Name: Robert Bitter
Organization: Portland Chamber Orchestra
Annual Operating Budget: $92,000
Learn more at portlandchamberorchestra.org
Interview originally published on August 7, 2020.
How are the arts playing a role during this critical time?
The arts are our refuge during this challenging time. People need to hear music and see performances now more than ever. To meet that need, many organizations have become very creative in delivering performances via the internet and social media.
What has been the most notable / most unpredictable / most challenging impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on your organization? Biggest financial challenge?
Like most other arts organizations we’ve been unable to deliver or plan performances for live audiences. This means that our musicians cannot perform, and they have lost their primary source of income. Our financial challenge is to maintain our financial reserves to meet our fixed costs with virtually no revenue. In addition, it is challenging to maintain and recruit board members.
To date, what steps have you taken to mitigate that impact?
As we are an all-volunteer organization, we are able to minimize our expenses, but at the cost of being unable to employ our professional musicians. We did secure a small Payroll Protection Plan loan, which we used exclusively to help compensate our musicians for our cancelled April 2020 concert.
What kind of innovation in management has developed for your organization, and what challenges have you encountered when implementing new innovative ideas?
We have a small, dedicated Board of Directors that provides all services outside of music delivery. As such we have been dependent on a few key individuals to manage the business side of the PCO.
Over the past several months we have begun the transition to a single platform for patron management, ticketing and marketing. Turnover in a few key positions has slowed this process as has the whole impact of COVID-19. Additionally, the provider just announced that they are changing their software platform, thus further impacting our limited technical capabilities.
What are the short-term and potential long-term effects of this shut down for your organization and the arts in general?
By having minimal ongoing expenses and no debt we can survive as an organization for a while. However, we lose the skills and talents of our Music Director and professional musicians without the ability to employ them. This situation pervades the entire performing arts community. After we can reopen how difficult will it be to reconstitute our orchestra? And how long will it be before the public feels safe in returning to venues?
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?
When we made the decision to cancel our Fall concert, we pivoted the relationship we have fostered with Nordic Northwest in preparing for the performances to identify a way that we could partner. We have now agreed to offer a paid live-streamed performance by our principal string musicians on the evening of Sept. 19th from the Nordia House. We foresee this as the first of more offerings.
What is the biggest lesson learned as a leader during this crisis?
Keep an eye on our fundamentals while viewing this time as an opportunity to revisit our mission. Ask the Board and monitor other organizations to plan and prepare for what the PCO will look like on the other side of the pandemic.
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?
Our 2020-2021 season is in significant jeopardy, though no formal decisions have been made about our December or April concerts. It would seem prudent to consider using the same programs next season if the soloists are available. At the same time, we recognize that the world is changing, and our mission may change with it. We don’t know what that looks like.
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?
It has been very inspirational to see so many virtual performances by some amazing artists. I applaud the many organizations such as Artslandia that have sponsored these artists. The settings also help to create a sense of intimacy that we don’t see in the concert hall.
What message do you have for the artists and fellow art leaders in our community today?There is so much need for support for the organizations and artists that bring us so much joy. Small organizations such as the PCO cannot make a significant impact on our own. We are often spending our limited resources in competing for the same funding as our peers. It seems that this might be a time for us to collaborate to seek a broader solution, especially in terms of providing both income for our artists and quality programming to the public. I invite other leaders to consider how we can work together.
What question do you wish someone would ask?!
How can we work together to keep the arts alive?
When looking to the future, what brings you hope?
The demand for performing arts will not wane, and in fact will explode once the public feels safe to return to venues. Our job is to keep the passion alive and keep our artists engaged.
About Robert Bitter:
Until retirement, Robert was a teacher, project manager and sales professional. He also served as a consultant in the areas of process improvement and leadership development.
He grew up in Northern California and obtained his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California. He moved to Oregon in 1970 and has resided in the Portland Metro area ever since. Early in his career he worked as a Deputy Sheriff for Multnomah County, and during this time he was able to earn a Masters Degree at the University of Portland. Late in his career he found great enjoyment teaching at the community college level.
Robert has been President of the Board for the Portland Chamber Orchestra for four years.