Betsy Fitzgerald is a classical musician who doesn’t take “no” for an answer
Betsy Fitzgerald knows that the world of the classically trained musician doesn’t always intersect with the world of arts advocacy and community engagement. In fact, at the time she attended the prestigious Eastman School of Music, those worlds didn’t connect at all.
“In the mid-’90s musicians could not just sit on stage separated from the audience anymore. We could no longer be behind a glass wall. For a long time [orchestra musicians] were elitists who could not relate to general public, but as patrons aged we needed to find a connection to a new audience,” Fitzgerald explains. “Eastman was a forerunner in the concept of how to teach artists to be more well-rounded, how they can help their community but also help themselves.”
Eastman had the premiere program for art leadership in the world, and studying musicians learned not just music but necessary business skills like how to read and write a contract, how to write bios and press releases, and how to read budgets. “In the orchestra world we need to protect ourselves, especially with the chaos in the orchestra world [in recent years]. It’s important for us to be able to analyze a budget.”
Fitzgerald is a classically-trained harpist and pianist. During her time in the Arts Leadership Program at Eastman she was required to work internships and perform in nontraditional concert settings like the first indoor mall in America, perform chamber music, create programs tailored for the education and knowledge level of preschoolers, and also perform at hospitals as part of a music therapy program. “It was always a very different group of people to work with,” she says. “This program shaped the way I behaved in future years – to be involved in the community, support the arts, and help artists to support themselves.”
Fitzgerald met her husband Keith in another nontraditional concert setting: playing in the orchestra at Disney World. Shortly after they married, her husband – who was a professional trombonist who played in the Air Force band – was relocated to Tokyo, where they lived on the Air Force base for six years. “I felt like Alice falling through the rabbit hole,” she says. “It was complete culture shock. I was mesmerized and ecstatic. I had to take a major risk to put my career on hold.”
At that point she had dedicated herself to a career in orchestra management. She saw the cultural opportunity to move to Japan and wanted to be a part of that, but after just a couple of weeks she was already bored. “So many of us in the arts world, we’re constantly going…I had been so busy for so long [that after two weeks with no work and not knowing anyone] I was bored.”
She decided to check out the Department of Defense’s elementary school on the base. “This was when I first learned what happens when you go oversees – the music teacher couldn’t read music. The children in the choir were not being taught to sing.” She was further dismayed to hear that the students were going to a Japanese music competition despite not having even the basic skills to compete. Fitzgerald went to meet the principal that same day, and it just so happened that the music teacher had to go on medical leave, so the principal asked her to help them.
She put together a chorale program and had the children singing two-part harmonies in two weeks. She taught them proper concert etiquette. From this she started the Vivace Performing Arts Program on Yokata Air Base, a program that still exists today. “People thought I was absolutely off my rocker!” she laughs. “I just never listened to ‘no.” I was pushy because I believed these kids needed something better. Most parents don’t want to have to move their children around that many times.”
It started out as a five-day program, then became 10 days over summer. She found the best teachers she could find – University of Miami theatre graduates, Juilliard graduates, people she knew would be warm and engaging and get the children interested in the arts. In six years she put on shows, created a spring break program, and showed that in just five days of working with kids they can put on musical numbers. She did all of this by raising her own funds, having to do things like be up at 4:30 a.m. to hand out water to runners in order to receive funds from the running club. The quality of the Vivace Program attracted legitimate arts teachers, and since her time there Fitzgerald has seen Vivace kids go on to some of the top universities and art schools in the country. For her tireless arts advocacy and arts education work on the base, she was named “Woman of the Year” in 2004.
From that point forward, Fitzgerald was driven by the need to develop community arts and arts education organizations, and she’s been leaving her mark on every place she has lived since. Upon returned to the States, she started working with the Virginia Chorale, the only fully professional chorale ensemble in the state. She was their first Executive Director and under her leadership they increased single and subscription ticket sales by 69 percent the first year and also expanded their educational programs. While there she also learned acutely the struggles of fundraising for a small classical arts organization in the depths of a recession.
When her husband left the Air Force they moved back down South, and Fitzgerald became the Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, the performing arts center of Mercer University. “The Opera House was a wonderful opportunity because it encompassed every kind of arts we have.”
At the Grand Opera House Fitzgerald went full bore into community engagement, creating programs for underprivileged children, reaching out to leaders in the community and creating partnerships, and bringing in bold programming like the Colombian Folkloric Ballet. “We took a big risk with that,” she says. “For once we were the ones who had the hot ticket instead of Atlanta!” Now Fitzgerald is the Vice President of Leadership Giving and Major Gifts at United Way of Central Georgia, where she continues putting her many years of advocacy, community engagement, and fundraising experience to use to support the United Way’s mission of creating opportunities for a better life for all. She is also on the Board of Directors of the Macon Arts Alliance, through which she has been involved in the launch of the Knight-supported Center for Collaborative Journalism at Mercer and also played a key role in convincing the city and state governments to continue their support of the arts during their consolidation. “That was one of my proudest moments in working for the Macon Arts Alliance.”
It should also be noted that she is also an adjunct professor at Wesleyan College, a founding member of the Friends of Macon Symphony, a member of the Junior League of Macon, and a hostess for the annual International Cherry Blossom Festival. Oh, and throughout all of these years she has also performed professionally with orchestras and chamber ensembles all over the world, with other arts organizations, at churches, at weddings, at corporate events, military events, embassy events, cocktail parties, and in duo performances. And now, she and Keith are about to welcome their first child, though at the rate she’s going it probably won’t slow her down a beat.