Christina Loewen isn’t one to shy away from challenges. As executive director for the Association for Opera in Canada, she has been recognized for her innovative thinking, collaborative leadership and cross-sectoral approach. Over the years, Christina has strengthened finances, designed and delivered new programming and services, and managed expectations of a board of directors.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, brought an entirely new type of challenge to the table for the performing arts leader.
“Those early days in March  when the lockdown first happened, I mean, it was like everything just ground to a complete halt,” Christina said on the Leading With Nice Interview Series podcast. “Nobody knew anything about anything. And, you know, that’s the experience that most people had in the world at this time. No more live performance. Lots of questions, no answers. Lots of confusion.”
She wasted no time in leading the Association for Opera in Canada through the unknown. Christina led policy revisions to improve access and inclusivity through new and affordable membership categories, responded rapidly to job losses by creating the Portfolio Artist Collective, a job creation and skills development program for artists, and created the Emergency Opera Artist Relief Fund.
“Our entire response through the pandemic has been one of deep care,” she said. “That was one of the guiding principles that I wanted to build with that team, to really make sure that they knew that they were responsible for delivering care as well as services.”
Listen to the episode below to hear Christina’s full conversation about her leadership journey through one of the most challenging times of her career.
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Our entire response through the pandemic has been one of deep care. That was one of the guiding principles that I wanted to build with that team, to really make sure that they knew that they were responsible for delivering care as well as services.
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Good day and welcome to the Leading With Nice Interview Series podcast. My name is Mathieu Yuill and as usual, we want to help you inspire others, build loyalty and get results. So today’s guest I wouldn’t ask. I would like probably, oh, maybe a year ago. And it’s like trying to book a celebrity because there’s just so much going on for Christina that, you know, finally now and with 2022, we are finally able to meet up. Christina Loewen is the Executive Director at the Association for Opera in Canada, and she’s been there for 13 years, which in 2022 years is like a hundred years, basically, because nobody stays at one place for that long anymore. I’ve tried to figure out what they have over her, like what is what’s in the closet that the board keeps over? But before that, she toured with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, both domestically and internationally, which must’ve been so cool. And she also served as a director of marketing at Opera Ontario. Christina, thank you so much for taking time to chat with us today.
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Pleasure. Thank you so much for featuring me on the podcast. I’m happy to be here.
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So we worked together on a project last year is how I came to know about you and your team and lots of people that come on this show I’ve had the fortune to work with. So if you’re wondering, that’s how Christina and I came to know each other. Now, the one thing we talked about a lot earlier on this project, we were still in like hardcore pandemic time. You know, nobody was going outside, but you were still leading an association made up of members whose main purpose is public performance. Mm hmm.
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What were you hearing from your members? What? What they need from you? What were you doing? I just. I just love to hear, like many of our members work regionally, you’re coast to coast. So the needs of a of an opera company on the West Coast would be different from one in Montreal. How were you managed? Just tell us. Just tell us. Give us the firehose of information.
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Well, you know, to and even to complicate it, being a national association, health care is provincial, right? So in a health crisis like the pandemic, you know, you might be leading nationally, but you’re telling it through the story of all of the provinces. And, you know, the all of the precautions and everything are have always been, you know, completely or, you know, significantly different from from place to place. So some places might be in lockdown, some not. Some have masks, some don’t. And it’s just this constant changing, evolving situation. But that’s been the soup that we’ve been living in for the past two and a half years. But if you wanted to take a you know, take a journey back to those early days in March when the lockdown first happened, I mean, it was like everything just ground to a complete halt. Nobody knew anything about anything. And, you know, that’s the experience that most people had in the world at this time.
[00:03:23.620] – Speaker 1
No more life performance. You know, lots of questions, no answers, lots of confusion. We as an association sent out a couple of surveys because we said we didn’t really know what’s going on here. We need to know how many how many shows have been cancelled, like who’s who’s on the line, how are people doing? And, you know, what we discovered at that point was actually really alarming at the time. We actually only represented organizations. We only had organizational members. And we thought, you know, let’s let’s see how artists are doing. And so we sent out a survey through our social media so that, you know, we could talk directly to our members because we have their their contact information. But we didn’t have any way to talk to artists. So we we sent out a, a survey through to our social media channels. We had something like over 500 responses. And it was it was very alarming and grim. You know, we found out that, you know, I can’t exactly remember what the stories were, but there was like a significant number of artists that could not meet basic needs, like in the next three weeks.
[00:04:29.050] – Speaker 1
Like it was a very serious, urgent situation. There was a need for immediate cash. Artists are already very precarious in the opera industry. So, you know, with with performances, you know, just completely being cancelled, some being paid out at different percentages, different rate, some at full amount, some farther down the line, just, you know, saying these are being postponed, they’re going to happen. We just don’t know when. So we sprang into action, right? We just thought, what? What can we do? And we thought, you know, we will we have to help. We got to help in any way we can. And we immediately started to focus on opera artists. And one of the first things we did is we created an emergency opera artist relief fund, and we did this like overnight. I’m so proud of the board for this. We were just like, Let’s help artists now. And, and so we just created this fund and like really went to this Google forum and said, Times are tough.
[00:05:25.540] – Speaker 1
I need some money. And then, you know, we were able to, you know, start start sending out payments of, you know, $500 to anybody really who needed it. And that fund is actually still still active today and still goes through its cycles of high demand and, you know, lower demand. And those are we we can track how things are going often in the sector by the applications for the OP Artists Relief Fund.
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I like how you say that. You know, we like spring in action overnight. Like there’s a lot of you, you, there’s you a volunteer board if you’re listening and you’re thinking, Oh, I wish we had the resources to do that kind of thing, just from not financing, but from people being just, you know, the association for Offering kind of did not have the resources either. Like there, you know, people made decisions as to what was important and other priorities were sacrificed to focus on this.
[00:06:20.430] – Speaker 1
Exactly. And, you know, the pandemic hit at a very strange time in the growth trajectory of the association. At the time, we were still called opera dossier, which is actually our founding organizational name, but we were on a growth trajectory. So we had just been notified that we’d had a long overdue increase to our core grants. And what this was allowing us to do was to start building up our human resources. So, yes, I have become accustomed to talking about, you know, the royal we even though for most of the 13 years that I’ve been at AOC, it has been just me as the only full time staff member. Yeah, but because of the increases to our operating grant through special project funding, we got we got so much special project funding for programs that we devised over the pandemic. We’ve been able to build up our staff capacity. So, you know, we have the equivalent of three PhDs, which is actually something like six staff, right, on different sized contracts.
[00:07:21.300] – Speaker 2
So let’s talk about that because I know a lot of people who listen are so low. I say solopreneur is because when you’re the executive director of a non-profit or charity or association, it’s very entrepreneurial. So when you’re in that position and you now it’s time to start thinking about maybe somebody else can join you, maybe a few other people can join you. If somebody came to you said, Christina, I am you two years ago now, just what do I need to think about? Give some advice on like what are some things they should think about and approach and how to go about it? Like, do you just throw up an ad on Charity Village and cross your fingers? Or what? What? How does it work?
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Well, my original plan, I thought we have some extra capacity in our budget. Now I’m going to now I’m going to hire somebody. And so I devised a job description and I did these interviews. And I, you know, I met some amazing people, but things just weren’t quite meshing. And I had something going on in my head. And I was thinking, I have this like just a little germ of an idea. And it just kept growing and growing. And I just kept thinking, I feel like I’m trying to solve a new world problem with an old world solution. You know what I mean? It’s like life is very different right now and I’m trying to grow, you know, or try to build in a way that exists for a world that we we don’t live in anymore. You know, where we’re remote, we’re all working. You know, I’m working from home. I don’t have an office. How am I going to train somebody? You know, what does that look like to onboard somebody?
[00:08:46.290] – Speaker 1
There were so many questions about how to create this new full time staff person. And the idea that I had that was playing around in my mind was that, you know, I had this sum of money, right? It was a, you know, an arts salary. Let’s face it, it wasn’t great, you know, and I thought, you know, I can hire one person and and we can go through this, you know, year or two and, you know, figure things out. And then I thought, but what if and this was my my idea that was cooking in my brain at the time. I was like, what if I take that same amount of money and I use it and create like a cascading spreadsheet that leverages that money right into it? Sounds like a pyramid, a staffing pyramid scheme. But basically I was leveraging that money through the through the cews, the wage subsidy program. So I took that initial position and I was like, how much wage subsidies does this generate?
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And I was like, Oh, it generates, you know, 70%. Okay, what kind of job does that look like? Oh, 30 hours a week. Okay, great. You know, how much wage subsidy does that generate? You know, and then it just kept rolling down and I’m like, oh, that’s a 20 hour a week position, and then here’s a 12 hour a week position. And so I was able to create this structure until it just became like, this is not even a viable work opportunity. I think the smallest one was 12 hours a week, but it actually through that one salary, I was able to create seven positions and I hired seven artists for eight weeks. They spent the summer with us. They called themselves the Portfolio Artists Collective, and they all had different roles and responsibilities, and one of them wrote a grant and secured a $48,000 grant. But. You know, just through that process of having suddenly, you know, you go from just yourself to a team of seven staff members.
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It was like a crash course in building a team, having staff, having staff meetings, organising people, h.r. Onboarding, training, all of that in eight weeks. So it was, it was mutually beneficial, right? Like it was such a great experience for me and then also a really great opportunity for the artists that we hired.
[00:10:54.150] – Speaker 2
Just see now the name of this podcast will be the staffing period with Christina Loewen. So that, that is brilliant. I mean, how could I do that with my staff now? Naomi, you have to pay Jamie every time. No, I love it. That’s great. So, yeah, like, that is brilliant. So how did you like how do you kind of introduce culture in an online environment like you are?
[00:11:21.660] – Speaker 1
Well, you know, I mean, culture is really important. Values are really important as well. Yeah. And you know, I think that our entire response through the pandemic has been one of deep care. Right. So I would say that, you know, we had a responsibility to care for each other, to understand who is most at risk and who has privilege. And through that realisation, be able to take on that responsibility of, of care in a way that is really meaningful and personal. Right. Like to care for each other is how we we moved forward. And so that was the one of the guiding principles and guiding values that I wanted to build with that team of of seven that year was to really make sure that they knew that we were working in a caring environment and they were also responsible for delivering care as well as services.
[00:12:21.030] – Speaker 2
Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s actually really there’s a lot to chew on there I think in that can be applied in individual realities as well. I don’t think another executive director hears this and goes, Oh, I get it, just care and that’ll work. Yeah, I think you need to apply it to like your reality. Yeah. So what I want to talk about is you touched on a lot of them with the challenges and learnings encountered as you led through the pandemic. So I’d love to hear about like what is something you’re still processing but hearing from your members and figuring out a way forward still?
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Well, you know, I guess it’s just, you know, learning to accept that constant ambiguity and uncertainty, you know, and learning or are trying to learn to be comfortable with that. I mean, certainty is something that we all crave and we gravitate towards. But in this new reality that we’re in, there actually is no certainty. And so we have, you know, multiple timelines, many different scenarios, lots and lots of contingencies. And we have to be structured in a way that, you know, allows us to be as flexible as possible and not too rigid so that we can move with the times. Right. So that we are flexible enough to to change things when when we need to change them professionally, personally, professionally. I think that one of the things that’s affecting a lot of leaders in the sector right now is fatigue. Right. And this is not just happening with the leaders, but, you know, this state of constant uncertainty, nonstop plans. And since, you know, they’re changing all the time, all these concurrent scenarios that are running through your mind at any moment, it’s leading to this place where it’s like you have to constantly be making decisions.
[00:14:18.090] – Speaker 1
You need to innovate a lot. I mean, we’ve been through a period of forced, unplanned innovation. Right. And, you know, it’s kind of funny because, you know, in 2015, innovation was really buzzy, right? It was like we got to innovate. We got to innovate, you know? And I remember it’s like, I know we need to have all these programs to support innovation. And, you know, and I talked to I talked to a good colleague at Canadian Heritage at the time, and he said, you know, he says, Christina, you know, organizations in general, they don’t innovate until they approach market failure. And I was like, oh, that sounds terrible. I mean, I wouldn’t want that to happen, but that’s what happened, right? You know, lockdown is market failure because that’s that’s what we do. We do the live arts and suddenly there was no live arts. And so we entered into a period of rapid innovation, you know, but without the excitement of it, you know.
[00:15:11.880] – Speaker 1
So I was saying, like in 2015, I had done this program called the Lean Performing Arts. And the premise behind the Lean Performing Arts was, you know, was the question. It was like, what would happen if we treated arts organizations like Startup? And so we took them through this entire process of of being a startup. So we used all of the principles in the Lean Startup book, and we put about ten or 12 different organizations through this Lean Startup Bootcamp for about 6 to 8 weeks. And it was a really interesting program, but it was a curiosity more than anything. People were like, That’s really interesting. But, you know, they couldn’t quite figure out what it was and what it’s it didn’t really take root. I mean, I think people found it fascinating, but it just didn’t take root as a as a movement. And then it’s just so funny because now it’s like fast forward seven years into the future, everybody’s talking about design thinking, empathy, interviews, minimum viable product, you know, and so all of these, all this term and these this lean terminology is now, you know, front of mind.
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You know, everybody’s iterating, everyone’s pivoting.
[00:16:22.260] – Speaker 2
Oh, my gosh, it’s so good. Why can we not can we not get back to creating synergy? Now we have you pivoting what happened to taking things offline. Now we’re like integrated thinking, design thinking. I, you know, it’s funny. So Leading With Nice was originally born out of the research I did on successful leaders, but the ones that I would want to follow, there’s lots of successful people that are not nice and don’t have any qualities that I would espouse as being great, but they still do well and they’re successful. But the ones that I would want to follow. Empathy was one of the biggest pieces of an aptitude they really excelled in. And I remember like it was 2005 and I was, you know, telling a leader how they could increase their empathy. And they listened to me with great interest and they’re like, this is me, like, and you really believe this? That’s like, oh, yeah, like, I really do. And like, so now that same it’s funny because that same guys at his cottage two summers ago or last summer and he said to me, he’s like, you know, I think I’m a bit nicer now.
[00:17:24.870] – Speaker 2
Like you say, I had to be. I’m like, Yeah, I do, because everyone quit over the last few years that you weren’t. But yeah, it’s funny how finally this the stream started to rise to the top. Yeah. So there are some areas that the association for APA in Canada and actually the opera community in general found a need to focus on that it may not have thought of before pandemic. What were some of those things specifically and that now are very top of mind you talked about like you know market failure having to close. So what what did that open your eyes to in general and what are these things specifically that you need to think about regularly?
[00:18:04.710] – Speaker 1
Yeah, you know. The interesting thing about the pandemic and the focus for the opera sector currently is, is that many of the challenges or the things that we we’ve decided to focus on are actually things that pre-existed the pandemic. But they you know, they weren’t as intense. They weren’t maybe I mean, they were urgent, but they weren’t as urgent as they are now. Right. And the pandemic, of course, you know, really heightened so many of these issues and challenges. And I would say one of the biggest ones is is equity. You know, the incredible inequities that exist in our world between the haves and the have nots in the 1%. But even when you just take that lens and just look at the way that, you know, our own microcosm exists, you know, just the opera sector, you know, and ask ourselves, where is the inequity in our own sector? And there’s just so many there’s so many levels of inequity. And, you know, one of the largest ones, of course, that I started this whole conversation with is the fact that artists who are the that they are the soul of our art form.
[00:19:12.610] – Speaker 1
Right. Like the opera doesn’t exist without artists. Right? It’s just such a basic. But they are the lowest paid and the most precarious worker of the entire sector. Right. So you say, what was it like in those early days? It was it was busy. It was, you know, chaotic. It was frightening. But I just felt so privileged and lucky throughout that time to know that I had a job. Right. And that when so many people, you know, saw their livelihood dry up literally overnight, like Friday, you have a job Saturday, you don’t write your cash flow. You’re like, hey, I think I’m okay for the next three months. And suddenly it’s it’s evaporated, right? And here I am. I’m like, I have the privilege of working from my home. I don’t even have to take the TTC. Everything’s locked down, but I can just keep typing into my laptop and I still have a job. And this is a situation that continues to play itself out.
[00:20:09.280] – Speaker 1
Like what in the news? We’re hearing that, you know what, half the population of Canada now has COVID and it’s just so regular. It’s like, yeah, I’ve covered, I have a cold, you know, you know, you do your tests, you isolate for ten days. And again, that’s really easy if you’re a remote worker, if you’re in front of a camera like me right now on Zoom. Right. But it’s not so easy. You know, if you were engaged in a reopening production, right. Suddenly that’s it. You’ve been replaced and you know, you’re out of that gig. So it’s still happening. Right. And so, you know, our decision to, you know, refocus a lot of our programs and services on the artist was absolutely the right thing to do. The artists relief fund was only part of it. You know, we offered we created a new member category. We said, you know, opera artist category, please join us. It was completely free.
[00:20:58.870] – Speaker 1
It’s still free. So go to Africa and join to be an opera artist member. If you’re watching this podcast, we have professional development monthly online learning series. We have a fellowship mentorship program for early career artists because, you know, within artists there are also other levels of cascading inequities, right? So just like how do we talk about, you know, what it is like now for millennials and Gen Z to buy a house? It’s an impossibility, right? It’s like generationally, you know, we need to focus on early career artists as a focus area because they’re the future. We have a new strategic plan that’s very future focused, right. And so we need to also really make sure that we’re cultivating that area and that we have a very strong, resilient sector of of artists for the future.
[00:21:53.170] – Speaker 2
Can you just really briefly before we start to wrap up here? Well, people may not know about opera. Is it actually is very community based as well, not just within the people that work in opera, but also like as it stretches out into the communities, opera exists. And you explain to really what that what that means, it looks like.
[00:22:13.420] – Speaker 1
Sure. So the opera sector is very interested in being able to not only make a difference in the communities that they serve, but be able to qualify and quantify and tell the story of the difference that they’re making through evaluation and impact measurement. So this was the focus of a strategic plan from 2015 to 2020 called Charting Our Civic Impact. And basically our members asked us to create a collective framework that they could all speak through. So they asked us what are the what are the things we’re going to measure that say this is the impact that we’re having in our community. And through the Opera Civic Impact Framework, we identified five major theme areas that opera companies were active in. So the number one domain or theme area where they have an impact is through the artistic experience. They. Also impact accessibility, education, community and truth and reconciliation. And for each one of these theme areas, there are very specific things that we’re measuring, certain changes we’re seeking to make through these through these theme areas. And and it’s that framework that that we were really proud to be able to secure a grant from the Canada Council’s Digital Strategy Fund to digitize it and turn it into a platform so that opera companies could be engaged in actually measuring their impact online regardless of where their participants are.
[00:23:48.430] – Speaker 1
If you’re an audience member, you can do it on your phone. If you’re doing a community event, you can do it through roaming iPads or standalone signs, but everything gets deployed directly through the platform but then gets synthesized through through a common framework. So this is the this is the opera impact platform project. And and we’re at this point, we’ve onboarded 100% of our capacity for that for that platform. And as the opera sector now, you know, is starting to reopen, we’re going to be starting the big work of populating that about platform with data and looking forward to that big collective opera sector report on the impact that we’re having hopefully in the fall.
[00:24:32.680] – Speaker 2
You’ve mentioned some community events because opera actually does a lot of community work, right? Like it’s often out doing education schools or charitable type work.
[00:24:43.840] – Speaker 1
MM Yeah, there are many programs that opera companies are engaged in directly in school systems, doing touring programs where they work in schools and they deliver opera programming through the public school systems. There’s also lots of community based programming where people work with community centers, people who are in at risk communities. You know, an example is there was an opera company, Vancouver Opera, in in British Columbia. They have something called the Kettle Choir. And so they were working with some at risk populations in Vancouver’s east side, creating this community choir. And through the community choir, they were able to work with individuals to help them build up their their self-esteem, sense of belonging, people who are extremely isolated and stigmatized. And they were able to create a program that, you know, provided some joy and some dignity.
[00:25:44.050] – Speaker 2
Well, this is even more than Jenny’s with your time today before you wrap up this, you know, it’s not just a you and me making this happen behind me is a whole bunch of people. Naomi, my aea. She helps write questions and she schedules you and I as we can meet here. Amber, while I’m here chatting, I’m watching our Slack channel like, you know, go back and forth that she’s taking care of business. Jeff Einhorn, if you’re watching this on social or on YouTube, he’s taking care of the editing Austin Pomeroy. My voice is actually much weaker than what you’re hearing now. He does all the audio and he makes me sound as handsome as I look. Thank you. Jamie Hunter, our content manager. If you saw us on social media, he’s the reason you got to put together. And of course, Alison, my wife makes sure the kids stay quiet why I’m doing this. So thank you, Alison. And listen, if you enjoyed this, if you found some value in what Christine had to say, I want to ask you to do two things.
[00:26:38.530] – Speaker 2
I supposed to do this every episode. I always forget. The first is usually the five star review. It helps other people discover the show. And after what happens is somebody will come across it, don’t get it shared. And I’ll get an email saying, I wish I knew about this long ago, so don’t leave it to me to promote it. If you could help I with a five star review and also you want to learn more about Christine was talking about opera okay is still the domain and also if any bit of what she said resonated with you today, take your family to the opera and we will consider this transaction, this deal. Even you got some awesome content and you’ve gone to see some opera. So you actually you win twice, to be honest. Christina, thank you so much for joining me today.
[00:27:22.060] – Speaker 1
Thank you so.
[00:27:22.690] – Speaker 2
Much. We’ll talk to you next time. Have a great day.