Name: Sue Dixon
Organization: Portland Opera
Annual Operating Budget: $8,000,000
Learn more at portlandopera.org
Sue Dixon’s interview with Suzanne Nance originally aired on April 25, 2020. Listen below.
How are the arts playing a role during this critical time?
As the world shuts down and people are in self-isolation they are turning to music, film, books, theater, podcasts, and film for solace and entertainment. We, as artists and arts organizations, have always been the nurturers of the soul and this has shown us how important the arts are to each of us.
What has been the most notable / most unpredictable / most challenging impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on your organization? Biggest financial challenge?
Every. Single. Day! I think that we have yet to understand the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and that makes every day as challenging as the previous one.
We’ve been around since 1964, and we’ve navigated various economic and social crises, but nothing quite like this. The core of our work is being able to come together as a community and share live experiences. Performances on our stage are essentially collaborative moments in time – each performance slightly different than the rest, each patron experience essentially unrepeatable. There is something very unique and beautifully analog about unamplified voices and acoustic music sharing and co-creating a visceral experience in a certain place, at a certain time, with a live audience. Our art has been, for centuries, a place to convene vibrations and highlight storytelling through beautiful song. Presence matters, and I think that so many music, theatre, and arts organizations whose work centers on live performance are grappling with experiential conversations about impact.
We also understand that public health and safety are absolutely the most important focus area right now. We value the wellbeing of our artists, audiences, musicians, and staff, and so we made the heartbreaking decision to cancel the majority of our 19/20 season (Bajazet, the Big Night concert, Pagliacci, and Three Decembers), as well as cancellations in our Broadway Across America season. These cancellations meant great financial losses for the company, and great heartbreak for all of us involved in the process of making art.
To date, what steps have you taken to mitigate that impact?
Mandated closures impacted our performances of Bajazet, Big Night, and Pagliacci. To mitigate the risk of incurring additional production expenses this year, while facing the possibility of extended closures, we also cancelled the remainder of the season. Our patron services team has been working with patrons and ticket holders to provide expedient and excellent customer service. We changed our policy so that all ticket holders are entitled to a full refund, and we have been inspired and heartened by the amount of patrons who are opting to donate their ticket back to the company as a tax-deductible contribution, or who have made a gift in support of the company during this challenging time.
We made a commitment to compensate the company of Bajazet in full, as that cancellation happened just before opening night. For the rest of the cancellations, we’ve been working diligently with musicians and artists to honor compensation to the extent that we are able. Our artists, musicians, and collaborators remain at the heart of our work and mission.
We also made a commitment to our staff to try to keep as many people employed as long as possible, after having recently gone through a reorganization in November. Now, our team is set up and working from home, and I am so proud of the commitment and resilience that each department is sharing as we rise to the very challenges facing our company.
What kind of innovation in management has developed for your organization, and what challenges have you encountered when implementing new innovative ideas?
Every day of this crisis is new, and things are changing at a rapid pace. Initially we experienced some challenges with new ideas quickly becoming impossible as guidelines and sanctions from the government and health authorities changed and moved towards full mandated closures. We moved quickly to adapt to guidance and best practices, while also realizing that some of our practices could be green.
What are the short-term and potential long-term effects of this shut down for your organization and the arts in general?
It is not news to anyone that we began this season in a fragile position financially, and the financial losses caused by this shut down pose grave challenges to overcome. We don’t yet know the full financial impact, but we continue to monitor data, trends, and industry studies in order to adjust our course. It’s also given us time to breathe, reflect and to put into realization some of the core strategies as outlined in our strategic plan.
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?
We’ve been in touch almost daily with peer organizations to see how we can support, collaborate, and partner through this crisis. We’ve also shared lessons learned and information about relief efforts for small businesses and artists in the region and continue to share information and resources.
Throughout this process I have been reminded that our leadership team and staff, as part of the artistic and creative sector, have brilliant imaginations and a hell of a lot of moxie. We are focusing on others, and on our community.
Our costume shop has sewed masks for those in need. Our educational and engagement teams have focused on at-home learning activities for parents and families navigating home schooling. Our development team has found ways to shine a spotlight on our community partners, especially our restaurant, wine, and retail partners, who have also been navigating financial challenges and changed landscapes. Our Portland Opera Resident Artists and artistic teams continue to imagine and curate content and share music to bolster and uplift us during this time. Our administration department supported the switch to a paperless and remote office environment in the interval of a week and has served as a resource for smaller organizations to help with calculations and processes for applying for relief and grants. Our patron services team has worked with marketing and communications to connect and support our patrons by sharing knowledge, options, and adapted policies.
We also launched a little side project to bring a smile to people’s faces, by starting a submission form for an opera or classical music joke. People can request a joke for themselves, or a friend/family member. Then we give them a call or send an email with to deliver their joke. It is a simple and joyful exercise that team members from every department has participated in accomplishing. I know that people have enjoyed receiving the jokes, but maybe not as much as we’ve enjoyed sharing them. It gives us something to smile about, and a chance to connect. To date, we’ve shared far over 500 jokes.
What is the biggest lesson learned as a leader during this crisis?
I believe that we are given the opportunity to meet our greatest challenges with the option for choosing grace and generosity. I have strived to lead from the heart during this time, to keep a long view in order to steward our organization towards a brighter future for the people that it belongs to our community members, our artists, musicians, staff, and collaborators. There have been sleepless nights, but there have also been opportunities for unprecedented advocacy, for putting people first, and for renewing our commitment to come out of this stronger and more desperately in love with our mission in the community.
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?
The future cannot be predicted right now. We are considering constantly updated regional and national guidance in order to develop plans for how and when we will able to open our doors safely. We announced our 20/21 season in early March and would love nothing more than to share this brilliant upcoming season with all of you; but we will only do so if and when we can be sure that it is safe and responsible to do so.
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?
Opera is inherently emotional and can help navigate and express even the biggest most deeply felt emotions. We turn to opera and music for our hearts and our souls right now, to share songs of healing, sadness, joy, and solace.
Our Resident Artists continue their training and development with us remotely, and our orchestra and chorus members are here throughout the community. Former resident artist Antonia Tamer even serenaded her neighborhood with a balcony performance last week! We are planning additional ways to channel and share our beautiful art form during this interval, and in the meantime, we are listening and planning.
What message do you have for the artists and fellow art leaders in our community today?There is no other arts and cultural community that we would rather be a part of, and this crisis has reminded me of that. The generosity, partnership, and uplifting collaborative communication and generosity that we’ve witnessed is a reminder of exactly why we do what we do. This is going to change so many things about our sector, but it will not change the core of creativity, innovation, excellence, and collaboration that defines us. Portland Opera is privileged to be a leading arts employer and cultural institution in service of our region, and that responsibility anchors our vision for the future.
What question do you wish someone would ask?
What will it take for Portland Opera to survive this crisis?
When looking to the future, what brings you hope?
Portland Opera has survived many financial challenges and this community has shown us the importance of having an opera company. I’m optimistically hopeful that we will emerge stronger and more resilient than before. We have an incredible staff, talented musician, chorus members, our artists, stagehands and everyone that is involved in bringing this beautiful art form together. I have no doubt that once this crisis is over great art will prevail, as our artists will be the storytellers of this moment in time and history through music, poetry, film and books. I can’t wait until we come together as a community and celebrate the return of live performances throughout our community. That moment will be quite emotional and joyful!
About Sue Dixon:
Sue Dixon was named Portland Opera’s sixth general director in October 2019. Dixon joined the company in May 2014 as director of development and was named director of external affairs in 2017, and interim general director in July of 2019. As Portland Opera’s director of development, Dixon stewarded major gifts and increased contributed revenue, helping the company achieve balance during a downtrend of earned revenue. She raised the profile of the company through its 50th Anniversary celebration, and two major fundraising events, both achieving their $1M goal for contributed revenue. As Portland Opera’s director of external affairs, she led the company through an innovative reorganization to integrate marketing, development, communications, and patron services functions—with a robust plan for growth, advocacy, and audience engagement.