Steering the Ship: A Q&A with Vermont’s Cultural Leaders | Elise Brunelle
Leaders of arts and cultural organizations must draw on perhaps until now untested courage and fortitude to navigate today’s choppy seas. A viral pandemic, economic devastation, unending climate crises, and mass demonstrations to end systemic racism—all are reshaping the cultural landscape. How will these factors shape the arts now and in the future?
In this series, we’re asking Vermont’s arts and cultural leaders how they are navigating these peculiar times. We hope that the responses might help other arts and cultural organizations chart their own voyage.
This month we feature Elise Brunelle, executive director of Vermont Symphony Orchestra. Brunelle was named as the organization’s new executive director in June 2020 after an extensive national and international search. She came to the VSO from South Africa, where she led the country’s largest nonprofit performing arts organization, Cape Town Opera, for 16 years. Growing up in Minnesota with her father a conductor, and as a former violinist herself, Brunelle joined the VSO with a lively background and upbringing in music, and previously spent a couple of months working backstage at the Weston Playhouse.
YOUR NAME and TITLE: Elise Brunelle, Executive Director
YOUR ORGANIZATION: Vermont Symphony Orchestra
YEAR YOU JOINED ORGANIZATION: 2020
MONTH/YEAR YOU WERE APPOINTED TO CURRENT POSITION: August 2020
What makes you hopeful for the future?
Significant collaboration and sharing of ideas amongst artists and arts organizations. Willingness to embrace the screen as a distribution channel—which certainly helps broaden our audience reach. It also allows our music to reach those who cannot afford to buy a ticket to a live performance, or who have a physical barrier to accessing live venues.
What’s the most challenging part of your work currently?
Managing expectations—when will we produce content? Why are other peer orchestras around the country doing more work?
How have you changed as a leader in the last six months?
I’ve realized how advocacy for the arts sector as a whole should be a top priority in everyone’s job description. We can also learn a lot from for-profit business models, marketing, and distribution. I am learning to start by asking what people want and how our organization can provide value to their community. Most of all, recognizing Vermont is full of excellent artists and there is genuine understanding of the value of art in this state.
What are you prioritizing?
Continuous and clear communication with our musicians, artistic partners, donors, and peers. Safety of our staff, musicians, and audience. Identifying new sources of income to replace the eventual end of Covid relief. Being a can-do, flexible arts organization that serves the entire state.
How do you see your relationship with your constituents evolving over the next five years?
It will broaden and diversify to include digital audiences around the world (while retaining live audiences when it is safe to do so).
How can cultural institutions and organizations participate in the current call for creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive world?
Let’s mainstream diversity, equity, and inclusion in our day-to-day operations. Ask ourselves, does our organization’s spending power reach BIPOC-owned businesses? Do our publicity efforts include BIPOC-owned or -focused media? Do we have an established board committee, with staff involvement, to establish and reach targets in these areas? Have we asked our existing or potential BIPOC audiences how we can best engage with them? Start somewhere, and see it through. Address equity, diversity, and inclusion as seriously as you do your strategic plan, cash flow, and artistic output.
What are some lessons learned or advice that you can share with other organizations who are grappling with the multi-faceted challenges of this time?
We will return to live events, but the future is online and there’s huge competition. Focus on what’s unique about your organization’s art and make noise about what you do. Try the untested, be bold, and work with others. Rethink how many things you need to produce, i.e., number of concerts, exhibitions, publications vs. how well you produce and share them. Invest money and time in creating great online content. Most of all, “do what you can, with what you have, where you are” and find contentment in that.