I never considered a career outside of the arts.
It was such a profoundly obvious thing to do. I started playing the piano by ear when I was 3 years old and composing at 10. I thought for a long time that I would be the one who was on stage.
But as I got older, I began to be curious about the producing side. I didn’t just want to perform, I wanted to organize performances.
My parents saw I wanted to do music but they told me that I needed other skills to fall back on. So I learned how to do dictation and could type 120 words per minute when I was 12 years old. That allowed me to get a series of temporary jobs, which made me a pretty good candidate for my very first arts jobs.
I graduated early from high school, and when I was 17, I helped organize a Beethoven festival.
While in college, a lot of my friends had graduated and were working on their master’s and doctorates, many of which were orchestral works.
Unfortunately, the school wasn’t set up for them to play their material. They were basically creating to show they had the chops without a sense that the work would be performed. I always kept that in the back of my mind, which became very valuable later in my career.
I started a freelance practice at the ripe age of 20 doing consulting work for small nonprofits that needed press releases or artist biographies written. I became a reviewer for the New York State Council on the Arts to use in the review process for the grant applications. I was deployed all over New York to hear massive quantities of music. It refined my writing ability and sharpened my listening.
I left and started working for an orchestral training program to help musicians figure out what their future might be.
Suddenly things gelled. I thought about my friends in the graduate program who wrote works that would never be performed.
I suggested that the organization create a training orchestra where young musicians could rehearse, perform and record music. The board agreed. I proposed the idea to various schools, and they were keen to have their graduate students involved.
I made a call for orchestral scores that had never been recorded or performed. We received 500, proving what I sensed: that there was a need.
I won an orchestral managing award and established a reputation as a friend of composers and new music.
That made me a viable candidate at the music publisher Boosey & Hawkes to head a department that managed the careers of composers.
There I led an international centenary performing event. It was a groundbreaking initiative that then became a model for more.
There was huge media attention about what we did. It increased the number of performers and royalties and had a significant effect on the bottom line, tripling revenue.
Now at Washington Performing Arts Society, I want to explore the collaborations and connections in the District.
A lot of what WPAS does is a well-kept secret, and it doesn’t need to be anymore. I’m excited to make its strengths visible to a wider audience.
There was never a question in my mind at any point in my life that I wanted to do music. If someone took that away from me, it would be hard to imagine. It’s that much a part of me.
— Interview with Vanessa Small
Position: President and chief executive of the Washington Performing Arts Society, a nonprofit organization based in the District that presents performances.
Artistic director, Stanford Live, Stanford University; artistic and executive director, Stanford Lively Arts, Stanford University; president, Boosey & Hawkes; executive director, Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival; executive director, Concordia Chamber Orchestra; executive director, National Orchestral Association; associate, International Production Associates; special projects coordinator, Merkin Concert Hall.
Education: BA, Music, University of Pennsylvania.
Personal: Lives in the District. Married to Joel Phillip Friedman. They have one daughter, Hallie.