Executive director jobs don’t come along every day, especially in the small world of performing arts. So Erika Floreska knew the path to the top would require some professional zig zags, hardcore networking, and a pay cut before the payoff. She stayed the course by staying true to things she loves: music, teaching, and community.
What brought you to New York?
I was working at the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and we hosted performances by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra every year. I was on the production team, so I got to know them very well. Every year, when the orchestra arrived I'd be the one at the airport with the sign, meeting them and then driving them around.
When the orchestra came to perform for the third year in Ann Arbor, I met the executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and said, "I really want to come to New York. I want to work for you or work at Jazz at Lincoln Center.” Unfortunately, there were no openings at that time, but six months later there was a job to be the assistant for the executive director. I jumped at the opportunity. I had always dreamed of living in New York. I packed up my U-Haul and drove with all my stuff here. I actually moved into my first apartment just around the corner from here. That was 20 years ago!
Did the city live up to your expectations?
I had a friend who told me that I seemed more comfortable in New York in my first four days than she felt in the four years she’d lived here. I loved it instantly; it was a natural fit.
Jazz at Lincoln Center was still pretty small then. I think I was the 16th employee. We didn’t have the permanent space that we have now; instead, we would rent out venues in New York when we performed. It was a totally entrepreneurial time when I worked there, and it was amazing to be part of that. Within the first six month, though, I moved from being an assistant to working in the education department.
Was education a part of music that always interested you?
I actually studied music education at University of Michigan, majoring in flute. I was a hardcore flute player in high school, so it was an easy major for me. I really wanted to do well in college, so that I could get my master’s degree in performance. It was amazing to be part of a program that fostered music in such a profound way.
When I was at the University Musical Society, part of my job was to run master classes for the school. That’s really where I fell in love with education programs. We did a residency with the Cleveland Orchestra, where we hosted 26 master classes with the principle performers of each instrument. Seeing the impact those classes had on the students really solidified education for me. I also realized I had a knack for putting together complex programs and events.
Six months after I started at Jazz at Lincoln Center, a position opened up to run this high-school jazz competition called Essentially Ellington. They were having trouble finding someone who was a good fit. The director of education, Laura Johnson, was talking to my boss and said, “I can't find anybody. I need someone who cares about education but can produce big events, who can deal with funders and the musicians but also gets what we're about." And he said, "She's sitting outside my office."
It was a dream! When I came onboard, the competition was in 26 states — in the time I was there, we expanded to 50 states and Canada. We added a Band Director Academy to train teachers across the country. We did a residency in England at the Barbican Centre. We even did a residency in Australia. It’s an awesome program, and still is. That program was my baby for 14 years and I eventually grew to become director of the whole education department.
What are you most proud of doing there?
We founded the Middle School Jazz Academy, which is a Saturday program for middle-school students who have talent for jazz but no ability to pay for classes. I think the Middle School Jazz Academy set the stage for my job today at Bloomingdale School of Music, because we were building a program that was hyper local. We worked directly with kids in our community for a year at a time, and that’s really what we do here.
After I had my own kids, it became even more important for me to be part of the community. To be part of what makes New York unique, and help the people that live here by giving back to them in a positive way.
After 14 years at Lincoln Center, I was traveling so much for work. That was becoming tough as my own family grew. I started to look around for other opportunities that combined music, education, and leadership. In my short stint as an assistant at Jazz at Lincoln Center, I saw the possibilities that an executive director job could offer. I started looking around for those jobs; it was the next logical step for me.
What is the difference between a director and an executive director?
Fundraising! [Laughs] An executive director is responsible for the whole institution. So you're managing budgets, getting money into the school, and getting people engaged. Executive directors are more focused on relationships. You have to tell the story of your institution, sell people on it and get them invested, and then ask for support. A director looks inward by focusing on faculty, teaching, and what’s happening in the school. An executive director looks outward.
So how did you make that leap up to executive director?
I actually left Jazz at Lincoln Center before I had a new job lined up. I was a finalist for jobs at four different organizations, but I didn’t get any of them! They were looking for people who had direct fundraising experience, and while I had everything else, I hadn’t done that. So close! It worked out, though, as I was offered a job at a small theatre company — after another person said no! [Laughs] — called Tectonic Theater Project. They gave me a chance! It was a tiny, tiny company. I went from managing a $2M budget at Jazz at Lincoln Center with 10 staff, to Tectonic Theater Project with a $600,000 budget and four staff. It was totally crazy, but it was a good learning curve. Suddenly I had to report to a board of directors, I had to learn the formalities of running a nonprofit institution. I learned how to ask for money, develop proposals, and do fundraising calls. I found out that I loved fundraising! When you believe in the project, the company, the organization, it’s easy to speak to other people about it and to get them excited. At Tectonic, we were doing a lot of amazing pieces that spoke to important social-justice issues.
While I loved working there, it also made me realize the complexity of putting on a theatrical performance. There are so many elements I hadn’t thought about before since I’d worked in orchestral performance only. With theatre you have a writer, director, lightings, sounds, costumes, props — at Jazz we only had chairs, stands, instruments, and lights, and we were all set!
Tectonic also had an education program, and I really found that working in that area was where my heart was. After working at Tectonic for two years, I started getting calls from a couple of community music schools looking for executive directors.
You were now being sought out!
Exactly! Bloomingdale School of Music came into my world after a friend in the industry mentioned they had an opening. It was actually a very sad situation because my predecessor had died suddenly, so they really needed someone who could step in. Apparently, my name got around because I heard about the job from three different people in one week!
It really felt like it was meant to be, in a way. It was a homecoming back to the neighborhood I moved to 20 years ago. I remember walking down the street for my interview, hearing the music coming from the building, and feeling so lucky that I had this opportunity.
It’s been an interesting journey. When I first arrived three years ago, the school was in a hard place. They’d just lost their executive director of 25 years, and they were operating in a very stunted way. It had been the same for many years. Everything had to change to keep up with the times. Enrollments were down, the systems were tired, and the school had been running financial deficits for five years.
It was overwhelming to walk into. But the faculty and the student inspired me to take on the challenge. The school has such a strong financial aid and scholarship program, and it’s really ingrained in the history of this community. The core of Bloomingdale was so strong, I knew that I could get it back on track and really help the school grow.
What was the biggest challenge?
Getting the word back out there about the school and its programs. We’re not on a main street, so there is no walk-by traffic. In my first year there it was the school’s 50th anniversary, and I saw that as my opportunity to make significant change in both the school and the community.
I started in August, and the anniversary was in November. I had an idea to feature the whole history of the school, get the alumni and faculty involved, and get a proclamation from our local council member. I wanted to do a community concert — for the finale, we formed a choir made up of anyone who has ever been involved with the school to sing Beethoven's Ode to Joy.
That is ambitious!
I didn't know any better! [Laughs] To their credit, everybody got onboard. I don’t know how, but we did it. We hosted it in the local church where the school was founded. It seats 300 people, and it hadn’t been full for any previous events. I made the tickets free, so anybody could come, but with the caveat that you had to sign up for a ticket. We had over 500 people come. We actually had to have the balcony of the church cleaned so we could fit more people in.
We brought people together. It was amazing and we did it in three months. I think that showed everybody — the faculty, students, board members, and the community — what we could do. And from there, we’ve continued to grow. To be fair, it’s a very difficult job. It’s stressful, because there is never enough money or time. There is always more to do: the building needs major renovations, our website needs updating, we need some more staff. But knowing that there are kids upstairs learning music is the fuel to keep me going.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
Understand where you get your energy. What brings you joy? Build a career around that. For me, to see a kid learn how to persevere when things go bad is incredible. We had this adorable five-year-old who had won the at the previous year’s performance. He was playing the following year and, all of a sudden, he stopped and couldn’t remember his next line of music. Eventually he figured it out and kept playing, but he was distraught afterwards. His teacher was there, and explained that it happens to everybody, and that the important thing was that he finished the piece. Learn from this and move on. It’s a privilege to see that.
This is a long-winded way of saying: Make your own path. When I was looking to become an executive director, I was looking for women who had two school-aged children and who had come through programming (not fundraising or finance) and who were currently executive directors in this field. I had real trouble finding anyone who could “prove” to me that I could do it, that it could be done. I never found that person. And I'm a really good networker! You can be the person who breaks the mold, who is there as an example to someone else.
Can I offer one more piece of advice?
Your career doesn’t have to move in a straight line. I took a 40 percent cut in pay when I left Jazz to work at the theatre company. I was fortunate enough to be able to that because my husband also works, and we knew it was an investment. Luckily, it paid off. I know that everybody doesn’t have that privilege or that opportunity. But I was able to do what it took, and that set me up to eventually get this position and get back to the compensation I was used to. Not moving in a straight line is really scary. Doubt would always creep through. It allowed me, though, to develop a theory that I tell to a lot of people: If you get a job in the field you want, always give it three years. The first year, you get to know your job. Be open to whatever happens and learn as you go. The second year, you can start to make changes. You’ll see where there's push back and where change comes easily. In the third year, you can really start to implement big changes and own your job. Then you can really see if it’s the right company, job, or role for you.
What does New York mean to you?
It's home. New York means possibility. It’s the integration of so many different people, communities, and neighborhoods working in tandem.
To learn more about the Bloomingdale School of Music click here.
For our friends in New York, Bloomingdale has a performance this weekend!