" /> Guest Blog - Making Lemonade: Local Advocacy During a Pandemic

Guest Blog - Making Lemonade: Local Advocacy During a Pandemic

By Anna James Miller, Executive Director, San Luis Obispo Symphony

After over a decade in arts leadership roles in Washington State, I became captivated by California’s Central Coast and decided to take the plunge and relocate my family. In February 2020 I accepted the role of Executive Director of San Luis Obispo Symphony. Like most, I had absolutely no idea that a global pandemic was merely weeks away from shattering our industry and the livelihoods of thousands in our field.

A month later, I flew from SeaTac to SLO on a mostly-empty plane. A few passengers wore masks. I stared and wondered if they knew something I didn’t. I attended the Symphony’s concert “Sounds Like Home,” sitting among a sparsely attended audience listening to my new orchestra fill the hall with thrilling familiar repertoire skillfully interpreted by Music Director Andrew Sewell. I later learned this was (on paper) a sold-out concert. I could feel in the air a sense of impending change and something catastrophic happening in the world around me. The next week, Governor Newsom announced a shelter at home order and I began navigating the many steps involved in an out-of-state household move, marveling at the novelty of being able to begin aspects of my new job early thanks to Zoom.

As COVID shutdowns progressed and began impacting arts organizations globally, I realized that SLO Symphony and all the arts organizations in the region could face devastating losses as a direct result. As we all know, the performing arts were the first industry to shut down and will be among the last to reopen. I was fortunate through my Seattle Opera connections to already know another arts leader in town - Chris Miller, Managing Director of the Performing Arts Center San Luis Obispo (no relation, haha) - another Washington transplant like myself. Chris and I began emailing about our respective organizations, how COVID could impact them, and eventually the topic emerged of other arts groups in town and the impacts on their survival.

We realized there was no forum for all the performing arts leaders in the region to converse, collaborate, and cross-promote. In April 2020, as Broadway along with venues worldwide shut down, the Central Coast Coalition of Arts Leaders was born. I’ve been told by some that this is a very “Seattle” way to do things - getting everyone together in the room (or Zoom in this case), sharing our concerns and challenges, and arriving at mutually-beneficial collaborative solutions. We didn’t start with advocacy in mind, but within a year that’s where we landed.

As the first event cancellations began to decimate our ticket sales, the topic of patron perception was on our minds. With so many conflicting messages from the media, epidemiologists, doctors, and social media, we realized that just because our elected officials decided what was and was not allowed, didn’t mean that our audience would return in “normal” droves when they were allowed to. The Coalition decided to launch a periodic patron survey, which was distributed to over 30,000 households in SLO County who attended any of our participating venues in the last two years. Results from these surveys continue to benefit local organizations and arts event producers as we prepare for our return to the stage this fall.

It was fairly early in the pandemic when our production team had the idea to create virtual concerts. This proved challenging, as the state and county guidelines at that time expressly prohibited recording groups of musicians - indoors or outdoors. Through repeated conversations and emails with county officials, I felt like a “squeaky wheel” causing annoyance to the Health Officer I’d been assigned, but not making much difference or headway on the issue of changing these prohibitive guidelines. I began noticing unsanctioned performances and recordings taking place around the county. I realized there was a lack of clarity among artists and arts producers about what the guidelines were, and little or even no consequences to violating the guidelines. Rather than continuing my fruitless efforts pestering local officials, I turned my attention to a Coalition-centered letter writing campaign to state and local officials. We gained signatures from board members, winery owners, supporters, and well-connected established arts producers in the county. The letter got the attention of our county officials and before long we had a pathway forward: recording guidelines we could utilize to create virtual concerts, and which we could publicize to other artists and producers in the area.

Rather than demanding guidelines and a way forward, I believe our success was rooted in positioning the Central Coast Coalition of Arts Leaders as a partner with the County - to help inform those in our field of the standards and guidelines, and help the County understand our sector’s unique needs and contributions to the local community.

Through these advocacy efforts I was invited to join statewide Reopen Arts Safely Task Force (assembled by Californians for the Arts) and serve as a conduit between state and county levels within our arts community. The task force is doing extremely important work - I believe the new state indoor performance guidelines are a direct result of those efforts. This work has helped me feel established in our regional and local arts communities as a newcomer, which has been invaluable in my first year on the job, especially during this time of distancing.

My main lesson learned is that many voices speak louder than one. The media attention we benefited from directly resulted from long-time established leaders in our community leveraging their political, personal, and business connections on behalf of our cause, and from the novelty that we were doing something unheard of: bringing previously - at best disassociated and at worst divisive - arts groups together and collaborating toward a shared cause: saving the performing arts in our region.

About the Author: Executive Director of San Luis Obispo Symphony since May 2020 and Founding Co-Chair of the Central Coast Coalition of Arts Leaders, Anna James Miller is a former professional ballet dancer and dance teacher with over a decade of performing arts leadership experience. The daughter of four-time Grammy Award-winning cellist and composer Eugene Friesen, music has been an integral theme since childhood. Originally from the East Coast, Anna moved to the Seattle area in 2000 and worked for Seattle Opera, Northwest Chamber Orchestra, Spectrum Dance Theatre, Icicle Arts, Icicle Creek Theatre Festival, Federal Way Symphony, Auburn Symphony, Bremerton Symphony, and Kitsap Community Foundation - organizing a regional day of giving raising $2.1M for 327 local nonprofits. With a deep passion for education as well as the arts, Anna taught funding and grant writing for nonprofits at Olympic College’s Business and Technology Division and served as a teaching assistant for graduate and PhD courses in Gonzaga University’s School of Leadership Studies. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in arts administration from University of Massachusetts Amherst, a Master of Arts in organizational leadership from Gonzaga University, and professional certificates in advanced fundraising and grant and proposal writing. Anna was recognized as a community leader in the Wenatchee Business World's 30 Under 35 in 2012 and the Puget Sound Business Journal's 40 Under 40 in 2015. Anna is also a licensed real estate agent with Cypress Properties, lives in Orcutt, CA with spouse Bryan and their toddler Cassidy, and is expecting their second child later this year.

About ACSO's Guest Blog Series: Our membership network is full of incredible people with a wealth of life experiences, talents, and diverse perspectives and backgrounds. We want to share their insights, points of view, and wisdom with all of you, as well as raise the voices of individuals who are making a difference for the classical music field. Our guest blog series features people from different communities throughout California and the western region, from different sizes and types of classical music organizations, and with different jobs and responsibilities. They share what they have learned, express their opinions about the sector, and ask challenging questions that will help us shift our thinking and be better advocates for this art form that we all love.

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