Dr. Sophie Galaise joined the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra as its first female Managing Director in April 2016. She has been on the board of Symphony Services International since 2013 and was elected Chair in November 2021. She is a member of the Advisory Council of the Harvard Business Review, the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD), and the CEO Institute in Australia. Sophie has twice won the Australian 100 Women of Influence Award, once in 2015 and again in 2019. Sophie is renowned for her extensive global experience working with orchestras, not only at the executive level but also as a professional musician and musicologist. She is a member of the MMIAM program’s international Advisory Committee.
How did you become interested in the arts? Are you an artist?
I am a musician. I began my career as a flutist in an orchestra in Germany before realizing that I was asthmatic. This put an end to my career as a professional musician, but I decided to make the most of this challenge. My passion is music. I was determined to stay within the milieu, even if it meant doing something else.
I completed an executive MBA and Ph.D. in musicology—I like history; I like to dive deep into a subject—and I worked as a university lecturer and researcher while also managing small music organizations before being asked by the government of Quebec—I am originally from Montréal, Canada—to manage grants for the music sector, which included individual artists and groups and organizations of all sizes. That was a wonderful adventure. While with the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec (Quebec Arts Council), we succeeded in obtaining increased funding for the music sector from $11 million to $18 million. That was my biggest achievement for Quebec musicians and music organizations. I left the CALQ to become the Executive and Artistic Director of the Orford Arts Centre in the Eastern Townships in Quebec. In 2007, I became the CEO of the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec.
So, how did you come to live and work in Australia?
I was headhunted in 2013 to work here. For three years, I was CEO of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, which is one of six major orchestras in Australia, and then three years later, in 2016, I was recruited to come to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO). The MSO is considered to be among the top orchestras in the country. The pandemic notwithstanding, on average we reach 5.4 million people— roughly 300,000 through live concerts—and we employ over 400 people.
Tell me about the pandemic. Melbourne had the longest pandemic lockdown in the world, correct?
Yes, we spent eight months in 2020 and six and a half months in 2021, being allowed outside of our homes for only one hour each day. For musicians, whose purpose — to perform beautiful music with their colleagues in front of an audience — was taken away, this created a lot of suffering and mental health issues. We had to pay even more attention to taking care of our people. We trained 23 of our musicians and staff members in mental health first aid.
Prior to the pandemic, we were making $15 million in box office revenue. In Australia, revenues for orchestras and major arts organizations largely come from public funding, followed by earned revenue and private donations or sponsorships.
Our business model is different. As we have been successful at increasing our earned revenue over the years to cover our expenditures, only roughly 30 percent of our budget came from public grants. So, given that we could not play to live audiences, we had to reimburse subscriptions and tickets. Suddenly we found ourselves fighting for survival.
When I first arrived, the MSO was a great organization artistically, but it had some financial challenges. So, my first priority was to turn this around while still focusing on the arts and delivering a great product. This was my focus for the first four years that I was here. Then in year five, the pandemic hit and we experienced the aforementioned challenges. A challenge is an opportunity. We first focused on ensuring our survival. We also used that time to get creative, try new programs, and create new partnerships!
The MSO also has an international mandate. In the seven years that I’ve been there, I’ve put into place something akin to friendships with other organizations. As with personal friendships, which are connections that enrich your life, organizational collaborations allow us to learn from one another and become a better organization. We have collaboration agreements with arts organizations in different countries. For example, we have agreements with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, considered one of the best orchestras in this part of the world; with the special region of culture in Yogyakarta, Indonesia where we support emerging artists; with the National Center for Performing Arts in Beijing, the Shanghai Philharmonic and very recently we’ve established a partnership with the Sichuan Symphony Orchestra. We’ve just collaborated on a Chinese New Year concert in Melbourne with them. Last year we signed a four-year agreement with the London Symphony Orchestra. Each agreement is completely different and based on the DNA of the organization in question. I like creating a work environment that is conducive to developing collaborations and learning from one another.
What other major projects have you tackled while at the MSO?
It’s my personal goal to facilitate women’s progress in the workforce. I’ve seen how difficult it can be. When I first came to Australia, I was the only woman CEO of an orchestra. Now, half of the orchestras are managed by women. But very often, women progress to a certain level before hitting the glass ceiling.
I have tried to be an advocate for change. The way we have done this at the MSO is through a Keychange Pledge. Keychange is an international movement for gender equity adopted by music festivals, orchestras, conservatoires, broadcasters, concert halls, agents, record labels, and music organizations. Keychange requires your organization to take a pledge to gender equity. We pledged to achieve this by 2022 with our board, management team, musicians, staff, and in our music. And we know that in the world of orchestral and classical music, probably 95 percent of conductors, composers, and soloists are male; it’s a challenge. So, we gave ourselves a plan and a strategy to progressively achieve this over four years. We are proud to have now achieved gender equity at all levels. I say this casually, but it was hard work. I have heard people say, ‘well, there are no good women for this role’ many times. I think ‘is that so?’ and if so, well you have to train people!
Our other big opportunity of the last few years has been to transform through a focus on diversity. The Black Lives Matter movement in the United States resonates here because we have a vibrant First Nations community. The Australian government has been working for several years now to collaborate with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples toward reconciliation. As I was born and raised outside of Australia, I am privileged to look at the relationship with First Nation communities in a more neutral way.
MSO has been working in the last few years towards a reconciliation plan. The MSO has a First Nations Artistic Strategy. We recognize how important it is to engage these communities in the right way. I believe we can’t decide what’s right for First Nations communities. It is the opposite, they have to be at the center of our action plan. We have to listen, embrace, and try to facilitate collaboration.
I am now at a point in my life and career where I can reflect on my past and say that there are common themes: I am passionate about music and people. I care about the community. I believe that the act of engaging with your community, if you’re an arts organization or an artist is incredibly important. If you want to be successful in your artistic endeavors, if you want to fundraise for a project, your community needs to be behind you. Your community needs to have faith in what you do, and in order to do that, there needs to be continuous communication and open dialogue.
Given that you’ve moved around—Germany, Canada, and Australia—can you talk about how you foster community?
It’s being curious about other people and being respectful. Respect is a personal value of mine. I’ve always started by reading about the places I’m going to, followed by learning a language and immersion. When I moved to Germany I didn’t speak the language. I was very young and my parents were stressed about my move. They suggested I engage with the community and live with a family, which I did. To this day, the family I lived with are still my friends. They helped me integrate, learn the language and generally enjoy my time there.
Can you share one thing you’ve done, personally or professionally, in the past year that you’re excited about?
2022 was our first year with our new Chief Conductor; we spent five years without a leader. This has been a game changer and we picked the right person! He is a great leader and his chemistry with the team, the audience, and the musicians has been great.
Also, I’m very proud of our collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra. They are often considered one of the top five orchestras in the world and this was their first collaboration with any orchestra. Being able to negotiate for this to happen made me very happy.
On a personal note, in 2022, I was awarded Asia Society’s Asia Game Changer award. The Asia Society was created in the 1950s to facilitate western countries’ engagement with Asia. The prize recognizes people from around the world who have had a significant impact on this work; increasing collaboration, communication, and knowledge. Previous winners were Yo-Yo Ma, the American cellist, and BTS, the K-Pop group.
I think this award is a great recognition for the very good work my organization does. I never do these things alone. There is always a team with whom I try to work very collaboratively. Good ideas don’t come just from me, they come from everywhere in our organization and we are successful because we work as a team—the board, management, employees, and stakeholders. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said so aptly: “Life is a journey, not a destination.”
*Sophie Galaise’s headshot is a courtesy of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.