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Strengthening The Arts Community For A Cause with Ian Rye

By July 8th, 2023No Comments20 min read
Home » Strengthening The Arts Community For A Cause with Ian Rye

Entering an organization where you don’t have a solid background on one of its core businesses can be challenging. Ian Rye of Pacific Opera Victoria can attest to this. With his expertise in arts administration, he admits that he was not fully-trained in fundraising before becoming the CEO of one of Canada’s leading opera companies. Regardless of that, Ian put in the extra effort to strengthen his skill set and be an effective leader up to this day. Stewarding the creation of over 50 new opera productions, Ian delves into the importance of having a strategic plan and reaching out to the communities at large to reach goals. He shares the key to the creation of the Baumann Centre – a community hub for artists – and reveals the two biggest challenges in governing any social profit organization.

Listen to the podcast here:

Strengthening The Arts Community For A Cause with Ian Rye

We go deep into the arts with Pacific Opera Victoria CEO, Ian Rye. Ian, welcome to the show.

Thanks, Doug, for inviting me.

It’s great to have you on. Some of the challenges facing many arts organizations are funding and attendance. The sector gets a lot of publicity you probably don’t want, but that’s not the case at Pacific Opera Victoria. You’re in the midst of a successful season and you’ve completed a successful capital campaign. Tell us what’s going on at Pacific Opera Victoria.

It’s a time of dramatic change for the arts in general. We indeed benefit from a very arts-engaged community. It’s a unique community that has all the advantages it needs for opera. That is an engaged population of educated people, of people who have time and resources they want to invest in the arts. In this community, one needs to leverage that base of volunteerism, of philanthropy and of arts engagement. To grow, expand and to deliver an artistic product that frankly isn’t being delivered elsewhere in the country.

Ian, when you were getting ready to be CEO as you were coming up, how much were you preparing to be the chief fundraiser for your organization?

I recognized that it was the most critical role in the company. I also recognized I myself who has an artistic background and came up through arts administration had not been trained in fundraising, say for a mentorship I had done with the CEO I succeeded. I recognized it was a critical factor for this organization. It was where I personally needed the most professional development and growth.

How’s that been going?

I spent a lot of time finding the right people. I brought in a director of development who could serve as a mentor to me on a day-to-day basis. I worked closely with my board of directors, many of whom are experienced community philanthropists and fundraisers and built my own personal skills but also focused on building capacity within the organization.

Have your donors responded?

Our first need on the philanthropic front was to build some capital in order to ensure continued artistic growth. We conceived of an anniversary campaign 2020 being the company’s 40th anniversary. It was a good focused project for us as a staff and as a board to lead into. We essentially looked at artistic programming and planning for a five-year period. We had some extraordinary stretch projects we wanted to achieve and decided a 40th anniversary was an opportunity to achieve those projects. We built a case around the fact that we were going to be delivering more than one of the largest productions we would ever have done in our history. We were going to commission two new operas and we were going to expand our community in schoolwork. We put a price tag to that.

We went to the philanthropic community and said, “Your annual giving to this organization is critical. It is the most important thing to this organization, into this art form. However, we have a unique opportunity here to grow artistically.” The community responded favorably. It started with the board of directors all agreeing to make a significant contribution to what was a $2 million goal. It’s significant for each and every one of those individuals, some of whom that was hundreds of dollars and some of whom that was hundreds of thousands of dollars. Either way, those board members all made a contribution that was personally significant to them, to the anniversary campaign.

With that, we were able to have quiet conversations with the philanthropists in the community who are close with us to make sure our goals were aligned with theirs. Indeed, we’re able to generate some major philanthropic gifts in that period. All of those things meant we were beyond 50% of our goal before we went public with the campaign. By public, I mean reaching out to the community at large, but mostly to opera lovers and art lovers in the community. I’m proud to say with the hard work of the board of directors and a volunteer task force, we were able to exceed our goal and achieved a fundraising net of $2.75 million. Most of it is being allocated to unique programs, projects and program expansion over the next three years.

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You thank the board and the volunteers but I’m sure many of them have taken an opportunity to thank you for your leadership. That was an impressive campaign from start to finish.

Thank you. Having those people is critical but so is having a strategic plan which we had worked diligently on in the year proceeding that campaign. It’s rarely what gave all of us the motivation and the authority to say to the community that these are our stated goals and this is what the community has asked us to achieve.

That’s a golden achievement in the sector to do the strategic plan first, and then do the fundraising campaign and have those two things closely linked together.

It was critical to making sure we had buy-in for the need for additional funds. It’s easy enough for a charity to raise its hands and say, “We need additional funds.” It’s far more powerful to conceive of what those additional funds are needed for with the participation of the community.

One of the things we hear a lot in the arts community in North America is organizations wanting to be more tightly connected to their community, being represented, providing value to the community or being a part of the community. Those are often many words on a page, but you took a different tack at Pacific Opera to reach out and build that community. Could you tell us a little bit about how you did that?

I’ll speak a little bit of history to provide a bit of context. As is typical with opera companies around North America, a few years ago, we would pop up at the major performing arts center in downtown Victoria three or four times a year with a glitzy, glamorous opera. Once a year, we would make sure we included challenging work from either contemporary repertoire or an unknown work from the historical repertoire. Aside from those twelve to sixteen weeks a year, we didn’t exist in the face of the community. Our previous strategic plan, which as the director of artistic administration I played a role in developing, established a need for the opera company to play a bigger role in its community than twelve weeks a year can afford. A major outcome of that strategic plan was the notion of creating an opera center.

In other words, it’s a community hub that we could animate the downtown throughout the year and not rely on community engagement being something we do only when we show up at the theater. We’re pleased to say that a few years ago, we completed a capital campaign and the development of church property. We converted an 8,000-square-foot gymnasium and a former preschool, a building that hadn’t been occupied in twenty, 30 years into a beautiful public space that houses both our administration but also has a beautiful public space for programming year-round. We launched the cooperative we’re calling Opera Etcetera, which is an annual season of programming that largely takes place at the Baughman Center.

It’s everything from music and opera to film series to dialogues. We can use operas, themes, subjects in histories and characters in opera to launch a conversation about critical subjects. Both critical for education but also critical in a contemporary context. As a result of this work, the last few years has seen this little opera company grow from three operas on the main stage to being a company staging three operas on the main stage, two chamber operas off to new works, indigenous works and works by contemporary Canadian artists. As well as an annual season of community programs, most of which are free of charge. We’re able to invite the community to engage with opera, even as simple as a vocal recital to a conversation about migration and Canada’s role in international immigration.

You built the Baughman Center as a place where the community could come together. How did you use that space or that concept of that space to put together your current strategic plan?

Once we had re-imagined ourselves as an organization in service to a broad community rather than an organization in service to an opera-loving membership. It completely changed the culture of the organization in our perspective. The strategic plan we launched when I moved into the role of CEO a few years ago, we adopted a process that would have us first reaching into the community for insights, feedback, perspectives. We called this process Strategic Inquiry. We held eight or nine sessions, which we strategically invited different cohorts with whom the organization has history engaging. For example, we held a strategic inquiry session with artists. We had artists from across the country, members of our orchestra, members of our chorus, as well as visual artists who participate with opera as part of their community practice.

We had strategic inquiry sessions with our business partners. Imagine your sponsors and venue providers. We had a strategic session with our arts partners. All the other arts organizations with whom we collaborate, everything from libraries to theater to museums. We had strategic inquiry sessions with audiences, with donors. We had a strategic inquiry session with educators and youth. We had elementary school teachers with students who use our school and youth programs right up to university educators in the music department at the University of Victoria for example. We went to the consultants who helped guide these conversations. They were usually two hours in length. We probed these cohorts with specific questions and we captured everything everybody said.

I played the role of CEO. I wanted to be the person not talking. I wanted to be the person listening. As you can tell, I am a verbose human being. The best way for me not to talk was to position me as the guy who takes the notes. On a big screen in the Wingate Studio, our public space here, I would be typing live what people’s insights were. They had an opportunity to correct me or refine the language I was using to interpret them.

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As CEO, you hear all those different views about your organization and the potential of the organization. Were there one or two things that jumped out at you that you said, “I’ve never thought of that before. We could become something like that?”

Yes, there were. I’ll say two things and they’re not the most important things that came out of the strategic inquiry sessions, but they were the most surprising things. We’re still grappling with them to this day. The cohort of artists was ambitious for us and they wanted this organization to produce more. They saw themselves as integral parts of this organization, but they wanted a bigger role. They wanted more opera production. They wanted more leadership from artists. In a new program, they wanted an opportunity for independent organizations and young companies to develop, perform with this organization. They wanted more roles in more stages. That’s strong feedback we got from this big cohort of artists. We’re responsible for the public but as an art form, we are responsible for artists.

We had to take that input seriously and develop a plan to accomplish what those artists dreamed for. The second surprise came from our arts partners. Sitting in the room are the CEOs of the library, the public libraries, the symphony, the Dance Victoria, the Belfry Theatre, the museum leadership from all the major cultural organizations. One of our colleagues spoke out and said, “We see Pacific Opera as the leading arts organization in the city.” I share this not out of hubris. We were shocked by that statement. It was a statement that was then reiterated by other leaders around the room by spectacular people, intelligent people running exciting and dynamic organizations. They told us they looked to the opera for leadership. I can’t say we even understood what that meant. We’re still grappling with, “What is our role? What is the expectation that comes when you’re most important partners are looking to you?” For us, it was the moment where we woke up and went, “We’re not teenagers anymore. We’re parents.”

What does it mean to be a leading arts organization when it’s your arts partners in the community who tell you that’s what you are? You’ve got your artists saying, “Be more, be bigger, grow.” You have your community of peers coming together and saying you are a leader in that group. You’re not the three times a year on the stage organization. You are central to the arts community in Victoria. As a relatively new CEO, that must have felt like a fairly heavy mantle to take on.

The responsibility of those statements frightened not just me. We had a rich conversation with our board because I always had board members and a staff person at each of this inquiry session. It’s a conversation that still comes up. Sometimes in decision-making, a board member will say, “Remember what our peers told us. They want leadership from this organization.” Sometimes it informs risk-taking with this organization, not that the organization was risk-averse previously. It wasn’t. It’s challenged us to be even more ambitious and perhaps be a little more comfortable with even a little more risk in our role as leaders or at least in partnership in leadership.

I know how hard you work to build that sense of community. One of the things we hear a lot about in the sector is the competition among organizations. You use words like colleagues and community and not competitors. How much do you think that plays into that view of Pacific Opera as a real partner and leader of the community?

It’s a critical aspect of our culture. I will also say many of these organizations in Victoria see themselves as well as colleagues and partners, not as competitors. That’s not always the case, but I recognized the collective accomplishment of this arts community for developing a level of collegiality and responsibility to one another. I saw that play out in December when this organization was struggling with changes at its core facility, the Royal Theatre. What happened were the arts organizations, the symphony, the Dance Victoria and Pacific Opera developed a user group. All the other arts organizations who use the Royal Theatre are gathering here at the Baughman Center to discuss and learn more. Arts organizations like The Belfry Theatre who have no direct stake in the Royal Theatre are writing letters to mayors and council. You see arts leadership across the community in support of the greater good for the arts in this community. Where credit’s due, this is a community that has worked hard to develop an arts community and recognizes if we can grow one sector of our arts community, then we can grow the entire arts ecology in this city.

When you first became CEO, if you can take yourself back a couple of years ago, what advice did you get about working with the board? What were your expectations? You were in the company, you knew the board and you knew the organization inside and out. To move from the director of artistic administration to CEO, that is only one small step on the org chart, but a big step in terms of overall responsibility. How did you approach that with the board?

My predecessor gave a great deal of time to his relationships with the board, but also with the broader community of advisors, many of who are donors and funders but in the arts community. Until I moved into this role, I never understood the degree to which that was an avenue for personal and organizational growth and development. The most satisfying aspect of this job is the collaboration with community leaders, many of whom sit on our board. That collaboration and learning have allowed me personally to grow, but also enabled the organization to change and to develop in meaningful ways in a short period of time. Looking at a board of directors as an employer or as a governor is not a helpful methodology. We need to see these community leaders as our collaborators and it continues to deliver so much to my personal experience as a CEO to have these wise people for whom they commit so much time, talent, treasure and intelligence to the betterment of the art form and the community. I rely on them daily and almost hourly. I try and be in regular contact with people. I’m seeing members of my board multiple times a week. That’s not always possible in big cities, but in Victoria, it’s possible. I seize every opportunity I can.

You touched on two big challenges in governing any social profit organization. The first one is having the issues the board is talking about. Be relevant and meaningful to the issues you and your senior management team are talking about. Be reflective of the work people in the organization are doing on a day-to-day basis. It sounds you found a way to keep all of that nicely connected. The second piece you noticed in there was on unlocking the power of boards because we often see in organizations intelligent, great and successful people coming around a board table three, four, five, eight times a year for a board meeting. They’re having some reports read at them, asking one or two questions and then going away until the next meeting and not getting the benefit of their expertise, not getting the richness of their wisdom. How do you make sure you continue to keep getting that out of your board on a daily or weekly basis?

Part of it is establishing the expectation of being a board member with this organization. We do that with a robust orientation but also with a memorandum of understanding that we enter into with our board members. There’s a culture that’s evolved here and then these documents and procedures allow us to help sustain and motivate that culture, which is a culture of engagement. Attending eight board meetings a year is not the least a board member could do. There is no board member who does only that. We create far more opportunities for engagement with the organization than attending eight board meetings. That’s done through the typical committees and task forces. Task forces are a favorite tool of mine because you can bring four or five people together to solve a unique challenge or address a specific opportunity.

You can meet once, twice or seven times and then close it down. You don’t even need to take your terms of reference away from the napkin you originally scribbled them on. We also involve them intensely with public engagement. We’re a public organization. We’re producing dozens of events every year where we’re gathering as a community, where we’re convening community. Our expectation is board members are participating in those public convenings as much as they possibly can. We try and create a role for them in those public convening. By role, it can be as simple as hosting, greeting people or work in a room. It can be as significant as leading a fundraising task force to raise $2.5 million. It’s everything in between. We create these opportunities for our board members to engage both with us, but also with the community. It instills a culture of engagement. It propels philanthropy. It creates endless opportunities for myself as a CEO to engage with these people and draw from them their expertise and their perspectives.

At Discovery Group, we talk a lot about board alignment. Your organization is unique in how connected the individual board members are to the work of the organization and to the health of the organization. It’s impressive to see. As a first-year CEO, when you get into the job, what percentage of your time do you think you spent with managing or working with the board versus what you do now?

60% of my time when I first started this job, because of all the board functions in the governance of the organization, but also the need to launch a new strategic plan and process, and also the ultimate need to launch some new fundraising initiatives. This is a fundraising board and governance board. It created a lot of opportunities. The majority of my time was spent engaging with that board and other key advisors who may not sit on the board but who play similar roles.

What would that percentage be now?

We’re in a moment where I’m trying to give some of my board members a break because I worked my board chair too hard. Not that he wasn’t up for it, he was up for it but I am actively trying to pull back. These people are important to me and they’ve accomplished so much I want them to have a moment like I do to enjoy the fruits of their work. I’d say that’s been reduced down to 40%, 30%.

You have a great working relationship with not only your board chair, but the rest of your board. What question do you wish the board asked you that they often don’t?

That’s a great question and I don’t have an answer for it. I’m going to take that as a challenge, if I can. If I can take that as a challenge, I’ll email you an answer.

It’s often the case when CEOs are sitting there working with boards and like, “Why don’t they ask me about this? Why aren’t they engaging in the issues as I see them or an issue they’re not seeing?” It speaks how well-aligned you are that you don’t have an immediate answer to that.

I know my staff. My director of finance often says, “Why aren’t they asking about expenses?” My answer is, “We are transparent. The expense controls are robust. Why would they need to wade into the details?” If our controls were lax and our expense reporting was wildly off-base, and they’d want to know more. It’s not a question I ask myself, but I know for my director of finance she wonders that sometimes.

She probably wonders it because she has the answers at the ready. She wants the chance to share them.

In some organizations, the culture that evolves is boarded can see themselves as the court of sober second thought, to use a phrase you’ve brought into my vernacular, and to see them a little bit as in a parenting role. I can’t imagine that. I’ve not had encountered that. I can see how that might evolve in certain organizations to the detriment of management, I would imagine.

You started this role a couple of years ago. You’ve done an incredibly deep dive on your strategic plan. You’ve completed a successful capital campaign. What are you looking forward to now? What’s next?

There’s another campaign in our future where we are a fundraising organization. I’m excited about working with the organization to conceive of the next big evolution for the organization in the art form in this community. I’m excited about the work I’m doing with our major partners, Dance Victoria and the Victoria Symphony as it relates to our shared performing arts venue. There’s a great opportunity in this community to reframe the role of arts infrastructure in this city and the future of arts infrastructure in this city. Almost by accident we find ourselves at a moment of inflection as a community. I’m excited about the coming year of conversation around that subject.

What’s next on the stage?

Next on stage is the Canadian premiere of Countess Maritza, Kalman’s Operetta and a confection of fun, comedy, romance and hilarity. It’s in time for the cherry blossoms and the sunshine we all need a hit of this spring.

Ian, thank you so much for being with us on the show.

Thanks, Doug, for the opportunity.

All the best to you and your organization. We’ll talk to you soon. Take care.

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About Ian Rye

Chief Executive Officer Ian Rye has been with Pacific Opera Victoria since 2006, serving as Director of Production and Director of Artistic Administration before becoming CEO in 2016.

During his time at POV, Ian has participated in the creation of more than three dozen new productions, the marked enhancement of production scope and scale, and the expansion of artist training education and outreach activities. He has taken a leadership role in orchestrating co-productions and collaborations and in the creation of the Baumann Centre.

Ian is also an experienced theatre and opera designer, with a practice that includes work in scenery, lighting, and sound. His designs have played at notable stages across Canada. His designs for POV include the world première of Mary’s WeddingAriadne auf Naxos and South Pacific in concert.