Behind the career: Jenny Bilfield

Correction: An earlier version of this profile incorrectly referred to the Brooklyn Academy for Music as the Brooklyn Center of Music. The story has been updated with the correct name.

March 31, 2013

Position: President and chief executive of the Washington Performing Arts Society, a District-based nonprofit that presents artistic performances.

Jenny Bilfield began playing the piano by ear at age 3 and composing at age 10. She eventually gravitated toward the production side of music. At 24 years old, Bilfield created and ran an orchestra to perform new works. After transitioning to a senior role at a music publisher, she ran an attention-getting project that brought together some major New York performing arts organizations. Now leading the Washington Performing Arts Society, she looks to increase the organization’s visibility.

How have you grown most as a leader through the years?

I was 24 years old at the National Orchestral Association and got to hire an assistant. I was so young, the people I hired were often older. I felt self-conscious about being young and being the leader. At the time, I was as eager to make people happy as I was excited to have people to help support my vision. Over time, I’ve worked to become a better listener and synthesizer of information and become increasingly thoughtful in the way I make decisions because they can have a far-reaching effect in the long term.

What is the most valuable business quality you bring to the arts space?

An urgency of conviction and the ability to problem-solve flexibly. Someone could say, “This is the way it’s always been and there’s nothing we can do about it.” That’s something that I’m never comfortable accepting.

For example?

When I started that orchestra, there were people who said, “You’re a young orchestra manager. You don’t know anything about running an orchestra. You can’t do this. We don’t need an orchestra like this.” It was like a call to action for me. You really think I can’t do it? I’m going to learn enough to do a good job with this orchestra and develop the idea. I’m accustomed to people questioning me. I was young and a woman. But I don’t rest on my laurels. It’s not that I don’t take no for an answer. It sounds like I’m contrarian, but I don’t tolerate rigid thinking. Nothing makes me crazier than rigid thinking.

You encountered some of that rigid thinking again in your career. How did you handle it?

At the music publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, one of our famous composers had a 70th birthday, and every major performing arts organization in New York wanted to do their own special celebration of his work. I took the initiative and tried to get all the organizations working together. I called Carnegie Hall, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Lincoln Center. I was shocked they had never collaborated with each other. People doubted that the organizations would come together. But I thought, “How great would it look to the arts world that three of the mega titans are collaborating around a single project.” It sold out. We got huge press. It worked. For me it all had seemed so obvious.

Any favorite business books?

I read “Switch“ [by Chip Heath and Dan Heath]. The business books I read are often by entrepreneurs — people who are used to moving quickly and assessing opportunities and creating nimble teams.

— Interview
with
Vanessa Small

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