Alumnus Michael Pettry holds a bachelor’s degree in pipe organ performance from Ball State University and a master’s degree in conducting from Butler University. He currently serves as Vice President of Development for the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, IN. He previously served as Executive Director of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir for 13 seasons. We interviewed Michael about his experience at Ball State and his current position at the Center for the Performing Arts.
What opportunities attracted you to Ball State?
What attracted me really was the sheer abundance of opportunity at Ball State. I was able to learn how to learn (a key area of growth for most of us in college) while also expanding my horizons for this native Hoosier. As a music major studying pipe organ performance, I simultaneously took carillon lessons (yes, I remember watching many a sunset from the top of Shafer Tower while hoping the residents of Bracken House didn’t hear too many of my double-forte, ringing mistakes). I studied voice, piano and even harpsichord. And I began my career as a conductor, thanks to willing and generous professors.
My grasp of the role of faith traditions in our nation and around the world was broadened. Compelling and persuasive writing skills developed. Flames of creativity fanned. In short, I was given opportunity at Ball State to grow in diverse areas.
What are your fondest memories from Ball State? Are there any teachers who influenced your career path?
I have to say, the education I received at Ball State was exactly what I needed, and provided a solid academic foundation on which I’ve continued to grow. But perhaps even more impactful than the formal lectures and classroom learning were the leadership principles exhibited by many of my academic mentors.
“I want us to turn back to measure 38 and try it again.” Nope! Dr. Douglas Amman taught me – instilled in all of us – far more than simply choral music. He taught leadership and team building. “We don’t use ‘I want you to …’ statements” Dr. Amman would guide. “Instead, try saying ‘Let’s turn back to measure 38…’.” While a simple example, it speaks to the broader skill of leadership and building autonomy.
Being a conductor is not unlike being a CEO, business owner, manager or any other team leader. In a symphony or chorus, who actually makes the music? The conductor? Exactly not! It is the singer or the instrumentalist who physically brings to life the music. The conductor is merely the coordinator of those musicians and doesn’t create the music but enables others to do so, and harmoniously at that. This parallel exists in life, and many of the same principles apply in leading a musical ensemble as do with leading any other group of humankind.
How did you become interested in arts administration?
Like the vast majority of people serving in an arts management role across the country, most of us did not formally study the profession as an academic pursuit. Put another way: Most of us simply fell into the world of arts administration!
After graduating from BSU, I completed a Master of Music from Butler University and shortly thereafter served as Executive Director of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir for 13 seasons. I had precisely zero formal experience in arts administration when I took the job, but what I did have was the ability to innovate, solve problems, communicate, plan and execute and, especially, to listen.
What are you working on now with the Center for the Performing Arts?
In my position as Vice President of Development for the Center, our team is tasked with growing the base of philanthropic support for a $10 million performing arts institution. The fundraising frontier is constantly evolving, especially as we see a significant transfer of wealth from the Greatest Generation to the Boomers, not to mention Gen X and Millennials bounding into the philanthropic world.
Among the electrifying, “each day offers something new” goings-on at the Center was the recent $30 million gift from Bren Simon of the Asherwood Estate to the Great American Songbook Foundation (which is located at the Center). The 107-acre estate includes two private golf courses, a 50,000-square-foot main house, 6,000-square-foot guest house, and even a club house to enjoy while out on the links. “Transformative” doesn’t begin to convey the importance of a gift like this to increasing our sustainability for generations to come.
At the heart of a successful philanthropic strategy is an unwavering commitment to always put the product (in our case, the performing arts) first. We fundraise not merely to meet goals and budgets, but to make possible arts, culture and entertainment for more than a quarter of a million people annually.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
Music is still the heartbeat of my life. We enjoy and attend symphony and choral music performances, and have become champions (and eager consumers!) of music at The Cabaret in Indianapolis, which also has a partnership with the BSU family as well. And it goes without saying that I find myself either tickling the ivories or playing the pipe organ whenever possible.
Beyond music though, I’ve been sailing for the past four years, in spite of the Hoosier State not being especially known for activities on the water. And I also discovered in recent years that I’m a bit of an aviation nerd – who knew this hybrid choir geek/band nerd would also consider exploring his flight chops. Roger that!
What advice would you give to others interested in pursuing arts administration?
My advice to someone considering either an education or career in the world of arts administration is the same advice I would provide to anyone exploring their “next chapter” of life. First, find a few great mentors. Immerse yourself in that world. Listen to their war stories and advice incessantly. Explore your inner entrepreneur – because, although we may be running an art-focused organization, there’s a good chance you’ll either be creating a startup or nudging a legacy organization into new territory.