Rachel Moore

Author of The Artist’s Compass and President and CEO of The Music Center in Los Angeles
Headshot of a woman.

Music Credit: “Renewal” by written and performed Doug and Judy Smith.

Rachel Moore: At root, performers are profound problem solvers. What you do on stage you have to figure it out, nobody’s going to help you when you’re on stage. That curtain goes up, you are alone. So you need to figure it out, and that skill of figuring it out on stage is what’s going to help you figure out your life.

Jo Reed: That’s Rachel Moore. She’s President and CEO of The Music Center in Los Angeles and author of The Artist’s Compass, and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Rachel Moore took on the prestigious position of President and CEO of The Music Center in Los Angeles in 2015. It’s the latest jewel in her tremendous career as an arts’ administrator which includes – over a decade as Executive Director of American Ballet Theater, Executive Director of Project STEP, heading the Education Program of Boston Ballet, and holding senior positions at Americans for the Arts and the National Cultural Alliance. So when Rachel Moore wrote The Artist’s Compass: The Complete Guide to Building a Life and a Living in the Arts, we took notice. Moore draws from her own experiences and observations and offers practical advice, strategies, as well as big-picture ideas for growing a career in the arts.

Rachel Moore has a particular vantage point. She’s not just a successful arts administrator, she was also a dancer at American Ballet Theater, and, so, understands what’s required onstage as well as offstage. Talent? Certainly. A commitment for hard work? Absolutely. But at the heart of it all, a passion for the art that you’re pursuing. That passion has certainly been the thread that wove its way through Rachel Moore’s career, going all the way back to her childhood in California.

Rachel Moore: I started taking ballet when I was about eleven, which is a little later in the game, but my good friend and I went down to the Davis Arts Center, and we signed up for ballet classes, and I was completely consumed – just absolutely loved it. It was a world that I could disappear into, that didn’t have the issues of home and school. So it was great, and I just loved it.

Jo Reed: And you were offered an opportunity to join the Joffrey Summer Program when you were just 13. What happened?

Rachel Moore: Yes. The Joffrey Ballet came to U.C. Davis to perform, and Mr. Joffrey was there and conducted a master class. And I was in the class, and he offered me a scholarship. And, you know, I really wanted to go, but my parents, rightfully, said that I was much too young, and that I wasn’t going to New York at 13. So it broke my heart, but I stayed at home and went to other training programs. But it was such an opportunity for me, in that it basically legitimated my quest to become a dancer and that I had something special to offer, and I think it also helped my parents understand that this wasn’t just a causal thing for me.

Jo Reed: Your parents insisted that you finish high school, which you did. So how did you train as a dancer during that time when you were in high school?

Rachel Moore: Every day after school, either my parents or my brother or someone drove me an hour to Sacramento, where I studied from four o’clock until nine o’clock at night. And then I would do my homework after my classes and rehearsals were done, and then I would get up the next day and do the same thing. Similarly, on the weekends, I would spend all weekend, Saturday and Sunday, at the studio, taking classes and rehearsing.

Jo Reed: You ended up in New York, finally, at the School of American Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre.

Rachel Moore: Yes.

Jo Reed: How old were you, and how did that come about?

Rachel Moore: The School of American Ballet, I went when I was 15, during the summer. There were auditions being held in San Francisco, and so a group of us from my studio went down to San Francisco to audition, and I was very fortunate to have gotten a spot. And something similar happened the following year with American Ballet Theatre School, and I found that ABT’s style and approach to dance was much more comfortable for me and consistent with my previous training. And so, I had sort of made the decision that that would be my ideal place to dance, if I ever could.

Jo Reed: And you did.

Rachel Moore: I did.

Jo Reed: You had a very successful career there that, unfortunately, was cut short. But it was also a career that was really in the Corps de Ballet, and you talk in the book about having a revelation, watching another dancer – a principal dancer – on stage. Can you just talk about that a little bit?

Rachel Moore: Yes. It came to me that watching Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland and dancers of that caliber, that I was not going to become like them; that no matter how hard I worked – and I was very diligent and a hard worker – that there is this thing called talent. And while I had a considerable amount of it, I didn’t have the level of talent that those dancers possessed. And so, recognizing that I wasn’t going to become a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, I needed to recalibrate what I saw as success, and what I saw as creating value in my career, artistically. It was a very painful, but a very important moment for me.

Jo Reed: In your book, “two basic truths” – I’m quoting you now – “I’ve discovered over the course of my career,” and that’s one of them, is defining success for oneself.

Rachel Moore: Yes. Absolutely. And I think that that changes over time, and I think this is a journey that I certainly went on, and many do, that when you’re younger, you think that success can only be defined by having your name in lights, and being quote-unquote “the star.” And that really is a very narrow definition of success, and it’s not a sustainable one if you’re going to have a long-term career. I also discovered that, in speaking with a lot of people whom I regarded as wildly successful, that they were disappointed they could always point to somebody else who had a better career. And that seemed so sad to me and unproductive, and it really reinforced this notion that you need to find out what it is about your work that provides meaning and joy to you, and then build a career around that, rather than external measures of success, or, worse, somebody else’s definition of a success.

Jo Reed: We may as well go to the second basic truth since we second basic truth, since we talked about the first, and I see them as, really, being connected very deeply. And the other is defining your own voice.

Rachel Moore: Yes. I think that – this is critical, and it’s really important, nowadays – that when a young artist sets out, they need to know what they bring to the table. What is special about what they’re doing, and why should people take notice? Why do I, as an artist, think that that will connect or resonate with people? And you need to think about

that, especially in the performing arts, where it is truly about the audience, as well as about what you’re creating. It’s that synergy. And without understanding what differentiates you in the marketplace, you’re going to have a much harder time getting jobs, articulating why you should be hired, and I think it helps you grow as an artist, to really have your own sort of artistic vision of what you’re bringing to the table.

Jo Reed: At 24, you had a life-altering injury, and you found out you couldn’t dance anymore.

Rachel Moore: Right. Without pain.

Jo Reed: Yeah. What happened?

Rachel Moore: I had an increasingly bad foot injury to my right ankle, and it became very painful to dance. And so I went and had surgery, and I was in a cast for three months, and it was unclear whether I would be able to return to the stage. And so I felt that I needed to take matters into my own hands and prepare for my future. And so it was a time for me to sort of start on the next chapter.

Jo Reed: But you wanted to remain in the arts.

Rachel Moore: Absolutely. It became really apparent to me, as I became an older Corps de Ballet member, I started to appreciate all the sacrifices people had made so that I could have a career, and I wanted to make sure that I could give back in some way. Whether it was through teachers or people in the company fundraising so that we could have performances, I really wanted to make sure that others had the same chances I did.

Jo Reed: You went back to school and became an arts administrator –

Rachel Moore: Yes.

Jo Reed: Studied to be an arts administrator. And among the other jobs, you worked here at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Rachel Moore: Yes, I was an intern in the dance program, and then the following summer, I was a fellow in the Congressional Liaison Office. And I’ve got to say, I had an extraordinary time. I learned so much about the field, about the challenges facing the

arts, overall, not just in dance, and I still have many friends at the NEA, all these years later, and I really regard it as a wonderful time in my young adulthood.

Jo Reed: You went to Boston, and at the Boston Ballet Center for Dance Education, and then, almost miraculously, you went back to ABT. That must’ve been a very satisfying moment.

Rachel Moore: It was. It was also wholly unexpected. I had been happily ensconced at Boston Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre, at the time, had had considerable changeover in their executive leadership, so they had done another search for an executive director. And a friend of mine who was in the company said, “Oh, why don’t you apply?” And I was like, “Oh, I don’t have a prayer.” And they encouraged me to do it, if for nothing else than experience. So, I submitted my application, with the hope that I wouldn’t make a fool of myself in the interview process. And I was flown down, and I had a really good initial session with the search committee. And what I realized is, I knew more about that company and about professional ballet than anybody who was on the other side of the table. And so that gave me a sense of confidence going forward, but once again, I had very low expectations that anything would happen. And so I was called back for a second session, and once again, I had no expectation that it would go beyond that. And in the middle of the interview process, the search chair leaned over and said, “Oh, you’re doing really well.” And I was like, “Oh. Well, that’s nice.” And I walked out of the room feeling proud of myself that I had not made a complete and utter fool of myself in the process. And within about six hours, they called back and said, “We would like to talk to you about the position.” And I landed back at home, at ABT, and it was an extraordinary eleven and a half years.

Jo Reed: And now you’re President and CEO of the Music Center, in Los Angeles. You took that position last year.

Rachel Moore: Yes.

Jo Reed: So, having established this – your artistic side and your business side – as you say, right in the beginning of The Artist’s Compass, these two are not mutually exclusive.

Rachel Moore: Right. They’re actually supportive. And I would actually argue that you cannot be a successful artist, in terms of having a sustainable career, unless you take the business side very seriously.

Jo Reed: And that’s pretty much what you argue in the book. Tell me, why did you write The Artist’s Compass?

Rachel Moore: I have worked with many young artists, both in the dance world and the classical music world, over the last few decades, and certainly from my own experience, I know how young and naïve I was, walking into American Ballet Theatre when I first started out. And I’ve really spent time with young artists in their journey, and it just felt like there weren’t readily accessible, understandable tools for young artists to get a handle on what, what’s the landscape of the professional performing-arts world, and how can they navigate their way through it without making horrific mistakes along the way. And also, knowing some of the basics about the field, you have more confidence that you can work your way through it, and it’s not quite so scary.

Jo Reed: You write that there are certain questions an artist needs to ask himself or herself as she or he begins, or even begins to think about a career in the arts. We touched on a couple of them. What else?

Rachel Moore: Well first, “What do I have to offer, and why should somebody care about what I’m creating?” I think there’s also a question of, “Am I really suited to this field?” If one is painfully suffering from stage fright, and it makes your life a misery, maybe that’s not a good fit for you, and maybe there’s other ways you can share your artistry. Because you shouldn’t beat up yourself or have an uncomfortable existence to create your art, and if you’re not able to manage that, that’s something you should listen to. And similarly, the role of a professional performing artist is one of great rejection. You get turned down, you don’t get jobs, you don’t get roles all the time. And if you’re someone who can’t manage through the rejection in a productive way, this is not the field for you. You should be looking for something that’s perhaps less risky, something less fraught.

Jo Reed: Well, you make clear, being talented and being dedicated is – you discovered firsthand – just isn’t enough in the performing arts, that you also have to be strategic, and I would add lucky, though strategy often adds to one’s luck.

Rachel Moore: Right. Well, you know, Einstein says, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” So...

Jo Reed: Yeah. I think it does.

Rachel Moore: And I think that it is being thoughtful and strategic about what choices you make in your career, and understanding when you’re looking at a role, a

performance, a job, is this a job that you’re taking because you need to pay the bills – which is a completely honorable and acceptable thing to say – or is it a job that you want to do because it will help you grow as an artist? And you need to balance those things. For many of us, we need to balance those things, because we don’t usually get only the most exciting jobs that actually pay really, really well. Certainly, not starting out. And if you know why you’re taking a job, then you can think strategically about what the next job is, and also how much you’re willing to get paid. So if it’s something that is going to really change you, artistically, you’re probably willing to get paid a lot less than something that you’re doing just to pay the bills. And that’s a good thing to know.

Jo Reed: Somehow I think, at this point, it’s very important to mention both your parents were economists.

Rachel Moore: Yes. So I had the, the finance side came naturally to me.

Jo Reed: You also say aspiring performers need to think like an entrepreneur and create their own brand. And you can hear some people say, “I’m an artist. How do I have a brand?”

Rachel Moore: Well, brand is simply an outgrowth of your artistic vision. It should be completely consistent with the work you’re doing, with what your artistic value system is. It shouldn’t be something that is pasted on separately. It should be an outgrowth of who you are. And it is going back to that notion of, what do you have to bring that is special, and why do you believe others would find it resonant? So it’s not a separate, artificial thing.

Jo Reed: It’s making an authentic part of yourself more public?

Rachel Moore: Yes. Absolutely. And the people who don’t do that – you can spot a phony a mile away. So, and it’s also just very uncomfortable. I think that artists, one of the things they do is they open their hearts and make themselves vulnerable to the greater public, and that is a very scary thing to do. But it’s that fearlessness, as an artist, that you also bring to your brand. It’s just an outgrowth of that same fearlessness of opening yourself up and letting the world see what you think you have to bring, as an artist.

Jo Reed: The performing-arts landscape, like much of the jobs in America, have really changed in the past 20 to 30 years. Can we talk a little bit, specifically, about how they’ve changed, and how performing artists really need to respond to that change?

Rachel Moore: Yes. It used to be the case that one went to a Juilliard or a Curtis or a School of American Ballet, and there was likely to be, for those in the top echelons, a job ready and available for them in a major company: an orchestra, opera company, ballet company, what have you. And that is no longer the case. The number of opera companies, ballet companies, symphony orchestras, has diminished over the years, so there are fewer jobs, and the competition is fiercer. So an audition for an instrument at the New York Phil, they’re going to have hundreds and hundreds of people applying, all, you know, many of whom are tremendously talented. So the reality is, now, an artist needs to help make their own opportunities. This is both good and bad, in that it’s comfortable to have a clear path to being able to do one’s art, but it also means that if somebody says, “No, you don’t have it,” it used to be that there were very few other places you could go. Now there are so many opportunities to create your own work, and to let people know about it through social media and YouTube, that you can redefine your own career. You can create your own audience and your own public, and take ownership of your own career, which is edifying and really brings a sense of personal efficacy to an artist, as opposed to simply being subject to the vagaries of other people’s decision-making.

Jo Reed: How do you recommend people do make the most of social media?

Rachel Moore: Obviously, people need to be on Twitter and Facebook and have their own website, make sure that their website is up to date, that it is very much reflective of the work that one is doing, and attractive to whom you think your audience is. On social media, you need to really be active and engaging, and always, in my opinion, gracious, so that you don’t off-put others, unless that is really a vision of who you think you are as an artist, is to be offensive. And you need to work it. And, you know, I think of Daniil Simkin, who was a soloist at American Ballet Theatre, and he’s a media, a social-media presence, building audiences, so that when he created his own little company to perform across the country during the summers, he had a built-in audience. So that’s a very clear way of using social media to help get you work.

Jo Reed: To create excitement about what you do.

Rachel Moore: Yes, absolutely.

Jo Reed: Now, networking. We all hear networking is very important, and it’s very important in the arts because that’s how you find out about opportunities. But let’s say you’ve just moved to New York City because you want a career as an actor or a dancer. How would you start?

Rachel Moore: Well, first, I think that one goes back to one’s school, whether it’s a ballet conservatory or an undergraduate degree, and before you get to New York, you find out who knows whom in New York so that you can start making connections; so that when you land, you can start taking people to lunch or going out to coffee, finding out what the lay of the land is. You can also avail yourself of the resources of things like New York Foundation for the Arts, which has a lot of resources for artists. But I think it’s really about finding out who’s in New York, how can you connect with them, and start building a network from there.

Jo Reed: Another thing that is true for, I would say, most artists, is that there typically is a day job to pay the bills.

Rachel Moore: Yes, yes. And depending on the art form you have will sort of help you choose what would be the day job that would be most productive for you. And there’s the old saw of actor-waiter, dancer-waiter. There may be other choices. I think it’s ideal for an artist to think about, how can they remain closely connected with their art form while they’re making a living, whether it’s getting certified as a teacher in your field, or working at a school, or maybe being a receptionist at an arts school, so that you remain close to what you do and what you love. Because I think that will make the process much more palatable and sustainable.

Jo Reed: Yeah, that’s a hard one because it’s also so expensive. People go to New York, people go to L.A., people go to Chicago. And we know that there’s art everywhere, but they tend to have the gravitational pull, and they’re very expensive.

Rachel Moore: Yeah, it’s hard. So when I was dancing, I had two roommates, and we lived in a studio, and that was what you did when you’re starting out. And I also – during my summers – the ABT dancer contract, which is true today, is you have 36 weeks of work, and then you’re laid off for the other time period. And so you would either gig with other performances, you’d get teaching gigs. I actually worked as an assistant stage manager for a couple off-Broadway shows, just to pay the bills. And so you need to get out there and work your network to see what sort of little jobs might be available that can

help you pay the bills. But it’s definitely, New York and L.A. and Chicago are not cheap places. But if you work your network, and you’re creative, I think that you can figure it out. Because, at root, performers are profound problem-solvers. What you do on stage, you have to figure it out. Nobody’s going to help you when you’re on stage. That curtain goes up, you are alone. So you need to figure it out. And that skill of figuring it out on stage is what’s going to help you figure out your life.

Jo Reed: Now, when I read your book, and it’s a book of practical advice, and I think, “Okay, there are the lessons that I need to take, the classes, in order to maintain my discipline. There’s the day job, so I can pay the rent. There are the auditions I need to go on, so maybe I can get a job in my field. Then there’s the networking, so I can find out about the auditions. And then there’s the social media, so people know who I am.” And sleep is also very important.

Rachel Moore: Yes.

Jo Reed: It seems a little daunting.

Rachel Moore: Well, you know, to do anything well, you have to be committed, and you need to be willing to work hard. And you’re really driven because you shouldn’t be doing this unless it is absolutely what drives you to get up in the morning. But I felt strongly that I wanted to add in the sleep part, because, A, I think many people who are younger do not get adequate sleep, and your problem-solving abilities are just radically diminished. And you need to take care of yourself physically, as well as in your artistic endeavor because the goal is to last a long time, not to do something really intensely for a year and then burn out. That’s not good for you, and it’s not good for the art form, because the more seasoned performers, those who last longer, bring so much more to their field than somebody who’s just starting out. And it’s a tremendous loss to have somebody just burn out prematurely, when they have great things to add to their field.

Jo Reed: If you have to think about mistakes that performing artists really should avoid, what would they be?

Rachel Moore: I think the first is to assume that if you are really good at what you do, you’re going to get the job. That is certainly what I thought when I was starting out, and it

In her new book, Rachel Moore gives practical advice and strategic insight for creating a career in the performing arts.