New Local Arts Leaders Talk About How to Thrive in a Rapidly Changing Environment

From left, Andrew Brown of the Pacific Chorale, Renee Bodie of the Soka Performing Arts Center, and Tommy Phillips of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County are among the new class of arts leaders in Orange County. (Photos courtesy of the Pacific Chorale, Soka PAC, and the Philharmonic Society)

The past year has been a time of big leadership changes for Orange County’s performing arts institutions. South Coast Repertory, the Philharmonic Society, the Pacific Chorale and Soka University’s Performing Arts Center have new bosses with impressive resumes. It goes without saying that all of them harbor ambitious plans for their groups.

Voice of OC recently sat down with three of those leaders to talk about what’s in store for their institutions and discuss the climate for arts in Orange County. We interviewed Renee Bodie, General Manager of the Soka Performing Arts Center at Soka University; Andrew Brown, President and CEO of the Pacific Chorale; and Tommy Phillips, President and Artistic Director of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.

A cursory glance at the seasons of these three institutions reveals that they’re in the business of providing big names and popular works, first and foremost. Each leader began the conversation with earnest words about trying to provide the best possible quality to the widest possible public.

But after the pro forma niceties were dispensed with, Bodie, Brown and Phillips revealed that they share common concerns, and they agreed that future success depends on finding and keeping new audiences. Business as usual is definitely not the way forward.

“Trying to expand our programming in a way that will reach new audiences is really important to me right now,” Bodie said. “I’m really fortunate to be able to reach minority audiences effectively.” (Soka University is a secular and nonsectarian institution founded by Daisaku Ikeda, the President of Soka Gakkai International, a Japanese Buddhist movement. Its public concerts are supported and well attended by Orange County’s Asian community. The university has a large contingent of international students.)

Brown wants his institution to explore well beyond the traditional boundaries of classical choral music in the next few years.

“Rob Istad, our artistic director, has created this (series) called Unsung Voices. Over the next couple of seasons we will look at under-represented voices from the composer’s side. This season he’s been focusing on woman composers. We’ve commissioned a great piece from a Seattle composer named Karen Thomas. Women composers have really shaped choral music and music in general. We will show off some unique individual voices by adding Clara Schumann and Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush.”

“(Orange County) is changing faster than most other areas demographically,” Phillips noted. “Reaching those different demographics is crucial. We’re doing Lunar New Year events and more world music; and we have an eclectic series that is being re-imagined. Hopefully it will attract those different constituencies of our community.”

Phillips emphasized that such outreach has to be perceived as more than mere tokenism to be effective.

“There has to be more than just one touch per year. I don’t like the idea of, ‘Oh, we’re going to do an East Indian program once and then we’ll do it again in four years.’ We need to engage those communities rather than just say, ’Okay, we’ve checked off that box on our list.’”

Program diversification can reap rewards down the line by creating institutional loyalty and trust, Bodie said.

“One of the things I’ve learned in trying to reach diverse audiences is that you don’t necessarily have to address specific groups. For example, you don’t always have to include Armenian programming to bring in Armenian audiences. In other places, what we tried to create was cross-pollination of different ethnic groups. We’d bring in an Armenian group, but advertise it to the Korean community as well. What we wanted was for people to come together and enjoy each other’s culture.”

The three arts leaders agreed that it takes more than diversifying an institution’s programming to fully embrace Orange County’s rapidly changing demographics.

Brown thinks diversity has to start with the board. “If we want to create and encourage a place where someone who looks different feels at home, you need to create a little bit more of a mirror of the community (on the board) than we have so far with many of our institutions.”

The trio agreed that arts education plays an important role in guaranteeing future audiences. And they were emphatic in their belief that outreach and education are a fundamental part of their institution’s mission, even if it means playing a role formerly handled by public education.

“It’s true that public funding is abysmal when it comes to arts education,” Bodie said. “I feel it is our job to help.”

Bodie said it’s almost a standard part of a visiting artist’s contract these days to visit local schools. “Piggybacking outreach on top of a performance makes so much more sense than an expensive standalone school visit.”

But Bodie acknowledged that what her institution offers shouldn’t be thought of as a replacement for traditional arts education.

“Having a school band and regular instruction on each instrument – that’s the responsibility of the school.”

Phillips agreed that while his institution doesn’t substitute for a proper arts education, it’s a valuable element. “Some school districts do better than others, but generally speaking (arts education) is not adequate. What we do is let people who otherwise couldn’t see a concert come and experience one.” His group does that in a big way. “We have 700 volunteer women who reach out to 160,000 students through the schools every year. We do thousands of hours of activity in the schools. The public largely doesn’t know about this.”

Brown said the evidence surrounding the benefits of arts education is clear.

“The child who gets a good arts education is more likely to vote, is more likely to volunteer, is more likely to collaborate and find a nonviolent outcome to a problem. Why would you not want to contribute to that?”

“Kids with an arts education are far more likely to succeed scholastically, even outside of the arts,” Phillips added.

Beyond the issues of diversity and arts education, Bodie, Brown and Phillips acknowledge that each of groups faces unique specific challenges due to location or some other factor.

“We are farther south than most of Orange County,” Bodie said. “Below us there isn’t much population. But we’re only eight miles from the Segerstrom Center. I think we have to combat a mental block – a mindset that needs to be changed – that we’re too far away. I find that once people come to Soka and experience our hall, suddenly the drive doesn’t matter.”

The Philharmonic Society is a tenant of the Segerstrom Center and must pay fees that are considered steep by industry standards. “Yes, the cost of doing business is high, but in my opinion (the relationship with SCFTA) is well worth it,” Phillips said. “I don’t think we’d want to be anywhere else than one of the most fantastic acoustical spaces on the West Coast. Many of the great ensembles want to come here partly because of that hall.”

Brown knows that the Pacific Chorale must work hard to establish an identity separate from Pacific Symphony, a group that it performs with frequently.

“We have a three-year artistic plan that gives me time to start securing funding for some big projects that are a few years down the road.” If they work out, Brown said, “they should help us assert our own identity.”

The three leaders agreed that their overarching goal is to weave the arts into O.C. life and make them indispensable to the county’s identity and lifestyle.

“We need to build a feeling of trust and a need within our community,” Phillips said. “I think we’re creating a sense that music and the arts are important to everybody. That’s the key. If we are to make a permanent a space for the arts, we have to make sure that they’re an integral part of people’s’ lives.”

Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.