Name: Rebekah Phillips
Organization: Portland Columbia Symphony
Annual Operating Budget: $500,000
Learn more at pcsymphony.org
Interview originally published on April 30, 2020.
How are the arts playing a role during this critical time?
Many artists who are out of work are using their free time to get creative and experiment with new technologies and projects, but since most everything has to be done solo right now, it’s like shouting into a void, with little to no pay/reward on the other side! People on the receiving end in the collaborative arts are finding some surface-level comfort in experiencing these digital projects, but, just like it’s not deeply satisfying to emoji-hug your best friend, watching concerts online is just a band-aid over a deeper wound.
What’s great is that people seem to be reconnecting with how valuable live, collaborative arts are; just recently one of the opera’s cast members sang from her balcony and I was practically brought to my knees watching it on Facebook – I craved the real thing so badly! I think this is not an uncommon experience right now. To the artists, I say: keep creating, keep producing, keep proving your worth, then stick to your terms; in exchange, audiences, organizations, employers, grant-makers, and government agencies should respond by ensuring that our noble industry is strong and stable on the other side.
What has been the most notable / most unpredictable / most challenging impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on your organization? Biggest financial challenge?
I’m concerned about donor fatigue and burn-out. The arts have never been good at framing ourselves as a “cause” – we’re so often seen as a nicety, not a necessity; we make apologies where we don’t have to – and there are certainly plenty of good, deserving causes out there right now! At PCSO, we’re all about accessibility; we invite people served by social service agencies into our hall by the dozen, for instance. This doesn’t provide a traditional “audience development” pipeline — many of the people we serve will likely never turn into donors able to assume large portions of the burden. So our job becomes providing a catalyst for the art to speak for itself, to spur a reawakening in folks of its value. And just like we have to slow down our planning process and just focus on getting from Point A to Point B, we have to champion the power of micro-gifts; this is truly an instance of “drops in the bucket.”
What kind of innovation in management has developed for your your organization, and what challenges have you encountered when implementing new innovative ideas?
We’re lucky to have a physician on our Board who has helped us make sense of all the latest data as we scenario plan for the future. Every month we’re looking at the latest medical data and identifying where we may need to adjust course, depending on anticipated possible turns in the community. More than anything, we want to take care of our people, so if/when Governor Brown lifts the restrictions on gathering, we’ll be ready to ensure that our musicians and our audiences have a safe way to interact with our brand, mission, and artists. This is the beginning of a culture shift in our organization, as well as in the arts at-large, who perhaps had gotten a little too comfortable with the status quo. Only through strategic conversation and innovation will we evolve, adapt, and thrive – and when we’re talking about the arts, that’s a good thing!
What are the short-term and potential long-term effects of this shut down for your organization and the arts in general?
I’m particularly nervous about the integrity of our artistic ecosystem. Freelancers often fill multiple roles, stringing together careers as educators, pit musicians, editors, copyists, composers, arrangers, multi-genre performers – the list goes on. When these skills are no longer lucrative (and I use that term loosely, because we are talking about the arts after all), the supply of working creatives will be threatened. Working musicians will be forced to sell their valuable instruments and equipment just to make ends meet, leaving groups like mine with disruptive and disheartening vacancies. Meanwhile the bigger institutions – whose salaried principals head up many of our smaller performing arts orgs – may continue to run into serious trouble if the earned/contributed revenue model doesn’t get reinvented (fast). So then what happens to those smaller groups? A desaturated landscape would fundamentally change the culture of Portland for a very long time. I want to make sure that doesn’t happen.
What is the biggest lesson learned as a leader during this crisis?
It’s like training for a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure marathon! This is a game of both endurance and wits – what we do today will matter in 3, 6, 9, and 12 months, when we find ourselves at the inevitable fork in the road. Prepare thoughtfully and take each step deliberately so that you’re healthy and ready for the day when we have to make the choice and execute.
Most importantly, don’t leave the artists and audience behind! Be hopeful and transparent about the new vision we’re creating. Invite them along at every opportunity. It doesn’t mean a thing to reach the finish line without THEM in tow.
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?
We’re prepared for lots of things to change, from the size and layout of our ensemble to the size and layout of our audience. Intermission, a beloved tradition for many art forms, may go away forever, so perhaps concert durations shorten.
Regardless, we’re looking at next season as an opportunity to celebrate the heroes of this crisis as well as remember those we lost.
What message do you have for the artists and fellow art leaders in our community today?
For those who can weather the storm, this coming year will be a real barometer of sorts. It’s going to reveal so much about the current state, value and place of the arts and our own arts organizations. For some, it may be an opportunity to make big changes we’d been reluctant to make. For others, it may be an assurance that we’re on the right track. Listen, learn, and keep the focus on the value that the arts provide to the community – not the value that the community provides to us.
When looking to the future, what brings you hope?
The confidence that some really great art is going to come out of this crisis!
About Rebekah Phillips:
With expertise in both earned revenue and audience development strategies, Rebekah brings more than 15 years of arts management experience to the Portland Columbia Symphony. A trained classical bassoonist, her career began here in Portland at Chamber Music Northwest, where she spent more than a decade exploring the many sides of arts administration before discovering a passion for marketing. In 2014 she joined the Oregon Symphony team, where she was instrumental in developing digital and brand strategies, as well as setting multiple earned income records for the institution, which she did while leading the department for nearly a year as Interim Vice President for Marketing, Communications & Sales. When she’s not running, working on her garden, or doting on her two shiba inus, Rebekah serves on the Board of Directors of the Montavilla Farmers Market. She is a graduate of the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music.