Mary Jo Capps steps down as CEO of Musica Viva Australia this week, bringing to an end a tenure of almost 20 years. Capps has helmed Australia’s oldest independent professional performing arts organisation since 1999, overseeing a number of significant changes to the organisation, and picking up several honours along the way, among them an honorary doctorate last year by the University of Melbourne and the inaugural Arts Leadership Award at the 2016 Creative Partnerships Awards.
When she agreed to take the Musica Viva position at the end of the last millennium – bringing wide-ranging experience from Musicology studies in Toronto to a career working with Australian symphony orchestras, the ABC, her own consultancy and a position as Deputy Managing Director and Director of Development for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra – she had no idea she’d be there almost two decades later.
Mary Jo Capps. Photo © Keith Saunders
“Your career path is really only visible in hindsight,” Capps tells Limelight. “I was very fortunate in always having some great opportunities that came up, and being able to take advantage of them and join in and contribute my bit.”
She admits, however, that taking the job at Musica Viva – an organisation she respected – was the only time she had made a really strategic career move. “I’d been a subscriber for years and I knew the organisation well,” she told Limelight. “But it was in order to get the next job after that!”
It soon became apparent that ‘the next job’ would have to wait. “Within six months it was like, ‘No! I would never want to leave here,’” Capps says.
“It just absolutely felt like I’d come home, and found a great spot,” she says. “It was almost like falling in love, like ‘this is it, this is great!’”
“Kim Williams did say at the time, ‘I expect you to be here for a long time,’” Capps says. “His benchmark was Regina Ridge [Musica Viva’s first Manager, from 1950 to 1973]. I’m just about equal with her record – I think I fulfilled my promise to Kim!”
While Capps has overseen many changes to Musica Viva across her tenure, she was originally hired to implement a change that would have resulted in a very different musical landscape in Australia. “When I was hired, I was hired by both Musica Viva and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, to merge the two organisations,” she says. “So what I came in to do, and what I ended up doing, are two very different things.”
The first year or so of her job was therefore was spent in a “very diligent and detailed examination of the pros and cons of merging the two organisations.”
“It was very clear that the two organisations fundamentally had more differences than similarities,” she says. “And that what looked right on paper was actually not going to work in reality.”
The merger had only been a proposed means to an end: “Revitalising the concert programming and reinstating the centrality of Australian music in a meaningful way,” Capps says. “It had become rather tokenistic by this stage.”
“Musica Viva has a proud history of commissioning new music from Australian composers, and championing Australian performers, but it was just in need of some rethinking,” she says. “So that was very high on the agenda, and one of the things I am most proud of for our shared legacy with Carl [Vine, Musica Viva’s Artistic Director], who took that and made it his own.”
Mary Jo Capps. Photo © Keith Saunders
Looking back over her career at Musica Viva, Capps sees many highlights. “Certainly giving the organisation the stability to be able to take artistic risks – that was a very important element, and that the board have totally embraced that approach as well,” she says. “It’s not about being fake and it’s not about being cautious. We’re in the fortunate position that we’re financially, artistically and administratively stable, and have a huge level of trust from our audiences, so we can say ‘we have to be able to take risks’ – and that’s in our education program as much as our concerts program. I think being comfortable is not an option!”
One of the big tasks of the last two or three years, Capps explains, has been rewriting Musica Viva’s constitution. “Which sounds incredibly boring,” she says, “but is actually so fundamentally important to how the organisation is governed.”
Another achievement has been the move to the new building in Green Square, which was gutted and renovated, and includes the establishment of the Janette Hamilton Studio and Kim Williams Digital Production Suite.
“We’ve now got a great facility for the organisation to not only fulfil its own needs but also to engage with the small to medium sector.”
The facility, built with “not one cent of government assistance”, provides rehearsal venues in a city where such spaces are becoming increasingly rare. “We did it because it needs to happen, and so I am very, very proud of that,” Capps says.
“The third game changer of the last couple of years has been securing the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition, and giving that new life and a future,” says Capps.
Those three changes have made for a momentous finale to Capps’ tenure. “Each one is sufficiently enormous for a CEO to say, ‘right, I did that, that was my thing,” she laughs. “I ended up having all three of them in a row! It wasn’t planned that way!”
“It has been huge,” she says. “That’s been part of the feeling of ‘now it’s a good time to go’. Those big things have happened, and the organisation is on really sound footing. An amazing team here – there’s literally nothing better in the country. So I feel that it’s in a great place for the next team to come in, and importantly that the next CEO comes in and has a role in choosing the next artistic director – because that relationship is so central.”
Capps’ tenure with Musica Viva has run parallel with that of its Artistic Director Carl Vine, who came on board shortly after her – in November of 2000 – and will continue with the organisation until the end of 2019, after he programs the 75th anniversary season in 2020.
Capps describes her self as “a huge fan” of Carl, though she qualifies, “not a blind fan!”
Capps and Vine have been the twin pillars of Musica Viva for the best part of two decades, but their relationship got off to a rocky start. “My first experience of Carl was when I was producer at ABC Radio. He came in to do an interview when he was heading up a group called Flederman, many, many years ago,” she explains.
“It was awful – it was a terrible interview! Very much my fault as much as Carl’s,” Capps admits with a laugh. “We certainly didn’t part thinking, ‘I can’t wait to hang out with that person more!’”
Capps and Kim Williams, then the Chair of Musica Viva, spoke to many different people during the process of finding a new Artistic Director. “Carl did not sell himself in the interview at all, which of course is absolutely Carl – he’s not a self-promoter or tooting his own horn by any means,” she says. “But we both felt he got it. He got the essential qualities of the purity and the construction and the wonderful intimacy of chamber music, even though he was not overly familiar with the canon at all – he wasn’t especially devoted to chamber music. So he was not an obvious choice, but he was in terms of his intellect and his musical sensibility.”
Capps sees another silver lining to Vine’s appointment. “When we engaged him he was building websites – he was not composing,” she says. “He was completely frustrated with the whole idea of composing. Probably of all things in terms of lasting legacy, the fact that coming to work with us here prompted Carl to go back to composing is huge.”
That’s not to say Vine was eager to use his new job as a platform for his composition work. “He set the provision that he’d only take on the job if we were to never program his music!” she says. “We only broke that by the board insisting – the board had to actually direct Carl he had to write a piece for his 50th birthday in 2004!”
The staggered changes of CEO and Artistic Director are part of a carefully mapped out transition, which has been on the cards since 2015, Capps explains. “Being so carefully planned, it almost makes it feel a bit unreal now that it’s actually happening!” she says. “We’ve been talking about it literally for years, and it was a matter of being sure to find the right time that would be the least disruptive for this amazing organisation.”
As far as Capps’ successor goes, “the MVA Board has reached a terrific decision,” she says. “They are finalising the details before publicly announcing. All plans are in place for a smooth transition.”
So what does the future hold for Capps herself? “Years ago, I did one of those leadership profiles, and one of those things that it said was you’re really alarmingly comfortable with high levels of ambiguity, which is probably a good thing in the arts.”
“The shape of my portfolio career post full-time work is coming into focus, although I am leaving space for surprises!” she explains. “I have an exciting collection of projects, from leadership mentoring and executive development work to seeking paid board position(s), plus Renaissance Tour leader roles, studying in Italy, and a full basket of pro bono board positions. Many hats to wear and adventures to explore. Best of all will be enjoying Musica Viva concerts as a subscriber!”