When Los Angeles Philharmonic Chief Executive Deborah Borda departs the symphony in September to take the helm at the New York Philharmonic, she will leave behind a much different orchestra than the one she joined in 2000 – three years before the opening of the iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall and seven years before the hiring of Venezuelan wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel, then 26, as music director. During her 17 years running the LAPhil, Borda, 67, balanced the books every year and oversaw the largest orchestra budget in the nation as she increased it to $120 million from $46 million. She is also credited with boosting the nonprofit’s endowment to $276 million from less than $40 million upon her arrival from New York. While declining to reveal her New York salary, Borda confirmed a New York Times report that she received $1.7 million in total compensation in 2015, though she called the figure misleading because a “significant portion” comes from retirement funding.
People call you one of L.A.’s most powerful arts fundraisers. What’s your secret?
People always see finances as the disease, but in fact it is really the result of many other issues. (There was a) perception the Philharmonic had removed itself from the heart of the community, was elite, and not successful. It was critical to spend time reimagining the institution. What we undertook concurrent with fundraising was reimagining the Phil and providing an artistic and institutional vision for the LAPhil that excited people.
But there was more to it than changing the image, right?
The institution needed to profoundly overhaul its business practices. It was not at the top of its game selling tickets, controlling its finances, or doing long-range budgeting or strategic planning. You can’t do fundraising unless you put those other things into place.
What was the organization doing wrong?
One of the real problems for the Philharmonic was they were very slow to come out of the gate. They didn’t have a development department until the late ’80s, early ’90s, which is outrageous. It was just a real abrogation of responsibility.
What was your pitch to the L.A. community for support?
It was to show them a strategic plan – a road map to recovery with quantifiable goals. People respond to that. When we opened Walt Disney Concert Hall, we opened with a week of free one-hour concerts for the community. Before we did our big galas, we had almost 18,000 people in that hall – (Los Angeles Unified School District) teachers, the people that built the hall, volunteers. We didn’t just say we were integrating ourselves into the fabric of the community, we did it. That continues with our work in education.
Those programs must interest donors.
Educational money is always the easiest money you’ll raise.
Are you taking Dudamel with you?
No, I am not. His contract is solid through 2022. It’s great to work with people who are younger than you. I have learned so much from Gustavo. We focus on the artistic imperative, but there is also a social imperative, and that’s critical in the 21st century, finding the intersection of those two things.
How do you market the Philharmonic to millennials?
The tectonic plates have shifted. This is very much an on-demand society; they don’t buy six Thursday nights (in advance). You have to reorient how you reach out to people in this very digital world. And when they get to the concert, they have to feel some form of interaction and excitement.
What is your advice to the next leader of the L.A. Philharmonic?
Have fun, work hard, and be passionate.
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