After two tough years, the outdoor venue has a new Executive Director at the helm
Hosting a resident orchestra as well as nationally recognized traveling acts (oh, hello, Norah Jones), Britt Fest is a cornerstone of culture in southern Oregon. For the past decade, the organization has been managed by the same Executive Director. But late last year, Abby McKee was hired to take the helm. After two years of pandemic shutdowns and restrictions, and growing concerns about forest fire-choked air quality, the venue does not lack for challenges. Nor, though, does Britt Fest lack for resolve in its operations and stunning beauty in its Jacksonville outdoor venue.
The Messenger was curious about the new Executive Director.
Rogue Valley Messenger: I understand that you had a full-ride scholarship at University of South Caroline as a flutist and attended San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where you completed a Master of Music. When did you make a choice to run music organizations, as opposed to being a musician?
AM: Quick note: I did my Master’s at Rice University, then an Artist Diploma at the SF Conservatory. After I finished my post-graduate work at the SF Conservatory, I was living in San Francisco, which I adored. I accepted my first administrative position at San Francisco Ballet as a way to pay my rent (at least, in part; I was teaching flute lessons and playing gigs on the side to afford living in San Francisco). Over time, I fell in love with arts administration. It was—and continues to be—a way for me to be really creative while also working with musicians and artists of all stripes! I also love that arts administration gives me the chance to spend a lot of time with our patrons, understanding more about how the arts can serve communities. That is the work of my heart.
RVM: For the past five years, you have been the Executive Director for the Portland Baroque Orchestra—and done a great job increasing revenue. The Britt Fest is both an orchestra and a music venue with pop and rock acts like ZZ Top and Nora Jones coming through. Are there unique challenges managing a venue with touring acts?
AM: As a nonprofit organization, Britt is driven by our mission: to create a sense of discovery and community through diverse live performances and our incomparable orchestra, all at our intimate and scenic venue. This diversity of performances gives us the chance to serve an enormous community of music lovers! It also challenges us to constantly learn and evolve through feedback from our artists and audiences. It’s also just good business to give more people the chance to buy tickets to shows they really love.
Our schedule requires huge human resources to make it all happen. Our workforce grows exponentially in the summer months. Our people are our greatest asset, so recruiting the best possible team is a big priority, as is supporting them through the breathtaking workload of loading shows in and out all summer. I’m really grateful to have such an awesome team.
RVM: One of the other challenges has been smoke from wild fires.
AM: This is one of the largest challenges facing Britt, alongside all outdoor performance venues and—let’s be clear—all of us. I’m new enough on the job that I am still working to learn as much as I can about the nuances of our specific situation. I look forward to sharing concrete plans with you as we make them.
RVM: Where is organization strongest, and where needs some bolstering?
AM: Britt is an extraordinary organization with so many strengths. As I look to our future, I’m excited to see where we can leverage technology to serve our audiences. Over the last two years of pandemic life, the world has fundamentally changed in how we consume culture, and I’m eager to explore how Britt can attract new audiences with technology. I’m also looking forward to learning from the wonderful Rogue Valley community how you would like to see Britt evolve in the years to come. We are only as strong as the community that loves us, and it’s clear that many of you are heavily invested in Britt’s future.