As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Pat Owens.
Pat Owens joined The New York Choral Society in 2017 as its first full-time professional Executive Director. Since his arrival, Pat has led New York’s premiere symphonic chorus in a new era of its 60-year performing history with wide-ranging repertory, innovative collaborations and exceptional artistry. Prior to joining NYCHORAL, Pat enjoyed a successful career in banking during which he launched and managed capital markets, banking and business development divisions for a number of large international banks. He also serves on the Board of Visual AIDS, the only contemporary arts organization fully committed to raising AIDS awareness and creating dialogue around HIV issues.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Well, my “career trajectory” is a bit unusual as I am leading a performing arts organization with no formal training in music, theatre or arts administration! Throughout my banking career, I owned a contemporary art gallery, sponsored art projects and served on boards of arts organizations. I wanted to pivot professionally by combining my finance and strategic planning skills with my passion for the arts and contribute to this sector in a more impactful way. That led me to advise a number of arts group and organizations on some of the more vexing challenges they were facing. It was during that period that a friend who sang in the chorus told me about their search for a new Executive Director and I thought “why not?” When I met the leadership, we hit it off and the rest, as they say, is history.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I joined the chorus, I made a lot of mistakes! The most memorable was my first few weeks of confusing our singers with one another. I was so eager to make a good impression and get to know every one of over 150 singers, that I had more than one conversation with someone thinking it was someone else. I would keep on talking until I get an odd look or hear “I think you have me confused with,,,,,,,” It was embarrassing at first, but, after a while it turned out to be kind of funny. My lesson: Slow down, it’s always OK that you haven’t remembered someone (or don’t know something) and be honest about it.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Michael Kaiser’s The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations has been an invaluable resource. He distills his experience leading many well-known organizations including the Kennedy Center into 10 rules for success. His perspective is a wonderful combination of honesty, precision and passion. It continues to be my “go-to book”. Recently I have been listening to Russel Tovey’s and Robert Diament’s Talk Art podcast. I always enjoy hearing artists talk about their work and these wide-ranging interviews don’t disappoint.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Over the past few years, our Music Director, David Hayes, and I have spent a lot of time investigating and refining the role of a chorus amidst all kinds of media and platforms competing for attention. Our new mission statement reflects our singular purpose: a commitment to sharing the essential joy and power of live choral music. And with that we are expanding the idea of sharing beyond simply performing. We are collaborating with other advocacy organizations to use our voices to raise awareness of their work. Choral music is all about bringing communities together and that is what we are doing.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Never lose sight of the “big picture”. Like many others in this business, I sometimes get overwhelmed and frustrated with the many day to day details of running a performing arts organization. So, it’s important to remind myself why I am so passionate about what I do. That usually involves listening to a recording of one of our performances. Our chorus has created so many gorgeous concerts. Listening to a clip from a concert helps me “reset”, get energized and plow ahead!
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
In mid-March, my husband and I decided to spend what we thought would be a few weeks at our weekend place upstate New York as I had just recovered from a minor bout of (non-Covid related) pneumonia. Our house is in a rural area with limited internet. So, first we had to adjust our expectations about resuming a “normal” pace of working while we were there. Initially, we were both very sad and anxious about what was happening. We had to give each other room to process everything that was happening while being mindful of how it was impacting us differently at different times of the day or week. As it became clear Covid wasn’t going away anytime soon, we adjusted to our temporary new life in the country and allowed time each day to do something different and enjoyable. We limited our intake of news and social media.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
As a chorus, so much of what we do centers coming together to rehearse and perform. For many of our singers, the chorus is family. Soon after we cancelled the remainder of our season (including our Spring Gala!) we were faced with the challenge of keeping our singers connected to our chorus. We had to figure out ways of gathering virtually that created a real sense of connectedness and belonging. So, we came upon the idea of Zoom “listening parties” at the same time each week we would have been rehearsing. We featured recordings of some of our past performances and were really surprised how powerfully moving these virtual gatherings became — lots of smiles and tears as singers recalled the fantastic experience of singing in our chorus! And many friends and family members who attended followed singers’ comments in chat boxes. For them, it felt like a behind the scenes peek at one of our rehearsals. It has become a fantastic way for so many to stay connected to our chorus!
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Don’t be afraid to call! Many of us rely too much on texts and emails to check in with one another which may not help with feeling isolated. Sometimes a simple “check in” phone call can take us away from “doom scrolling” and the endless drumbeat of bad news. I also take long walks if I am feeling overwhelmed or anxious and encourage everyone to “get out and take a walk”!
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
For a chorus, the impact of Covid and social distancing have been dramatic. This period has forced us to reimagine what a chorus is and what it can do. For our upcoming season, we are introducing a series of short films that feature artists and choreographers responding to our performances of acapella choral pieces. When we started, we thought this would be an interim project while we couldn’t perform in person, but the initial response among singers, collaborators and donors has been fantastic. This is an exciting new direction for us and a great way to reach audiences beyond New York City! So, we expect creating short films will continue to be part of our future seasons. I don’t think we would have explored this alternative in such a fulsome manner if we weren’t forced to be imaginative about how to create performances of choral music.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Absolutely! I expect we will have more empathy. Coming together in groups will feel really special.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We have learned that collaborations and being open to new ways of working and performing are essential to the success and growth of our chorus. So, I will be spending more time exploring performance opportunities with other art forms and in unexpected venues. When we are able to gather again, I expect more people will feel more adventurous as they seek out live music and we want to provide a thought-provoking and memorable experience. So, the challenge will always be about making performances of live choral music relevant, inviting and compelling
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Really get to know your customer (or audience). Don’t be afraid to consider new ways of doing things and new contexts.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” — Robert Frost
This quote always reminds me that only constant in life is change and it is always better to make life happen than to simply let it happen to you. Or to put it more succinctly: Be the change!
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can follow us on Instagram @newyorkchoralsociety. Our choral video projects begin on November 10 and will be on our YouTube channel and on www.nychoral.org