Member Spotlight: Donna Briggs

Posted by Linda Lombardi, Jan 11, 2021 0 comments

Located in the historic 1850s gold rush town of Jacksonville, Oregon, Britt Music & Arts Festival is the Pacific Northwest's premier outdoor summer performing arts festival. Since 1963, Britt has annually presented dozens of summer concerts, featuring world-class artists in classical music, jazz, blues, folk, bluegrass, world, pop, and country music. President and CEO Donna Briggs oversees a full-time staff of 14 and seasonal staff of 45, manages the operations of a four-month summer music festival, and maintains relationships with internal and external stakeholders along with future supporters.

Donna BriggsYou’ve been with Britt since 2010, first as development director, then executive director, and now president and CEO. How have you seen the organization change in the past decade?

I served as development director for one year, prior to taking on the leadership role, and that gave me a tremendous advantage. I was able to view the landscape and experience the culture as a co-worker, and not as a boss. That experience helped inform my decisions.

In the early years, the size of the board of directors was reduced from 24 to 12 and the board composition changed from 90% male to 50%/50% male/female. Reorganization was required to streamline operations. For instance, we outsourced our in-house CPA and some functions of our marketing department.

Under the leadership of Teddy Abrams since 2014, the Britt Festival Orchestra has achieved new artistic heights. With a renewed emphasis on commissioning and performing works by living composers, skillfully blended with masterworks of classical canon, the ensemble has found new relevance in the community we serve. Our unique outdoor venue provides both the opportunity and catalyst to explore the relationship between music and nature, and we've taken advantage of this via special projects that take the orchestra far outside the traditional concert hall.

In recent years, Britt has collaborated with more than 30 other arts, community, and educational organizations throughout the southern Oregon region. In 2016, Britt began a partnership with Crater Lake National Park and commissioned composer Michael Gordon to write a Crater Lake-inspired piece in celebration of the National Park Service’s centennial. The piece, titled Natural History, included 40 members of the Britt Festival Orchestra, 15 members of Steiger Butte Drum from the Klamath Tribes, brass and percussion students from Southern Oregon University, and a 50-voice choir. Imagine over 100 musicians performing with Crater Lake as the backdrop: it was quite the sight and sound to behold!

As importantly, Britt’s education programs have taken on a life of their own. The Residency Program has expanded annually. These in-school music visits serve kindergarten through graduate level students in our region. Residencies range from a single school visit to five days of presentations, master classes, and individual lessons, including multiple visits over the course of several weeks to deepen learning at local schools. We pride ourselves on offering these visits to regional schools at no cost to the schools themselves.

Britt produces and presents music and education that is varied, enjoyable, and attainable. The seasons are about expressing the culture of the whole community and finding appreciation in our connections to its diversity.

In addition to COVID-19, you also experienced a summer of wildfires and smoke in the region. How have you navigated those challenges and stayed engaged with your audiences?

Over the past seven years, Britt has endured smoke, weather delays, blackouts, and now a pandemic. Today, we understand that our new reality will have long-term implications for our venue. Britt operates under a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) that allows us to have concerts spanning from mid-June to mid-September.

Because of 2021 COVID-19 uncertainty, Britt applied to the Jacksonville City Council to allow us to operate until mid-October. This request was approved December 1. This extension will offer significant programming opportunities and revenue creation for our entire community. The extension will also serve as unifying and stabilizing forces for our region, both culturally and economically.

This summer, our staff pulled together a fantastic virtual season. We brought the unique Britt Festival magic of music, people, and nature into our patron’s homes. The virtual engagement included BrittVids, a video series for kids featuring regional musicians and our BrittKids Koncerts. In addition, some of our favorite recordings from the past five years of the Britt Festival Orchestra performances streamed on our Facebook page in July and August. These included Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture and Michael Gordon's Natural History, the piece we premiered at Crater Lake in 2016. The recordings were introduced with discussions about the works among members of the orchestra and Music Director Teddy Abrams.

The Britt Orchestra entertains a crowd during the 2019 season. Photo by Jay Neuman, courtesy Britt Music & Arts Festival.

What would you say is your primary responsibility as Britt’s president and CEO?

As president and CEO, I am a generalist—a jack-of-all-trades, if you will. Most importantly, I am responsible for taking in everything around me. I analyze all the moving parts of the organization to understand it, interpret it, and advocate for it. I present whatever “it” is so that the staff, board, and stakeholders can respond in ways that move our vision and mission forward.

It is a job that only the designated leader can do because everybody else in the organization is focused much more narrowly, and for the most part, in one direction. Often, I can see connections and opportunities that others do not see and make the judgments along with the tough calls that others are not in a position to make. At the end of the day, I am the only one held accountable for the organization—not just our own goals but also by the measures and standards of diverse and often competing internal and external priorities. 

What are you most looking forward to in 2021 for Britt Music Festival?

Since returning from furlough in September, we have marched forward with a fervent belief that next summer will see the return of music on the Hill. While the short-term challenges are obvious, we are optimistic long-term. With an effective vaccine on the horizon, and our season kick-off being more than six months away, live music in 2021 looks very promising.

When the staff and board ask me when I think it will be safe to return to music on the Hill, all I can say is that everyone is going to be ready to gather and enjoy music as soon as possible. Now more than ever, we should be lifting up our community with positive and encouraging messages. We believe that next summer will be a celebration of unity and resilience through the sound of live music.

How has being a member of Americans for the Arts aided you in your work with the Festival?

The resources available through Americans for the Arts are unlimited. It is one-stop shopping and my “go to” place for performing arts resources, training, and networking.

Americans for the Arts Membership

This series features the many Americans for the Arts members doing transformative work for arts education, public art, advocacy, arts marketing, and more. An Americans for the Arts Membership connects you with this network of more than 6,000 arts leaders and gives you access to latest professional development and research. You can become a member by visiting us online, sending an email to [email protected], or calling 202.371.2830.

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