Innovation and International Best Practices Key to Success of Australian Orchestras

Sophie Galaise, who is also a member of the MMIAM International Advisory Committee, joined the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra as its first female Managing Director in April 2016. She is renowned for her extensive experience working with orchestras, not only at the executive level, but also as a professional musician and musicologist.  Laura Adlers met with Sophie via Skype to discuss the business of managing professional orchestras in different parts of the world.

Does being a professional musician make you a better arts leader or do you think one can be a good arts leader without the artistic background?

Well, I am in the category of artist who became an arts manager, and I believe it helps, it gives you an advantage, because you really know the product, you can have more in-depth conversations and I believe, yes, you can be a fantastic manager without being a musician, but you will always have to work harder to gain a full understanding of the product.

For instance, your Music Director comes to you and says he wants to do the Mahler 8th Symphony next year. You would need to know that the Mahler 8th nickname is the ‘Symphony of a thousand’ (1000 musicians and singers), so you could expect a very large budget for the production.  If you don’t know that, you may have a conversation where you say, no problem, it is just one more symphony and you end up having a big surprise. I have seen interesting situations in the past where managers had a big surprise, because they didn’t have that knowledge. I suppose I am on the side that believes it is better to be knowledgeable as a professional musician working as an arts manager.  Finally, I still believe you can be a great manager without being a professional musician, but being a professional musician gives you an extra advantage.

Sir Andrew Davis conducting the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Peter Tarasiuk.

Sir Andrew Davis conducting the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Peter Tarasiuk.

You are a professional musician who transitioned to a career as an internationally-recognized arts leader and have held leadership positions in Europe, Canada and Australia.  Are there notable differences in the practice of arts management between countries?

Many aspects of managing orchestras around the world are pretty similar. There is one big difference, however. In North America, there is a stronger focus on fundraising, because, for example, in the United States, public funding is so low that it is absolutely necessary to fundraise. Around the world, most orchestras can count on revenue sources from public funding. Everyone relies on earned revenue (subscription, ticket sales, hires) and private revenue (donations, corporate partnerships). The vast majority of orchestras from around the world rely on public funding, private and earned revenues. Everyone is trying to achieve balanced ratios (1/3, 1/3, 1/3).   I have yet to see an orchestra in a country that can do without public funding. Orchestras are helping with cultural diplomacy, showcasing new works, engaging with communities, etc. I believe they are playing an important role in the ecology of the arts.

Fixed costs are the biggest expense in any orchestra’s budget, most notably salaries for all of the musicians and staff.  On average, musicians outnumber staff. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is an exception, with 150 staff and 100 musicians. It is important to note that 1/3 of the administrative staff are in fundraising and development. They are a huge fundraising machine! This is a new tendency in the United States, but I am not sure this will be the model moving forward.  At this point it is the US reality.

In Australia, professional orchestras rely on the three types of revenue. Federal and state funding makes for most of the public funding. They are starting to fundraise and are looking to increase donations more than in the past, but this is relatively new. Historically, the six professional state orchestras were part of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. They demerged about twenty years ago and became independent not-for-profit organizations. They are quite new to fundraising, but they are also very keen and very capable.

The big difference between Australia and Canada in terms of orchestras is that in Australia, the government decided to really focus on having one professional orchestra per state and fund them appropriately. This is why there are only six professional orchestras in Australia.  In Canada, a much larger group is funded, including major orchestras, regional orchestras, chamber orchestras, and so forth.

Only 28 major performing arts organizations are actually recognized and funded as “major” in Australia. This includes dance, theatre, opera, orchestras and one circus company. They are funded by a Commonwealth Fund administered by the Australian Council for the Arts.  It is a very finite number responding to very specific criteria that are approved for funding. Once your performing arts organization has been recognized as such, you must comply and meet these criteria or risk losing your funding.  In Canada, it is a different and broader approach.

What innovative ideas have you observed in the cultural sector in Australia which are leading the new wave in cultural management?

Australians are aware that they are very far from the rest of the world, here down under. It is a relatively young country. Australians are keen on best practices. They follow what is happening in other countries, particularly in the United Kingdom. They feel a close historical association to England and European countries.  Every year, the association of Australian Orchestras invite arts leaders from international orchestras to come to Australia. We regularly get major orchestras to tour Australia. When they do, we meet with management to learn about their business models and best practices.  In my opinion, there is a burning desire to accomplish great things, perhaps because Australia is a relatively young country.  They are not afraid to innovate, and ideas seem to evolve faster than in Canada, for example.  They are very attuned to what is happening in other parts of the world, and this perhaps gives them the confidence and drives them to take calculated risks.  Australians are very positive people and the country has not seen a recession in over 25 years, so there is a distinct trend towards innovation and bold new ideas.

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