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Chairman Virginia Braden wins 2021 ISPA Angel Award

How does it feel to win the 2021 The International Society for the Performing Arts (ISPA) Angel Award?

When I found out that I had been nominated for the Award I was pretty surprised, the nomination would have been terrific in itself. I was then amazed when I heard that the Board of ISPA was actually going to award it to me. It’s such an unexpected honour; I was thrilled to receive it.

The ISPA Angel Award is “presented to an individual or organisation which has demonstrated a significant and lasting contribution to the support of the performing arts which transcends the boundaries of one country or institution, and merits international recognition”. The award was presented at a virtual ceremony which was part of the ISPA annual New York congress on 15 January.

 

With this award, you are in illustrious company Australian and international. How do you feel Australian Arts leaders such as you compare to international Arts leaders? Do we have to do more to be noticed and recognised? 

The other Australians to have received it since 1989 are James Wolfensohn (past President of the World Bank 1995–2005 and Chairman of Carnegie Hall, NY and the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Centre in Washington amongst many other things) who died 26 November last year; and the Myer family who have been major philanthropists of the Arts. It’s very humbling to be in their company.

Australia has some really fine Arts leaders. Going back into the past I am thinking about Jean Battersby who was instrumental in setting up the Australia Council, supported strongly by Nugget Coombs. I am thinking of others like Frank Barnes and Lloyd Martin who ran the Sydney Opera House so creatively over many years; George Fairfax who ran the Victorian Arts Centre for a number of years. There’s Mary Vallentine who has held so many of the major arts jobs, Tim Walker who headed up the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) and then was both CEO and Artistic Director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra; and Moffatt Oxenbould who was Artistic Director of Opera Australia for many years. They stand comparison with anyone at a high level worldwide.

But Australia is a smaller Arts world and the scale in most areas of the Arts does not compare with Europe, USA or UK. Our budgets are a lot smaller, and Government support for the arts is a fraction of that of say Germany. It is not easy to persuade our politicians that the Arts should be more comprehensively funded. Our population, therefore our ticket-buying community, is smaller. I still think we more than pull our weight. Our festivals are known throughout the world. Orchestras such as the ACO are always praised when touring overseas, our artists (for example, singers) are working all over the world in opera companies and concert halls at a very high level. We’ve produced the “three Joans” (Joan Hammond, Joan Carden and Joan Sutherland) who had major international opera careers, and many of our instrumentalists are playing with the major orchestras of the world.

I certainly feel that our achievements could be more widely promoted worldwide, especially in the media to make sure that people know what is going on in Australia and what we have to offer. This news gets out a bit, but mostly by accident rather than planning. Online channels like YouTube and social media make circulation of information a lot easier than it used to be.

I think it would be very useful to have a small secretariat of international arts ambassadors who really worked with overseas presenters and promoters and tried to make connections to get more international work for our companies and performers. Ideally this should be positioned within the Australia Council – and maybe they do some of this – but it is not really visible.

Your whole career has been dedicated to the Arts, including The Sydney since its inception. What other organisations have you worked for and supported?

I was brought up in a family very keen on all the arts and music in particular. My mother played the piano and we three kids all studied various instruments and in my case ballet was a passion.

My first job in the Performing Arts was the management of the first Sydney International Piano Competition. Prior to that I had worked for four years with a small multi-disciplinary group of people concerned with shelter for Aborigines, especially in remote areas. That had an artistic component but not in the area of performance.

Between the first and second competitions in 1977 and 1981 respectively, I worked as Concert Manager at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and then was appointed Deputy Director of the Australian Music Centre. Sadly, this position didn’t last long as the Music Centre ran out of money and I was retrenched. It was at this point that I took the plunge set up my own firm, Arts Management Pty Ltd which I ran for nearly 30 years. In the early days I did quite a few research projects for the Australia Council, also concert tours and various projects. Eventually Arts Management developed two main streams – artist management for nearly 200 conductors, instrumentalists, singers, directors, designers and lighting designers, and also many arts management projects including administering the Miles Franklin Literary Award for about 16 years, the Portia Geach Portrait Prize for Women and many other music, theatre and visual arts projects.

As my ownership crept up to 30 years I passed Arts Management Pty Ltd on to the two senior people who worked with me, Graham Pushee and Judith Alexander. Judith has now retired and Graham is the sole owner. I have been incredibly impressed with how he has run it and proud that it is now 43 years old – a milestone for an organisation that never received any government or public funding.

Who inspired you in your Arts career? Was there any salient advice or guidance that you received that has stayed with you?

My attitude to my professional life has been “hold my nose and dive in the deep end”! Looking back on it, I don’t know how I had the audacity to tackle some of the things that I did. I was helped by the fact that in those early days there was only one other artist management in Australia, Jenifer Eddy in Melbourne, and there was an opportunity. I had to work very hard to find out how to do some things and I was lucky that my clients and many presenters were tolerant of my weaknesses. I have to say that some organisations were skeptical, like the ABC, which in those days ran all the orchestras and was responsible for a very large percentage of Australia’s concert presentation, was very reluctant to deal with artist managers. The ABC’s Music department believed it didn’t need anyone to represent artists and they didn’t want to deal with me. Of course, they usually just told performers what their terms and conditions were going to be for performances and very few artists challenged this – they were glad to get the work. Negotiation of fees was, by and large, unheard of. Eventually the ABC came round as more and more artists turned to having management.

I set about making my work as international as possible, right from the outset, and in the end about half my clients were overseas artists. I also immediately wanted to plug into the organisations which had artist managers as members – this led me to the British Association of Concert Agents. When more international managers wanted to join, this body later became the International Artist Managers’ Association for which later I served as Deputy Chairman and then Chairman.

 

What inspires your philanthropic spirit? What do you hope to achieve by supporting artists and the Arts?

In my case the ISPA Angel Award was not given for my philanthropy. Although I have always given time pro bono to serve on various boards, I have only even been able to give very small financial donations to a very limited number of organisations and projects which I strongly believed in.

I have given quite a bit of my time to serving on many boards including Opera Australia, NIDA, Song Company, the Australasian Classical Music Managers Association, Craft Australia, the Seymour Group, Pinchgut Opera and now incredibly as you know, The Sydney. I have always believed in giving back.

 

Are there notable characters along the way who have made the career colourful?

Characters who have been important in my life have been the late James Murdoch who was the first Director of the Australian Music Centre. He was larger than life, incredibly creative, a bit mad, an author, an internationalist and above all a big supporter of Australian music and musicians, especially composers. Working with him was an inspiration and he was a great friend.

I have learnt from so many others – really too numerous to list.

My friend and colleague Australian Jenny Vogel who lives in Los Angeles and has been an artist manager for many years, first in London and then US, has shown me a lot over the years. Many other fine artist managers have been inspirational including David Sigall, former Director of the well-known London office Ingpen & Williams. There’s Terry Harrison, formerly with Harrison Parrott agency, and my first two clients – conductor Stuart Challender who became Chief of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and the outstanding pianist Stephen Kovacevich, both of whom were prepared to take a punt on a novice artist manager. Others such as Simone Young  Barrie Kosky, Michael Scott-Mitchell, Nick Schlieper all have provided inspiration and colour to my life.

 

Especially in this current age when the Arts has been so damaged by COVID-19, what would you say to others to inspire a life of working in and contributing to the Arts? What hope for the future?

There is enormous hope for the future. I think Australia has a long way to go but the things to go for are EXCELLENCE, RISK TAKING and just coping with creating the best possible programs with the budget in hand. Sure the Government seems incapable to seeing how much benefit it could get from a stronger financial support of the Arts, but no one should spend too much time worrying about that. Everyone just has to get on and let the creative juices flow.

We have seen enormous evidence of this during COVID-19. Look at all the online product which has been inspiring. Look at how arts organisations and companies of all kinds have worked to stay afloat. I’ve never been prouder to be working in the Arts than I have been in this very difficult period. It has inspired a lot of creativity and originality.