who would suffer the most were our musicians. We resolved then that we’re going to get whatever financial resources we could into their hands as quickly as possible. So, last month, Chamber Music Northwest advanced every one of our spring and Summer Festival musicians half of their compensation – theirs to keep regardless of what happens this summer. It’s the least we could do for them in this challenging time.
What kind of innovation in management has developed for your your organization, and what challenges have you encountered when implementing new innovative ideas?
Knowing we won’t be able to do live performances for some time, Chamber Music Northwest has quickly pivoted to begin providing music virtually through broadcasts and streaming performances. In fact, this summer, we’re still going to have a five-week Summer Festival just like we have for 49 summers – it’s just that this summer’s will be a free virtual festival.
Each week from June 22 – July 26, Chamber Music Northwest will offer several streaming concerts featuring both the best performances of recent summer festivals and live performances by some of our favorite artists from around the country. We’ll also have virtual education and family programs, so that everyone can enjoy our music this summer.
Then, in the fall, we will launch our year-round season of concerts if circumstances allow, but in a slightly different way. Each of the concerts will be in more intimate venues with a smaller audience, with both the audience’s and artists’ health and safety in mind. If we are unable to do these concerts live, we will still do them virtually if needed.
What are the short-term and potential long-term effects of this shut down for your organization and the arts in general?
The most immediate short-term effect of this shut-down is that we have had to cancel our entire 50th Anniversary Summer Festival. Unlike many organizations that got to do at least a part of their season through March, ours has been virtually wiped out. It’s a bizarre place to be in – both artistically and financially.
Not being able to present an entire season will have very significant long-term effects as well, not to mention the longer-term financial and psychological effects of what we are experiencing now. When we are eventually able to do concerts again, attendance will be lower because of the pandemic, and wallets will be tighter. Many of our long-time patrons who are older and vulnerable may never return.
The reality is that many performing arts organizations are likely to be starting over, and may have to completely change what we do for the new environment in which we are operating. We may even need to completely rebuild our audience and donor base, and it will take many years to do so.
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?
The complexity of taking the live music experience we so love and creating an equally enriching one in a broad cast is daunting. The technology, expertise, and costs are so beyond what most music organizations can afford.
I think there is great opportunity for our community’s many music creators to come together and pool resources and ideas that can help us all serve our audiences far better than going it alone. I have already seen some shining examples of this from around the country, and I’m sure we can do it here in Portland too.
What is the biggest lesson learned as a leader during this crisis?
I think I learned this lesson two years ago when our offices were destroyed in a massive fire. We lost everything and had to start over completely.
As an organizational leader, when the worst happens, you are allowed only one pity party of no more than 24 hours. Then, you get on with the work, or you won’t get through it.
What message do you have for the artists and fellow art leaders in our community today?Everything will be fine in the end, and if it’s not, it’s not the end.
What question do you wish someone would ask?!
How is this affecting your artists, and how many do you think will actually be able to continue their careers as performers when this is all done?
When looking to the future, what brings you hope?
See the first answer! I think the arts are changing us as much as this crisis is – right now, and very rapidly. We are taking a big step back to appreciate how vital they are to our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Many of us will be forever changed for the better.
About Peter Bilotta:
Peter Bilotta is in his seventh season as the Executive Director of Chamber Music Northwest, one of the nation’s leading presenters of chamber music, producing up to 100 concerts and events annually. CMNW’s flagship Summer Festival produces programs of international caliber in Portland’s premier performance venues for five weeks of activities that include both main stage and casual “Club” concerts, plus free outreach and educational events. In partnership with Artistic Director and renowned musician David Shifrin, CMNW presents the world’s leading classical music artists, from rising stars to veterans, including the most sought-after soloists, chamber musicians and recording artists in the world.
A Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) with more than 30 years of experience in non-profit leadership and development, he has been a member of the Partnership for Philanthropic Planning, the Northwest Planned Giving Roundtable and the Willamette Valley Development Officers Association, and he currently or has previously served on boards and advisory committees for the Oregon Cultural Advocacy Coalition, Classical Music Festivals of the West, Theater for Young Audiences USA, Work for Art, Business Committee for the Arts, Portland Public Schools Japanese language immersion program, the Greater Cincinnati Planned Giving Council and Leave a Legacy Greater Cincinnati, Opera America’s National Strategy Committee, and as a National Endowment for the Arts grant panelist.
Previously, Mr. Bilotta spent served as Director of Development for Portland Opera and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, two of the nation’s leading regional arts organizations. He also has worked for the Tony Award winning Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, and served for nine years in executive positions with the Boy Scouts of America. A Minnesota native, Mr. Bilotta is a graduate of the University of Saint Thomas, he holds degrees in Business Administration, Political Science, and Economics, as well as a certificate in non-profit management.