Dr. Penny Brandt offers this report on the recent Symposium in Dallas:

Dr. Penny Brandt

The “Women in Classical Music Symposium” hosted by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra was held this week at the Morton Meyerson Symphony Center in downtown Dallas, Texas. Organizers included President and CEO of the DSO Kim Noltemy, Manager of Strategic Initiatives Sarah Whitling, and Director of Contemporary & SOLUNA Programs Gillian Friedman Fox, along with a whole team of staff that participated in panels, luncheons, and receptions to facilitate connections and networking between attendees. Speakers included the renowned American soprano Dawn Upshaw and rising-star conductor Gemma New, who is currently the principal guest conductor of the DSO. The majority of the speakers were CEOs, Executive Directors, Founders, and Presidents of non-profit arts organizations: President and Founder of Primo Artists Charlotte Lee, El Sistema’s President & CEO Katie Wyatt, Boulanger Initiative co-founders Laura Colgate and Joy-Leilani Gilbert, Tanglewood Music Center Director Ellen Highstein, and President and CEO of the Texas Women’s Foundation Roslyn Dawson Thompson. The handful of academics represented were also leaders and innovators — Susan Etheredge is Dean of the College and VP for Campus Life at Smith College, and Fleurette Fernando is the founding Director of the MA Program in Arts Leadership at the University of Houston. What an incredible gathering of smart, ambitious, and powerful women in the arts! It was unlike any conference I’ve ever attended.

Still, I felt a bit defensive when Kim Noltemy described it as the first “Women in Classical Music Symposium” in the United States, because I’ve been to many “conferences or meetings to discuss a particular subject” (dictionary definition of symposium) where that “particular subject” is women in classical music. Just this summer, I attended the 15th biennial Feminist Theory and Music Conference in Boston, which was held in collaboration with the International Alliance for Women in Music (the IAWM and its antecedents have been holding conferences since the late 1970s).  As Artistic Director of the Women Composers Festival of Hartford (founded in 2001), I curated a Women Composers Forum for five years. Through that work, I became friends with feminist musicologists like Dr. Liane Curtis and Dr. Liz Wood, who spoke animatedly about the marathons of classical music by women composers and the conferences they attended in their youth. Even more alarming was the tendency at the DSO symposium for speakers to associate “women composers” (and women in music generally) with newness, as though though unaware that women have been enthusiastic participants in music for thousands of years — a truth that feminist musicologists have been working to bring into classrooms for decades.

I expressed my discomfort with this idea of “newness” to Sarah Greenman, Director of Operations at StateraArts, as we stood sipping (free) champagne and munching on charming cucumber-and-hummus hors d’oeuvres in one of the lobbies at Morton Meyerson Symphony Hall, with its marble walls and floors and beautiful artwork. “Yes,” she said. (She knows; she’s a theatre person and nonprofit guru who has been guiding arts entrepreneurs for years through her work at StateraArts.) “But, here we are in an I. M. Pei building. Look at this place. Look at who is here. This is new.”

Zenetta Drew, Executive Director of the Dallas Black Dance Theatre, gave many insightful pieces of advice during her time in a panel dedicated to “Lifting Up the Next Generation of Women”: Be willing to take risks. Be willing to make mistakes (because failure is learning). Own your power. Ms. Drew has done incredible things in her life, including earning a B.B.A. in Accounting from East Texas State University in a time when she was the only Black woman in her class. During her eleven years of accounting and management at ARCO Oil and Gas Co., she was often the only woman in the room and the only person of color in the room. She knows a thing or two about being the “first and only,” and she encouraged all of us (but particularly Black women) to embrace that title and “learn to be comfortable with the solo journey.”

The 2019–2020 concert season marks the 100th anniversary of the passing and ratification of the 19th amendment, which guarantees (or at least attempted to guarantee) all American women the right to vote. And yet, we are still in a time of firsts for women. Gemma New is the first woman to serve as principal guest conductor at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. The organization has never had a woman serve as music director and has few women of color in any positions at all. I don’t mean to pick on the DSO; the numbers are bad everywhere, and their symposium showed that the organization is determined to intentionally move toward inclusion. How many other organizations of this size are putting this much time and money into supporting women as leaders? Any?

I spoke with attorney Joanne Bober, who serves on Boards for a number of arts organizations, including the Dallas Symphony. She noted that the symposium raised a lot of questions, but offered few answers on subjects of how to balance work with parenting in a culture where parenting isn’t supported, how to convince the (mostly male) artistic directors of places like the NY Metropolitan Opera the importance of allowing women (and other marginalized groups) to tell their own stories, and how to teach brilliant women to a sense of self-assuredness to the (usually still) men who make the hiring decisions.

What answers the symposium had to offer seemed to come, not in the big panel sessions, but in the one-on-one interactions that developed in the time the symposium set aside for mentorship. Mentorship was a theme in all of the panels, but the symposium held a special “mentor/mentee speed-dating” session that emphasized its importance. Mentees lined up on one side of a table and mentors on the other. We each spent about ten minutes talking one-on-one with six new people. When the event was announced, I signed up as a Mentee. Sure, I’ve been working as an Arts Administrator and Feminist Musicologist for about a decade now, but I’m in a time of transition and hoped to find my own mentor! Gillian Friedman Fox grabbed me and asked me to be a mentor — along with a few other folks who had signed up as mentees — because there were just too many mentees. (Women desperate for answers and afraid to embrace our power, here we were, in droves.) I met two high school students and several undergrad or graduate students looking to find their way in the arts. They asked me questions about what summer programs to go to and how to start a classical music festival in Malaysia. I surprised myself by having responses to everything. Not answers, necessarily, but advice on who to talk to and how to find answers they were looking for. Later, I thought about how to apply my own advice to myself and the ideas that I’ve let lie dormant in my head.

I also found my mentors. Fleurette Fernando talked to me about parenting and just “keeping a toe in” the world of music and management even as I feel consumed by motherhood. “You won’t regret the time you spent with your son,” she told me. Joanne Bober encouraged me to exude confidence when talking to people who can give me a job. “Vent to a friend, your parent, partner, spouse. Tell them you don’t feel like you can do the job. And then when you’re in the room with the man who is doing the hiring, you just tell him ‘I will run myself into a wall to get this job done. You don’t tell him you feel under-qualified.’” I talked to Sarah Greenman about starting a chapter of StateraArts in Austin to bring mentors and mentees together, and I appreciated her approach to both being a mentor and a mentee at the same time. Everyone has something to give, and everyone needs someone to encourage them.

Thanks to the DSO and Kim Noltemy and the team for providing the space and the structure for these relationships to develop. I walked away feeling empowered and inspired by a community of ambitious and accomplished individuals.