The Business of Music: Jean Davidson on Creativity, Commerce, and L.A.’s Thriving Arts Scene
Filed in: Woman of the Week
In 2015, Jean Davidson packed up her wardrobe of New York black and moved to Los Angeles for a new job: to be President and CEO of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the biggest professional chorus in the United States. As a New Yorker, she had her doubts about Los Angeles’s arts scene, but she’s thrilled to say that her preconceived notions have been thoroughly debunked. We caught up with her about blending art and commerce, learning to love the left coast, and having Yo-Yo Ma as a mentor.
I WAS ALWAYS A SCIENCE AND MATH PERSON, and when I went to Oberlin College, I thought I wanted to be a biology major. Then my advisor asked me, “What do you love?” The question caught me totally off-guard. I said, “The arts.” And he said, “You should major in the arts.” I was afraid I would never be able to sustain myself—the starving artist trope. He said, “If you work really hard and dedicate yourself, you’ll never have to worry about it.” I followed his advice, and I’m really glad I did.
AFTER SCHOOL, I did administrative work in regional theater, and worked at the American Dance Festival for many summers. Then I went back to Oberlin to work at their dance facility, and then I worked in regional theater again. I did a lot of production finance during that period, so I learned how to work with budgets.
MY CAREER TOOK A BIG TURN when I started working as a lighting designer for Yo-Yo Ma in my mid-twenties, and joined him on tours in Europe, Asia, and North America. Yo-Yo has been one of my biggest mentors—people are usually amused by that because he’s a cellist, and I don’t know how to even play an instrument. In 2001, he had this idea to start an organization called the Silk Road Project, and he hired me as the director of finance. Then I became the managing director, running the business side. That was where I learned how to lead. Yo-Yo was instrumental in helping me understand the difference between being a good manager and being a good leader. As a manager, it’s easy to get bogged down in logistics. As a leader, you need to have a vision, even if you have no idea how you’re going to get there—you need to keep your eyes set on the long-term plan.
WORKING ON THE FINANCE SIDE of the arts is fascinating. I’ve found that financial constraints can sometimes be helpful to artists, because they provide boundaries, or guidelines. My creative background in light design allows me to give advice and think like an artist, so I can communicate in their language—I’m not just a numbers person.
MY TRANSITION TO CALIFORNIA was challenging at first. My husband got a job here while I was leading a big initiative at New York Live Arts. It was a major opportunity for me, so we decided that he would come out here and I would finish the merger and then we’d figure it out—either he’d move back to New York, or I’d come out here. Then he got tenure, so it was clear that I was going to land here eventually, but there was a lot of uncertainty about timing, and what I would do here. I didn’t want to take just any job. And then I found this one.
THE LOS ANGELES MASTER CHORALE is the biggest professional chorus in North America, and also one of the oldest. However, a lot of people haven’t heard about it, so I’m trying to change that. I’m focusing on public relations and marketing, as well as cash flow, fundraising, long-term financial planning, and education programs. It’s really stimulating to be able to shift gears throughout the day.
MY SCHEDULE CAN BE DEMANDING. I’m jumping from one thing to the next, and I need to be comfortable. I can’t sit with a cinched waistband, or anything that will crease. When I go to a business lunch, I actually want to eat and breathe and not feel gross afterwards; the Deneuve top is a go-to. I’m out at dinners or other arts events two to three nights a week, and the Tory and the Sarah are both great day-to-evening dresses.
IT’S AN EXCITING time to be in Los Angeles right now. My friends in New York never thought I would move here, but what I’ve found is a thriving arts sector. Angelenos are very open to experimentation and risk-taking. Artists can still afford to live in Los Angeles, whereas in New York, it’s becoming more and more challenging. A lot of New Yorkers have been moving here in the last five or six years—and in a way, the arts scene feels very similar.
LOS ANGELES, AND CALIFORNIA IN GENERAL, is known for being slower-paced, and that is definitely not true! I’m just as busy, if not busier, in Los Angeles than I was in New York. Los Angeles also has the reputation of being cosmetic, with people interested in surface-level things, and that’s also not true at all, in my experience. Los Angeles is also changing in ways that people don’t talk about so much. The metro system is expanding, and people are getting rid of their cars. Not everyone, obviously, but there’s less of a car culture. I’m a horrible driver, and try to drive as little as I possibly can. I get around with Lyft pretty much every day, and it’s great—I’m able to email friends as I go downtown, and a lot of people are doing that now.