Leadership / 04.22.21
Mara Hazzard-Wallingford: Turning Passion, Talent and Creativity into a Fulfilling Arts Career
It is a fairly good bet that someone who grew up immersed in arts and culture will themselves be creative, and perhaps even enjoy a remarkable career in the field. This is exactly what happened with Mara Hazzard-Wallingford. After spending her childhood on Long Island studying artifacts in museums, visiting historic sites, exploring local culture and attending concerts with her parents, she carved out an extremely successful life around everything that she loves. She credits her parents, whom she calls “the people I admire most,” for putting her on the path to where she is today: working as Chief Growth Officer at Tessitura and living a happy life surrounded by family in Rochester, New York.
Mara on stage at a Tessitura conference.
“I live five minutes away from my parents right now. My family chose to move really close to them because we have a really close relationship,” Mara says. “My whole life, they had such strong foundational values, and they really counterbalance that with relentless curiosity and willingness to be open to change as the world changes. I think that combination of having a having a real North Star and maintaining that ability to listen and internalize other people’s experiences is something I admire. They are also huge lovers of the arts and, in that way, are responsible for my career.”
Mara’s career in ticketing began as a “side hustle” while she was pursuing a graduate degree in music performance. She was fully focused on her studies and had never considered taking a job behind the scenes until the woman who was to become her mentor, Kim Noltemy, now CEO of the Dallas Symphony and Mara’s boss at the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) at the time, took her aside. “Kim was the first person to sit me down and say, ‘Look, arts administration is a real career path that you should consider because you are very talented.’ She opened up pathways to me that I was blind to.”
That advice has served Mara well. After almost seven years at the BSO, the organization where she started, Mara’s career has helped her create memories and have an impact from Miami and New York to Connecticut and beyond.
“I started working at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami when it was under construction,” Mara says. “When the building opened, the Cleveland Orchestra played in our concert hall. When you work in a building that is being built, you learn so much about the acoustics and the mechanics, why the seats are like this and not like that, and why you have panels that swivel. We knew all this stuff about the concert hall — how acoustically perfect it was supposed to be — then the first time I heard the Cleveland Orchestra play in that space, it was such a magical moment. It was also a moment of pride for me because I felt like I had contributed to bringing this to fruition.”
Mara and her husband, Chris, at the Arsht Center.
Fast forward to today, and Mara is finding inspiration in watching arts and cultural organizations innovate during this incredibly challenging time — and doing it in ways that are all about connecting.
“In my community, we have a theater called the Avenue Blackbox Theater, located in downtown Rochester. They have been focused on helping the community they serve through the pandemic. So, even though they can’t have performances and they can’t bring kids to their theater for educational programs, they have all this virtual programming, educational workshops, and then they even decided to participate in Rochester’s mutual aid program, so they have a food shelf outside of their building. The idea is anybody can walk up and take what they need. The executive director of the theater takes personal responsibility for making sure it is stocked. I find that just incredible.”
Mara is equally as proud of the work Tessitura has done for arts and culture during the health crisis. “We quickly delivered the features organizations needed to meet new business needs that arose from the pandemic; we communicated to them clearly and effectively about what we had available and had high feature adoption; and we continued to grow as a community and onboard new organizations onto Tessitura,” she says.
These successes were achieved by a team that is spread across the country and around the world but has always worked closely together. This allows Mara and her colleagues to live where they want to live.
“At Tessitura, you can work from anywhere. That is the case now with most places, but it has always been the case here,” she says. “One of the things I love about Rochester is that it is a small community, but it is so culture rich. There is so much arts and culture packed into this little city and so much natural beauty. We are not that far from Letchworth State Park and Lake Ontario. There is also a strong drive toward equity and trying to become a more equitable community. So, yes, it is cold, but this winter especially I really tried to embrace the cold and get outside every day to stay balanced, so I feel like I have adapted to the climate.”
Seeing ‘Hamilton’ in Rochester.
Outdoors in Rochester.
Rochester is also close to Chautauqua, a picturesque lakefront village that Mara visits every summer with her parents, husband and daughter. The community is home to the not-for-profit Chautauqua Institution, which offers a unique mix of fine and performing arts, lectures, interfaith worship and programs, and recreational activities.
Mara’s family at Chautauqua.
Taking in a show at Chautauqua.
“When you go to Chautauqua, it is like stepping into another world. There is so much to learn, so much to experience, so much beautiful music and so much natural beauty. It really, truly is one of my favorite places to be,” Mara says. “My husband bought me their virtual assembly for Christmas because I was so heartbroken not to go [in 2020]. Some of the people who work at Chautauqua are also very active at INTIX, so I have a personal love for the place, and I have also been able to cultivate relationships through INTIX, so that has been fun for me, too.”
Connecting with her fellow ticketing professionals is something Mara really values. Being a member of INTIX keeps her united with the organization’s global community.
“I started my career in the ticket office, so I have been connected to ticketing for over 20 years. At Tessitura, we are so deeply embedded in that arts and culture, ticketing professional’s world. INTIX really gives us that opportunity to connect with everybody who is working on ticketing in arts and culture. It does not matter if they use Tessitura or if they use another ticketing system; we have the opportunity to learn from them and help them succeed, and that is something that I really value. Everybody across arts and culture is working to engage their audiences, incorporate digital into their strategy, understand their audiences and data and grow, and I love having that connection.”
Mara and Crystal Brewe at INTIX.
Data certainly helps ticketing professionals and entertainment organizations better understand their audiences. It is a great way to facilitate and strengthen connections to customers. Mara believes in the power of data, but also in good old-fashioned listening.
“[The quality I like most in a person] is the ability to hear, consider and believe perspectives that are so different from your own,” she says. “We all have our own experiences in life that have led us to certain beliefs and maybe biases, and to have a conversation with someone and really be able to hear them when they say, ‘That might have been your experience, but my experience is completely different,’ is something that we all need to cultivate. I think that also includes the ability to really change and adapt and grow as we learn.”
Learning, continuous improvement and growth are extremely important to Mara. It is therefore no surprise that her best professional relationships are with colleagues who challenge her and, like her, are radically candid.
“I really value a colleague who will be very direct with me and say ‘I hear where you are going with this, and I do not agree, I have to tell you why, and here is another way you can think about this.’ The book ‘Radical Candor’ by Kim Scott is one of my favorites. She talked about radical candor as this combination of caring personally and challenging directly. I think that is what it is because you have those close relationships, you have that trust, but you know that people will tell you the truth.”
Ultimately, open, honest relationships do help build trust. Combining this level of authenticity with an unwavering belief that you will succeed in the end, regardless of your current circumstances, is something Mara admires in other leaders.
“I was on a business trip a few years ago, and I was listening to the audio of ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins. He talked about the Stockdale Paradox, which he describes as the ability to keep the faith that you are going to prevail in the end, but also to be completely willing to face the brutal facts of your reality. I think that combination, especially over the past year, has been critical to be able to lead organizations and teams through this crisis, by saying this is the reality and the truth about what we are experiencing today, and we are going to make it.”
This belief is consistent with the advice Mara says she would give herself if she could go back in time. “I think the biggest thing is to remember to keep things in perspective. There are so many things that happen, which at the time are really upsetting or stressful or maybe even really positive, but in the big picture, they really do not matter. When I am trying to make a decision, or if I find myself getting stressed out about something, I will stop and say, ‘OK, what will this matter in five years?’ Five years from now, what will I wish I had done or, five years from now, will I even remember this? I think that helps me stay on an even keel.”
Even with the pandemic and all its challenges, Mara is feeling good about life. At work, she remains creative, empathetic and productive, and outside of work, her family keeps her smiling.
“I am a very lucky person,” Mara says, clearly beaming through the phone. “I have an amazing husband. He coincidentally also works at Tessitura, though I did not meet him at Tessitura. We have a daughter, she’s 8, and the two of them are absolutely the loves of my life. They are such outstanding humans, and I feel really lucky that I get to do life with them.”
In normal times, Mara and her husband love singing together in church choirs; it is something Mara has loved since she was young.
“Singing in a church choir [brings me the greatest joy in life]. It is something that I have done since I was 10 years old, and I happen to be Episcopalian, so I have sung in Episcopal church choirs. What is amazing about that is that in my life, I have lived in all these different places, I have had different jobs and gone through different stages of life, but the repertoire is always the same, the liturgy is always the same. It is a very reassuring constancy as life changes. I think, for me, that has been one of the hardest things about the pandemic is to have to put that on hold,” Mara says.
Today, with that hobby on pause, Mara and her husband have found another activity that they can also share with their daughter. “Before the pandemic, we would sing in a choir together, which is a nice way to connect with people, make music and do something totally different from work, homework and cooking dinner,” Mara says. “Right now, our new hobby is eating ice cream in the car. We drive to an ice cream place and then eat ice cream in the car. That’s our go-to fun family activity right now.”
Sharing a meal (or snack) has always been a great way to bond with others, whether it is over tea, ice cream or the tradition of a holiday meal. As a rule, Mara tries not to get super attached to possessions, but she does have a cherished set of Christmas dishes passed down from her grandmother that hold a special place in her heart.
“Every year when I bring them out for our holiday meals, it makes me so happy. I love them so much. I think part of it is feeling really connected to the past generations of my family and all the memories that I have of going to my grandmother’s house, eating Christmas cookies and drinking tea. It is amazing how something like a teacup or a platter can carry those memories through [from generation to generation], and now my daughter is eating from them.”
The holiday dishes Mara inherited have now been enjoyed by four generations, so one could say there is perhaps just as much tradition steeped in her cup of tea as there is at Tanglewood, the summer home of the BSO since 1937.
“I started my career with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and my role didn’t travel to Tanglewood, but I would still go out for concerts quite a lot,” Mara says. “I went to see Renée Fleming in the shed, and it was absolutely pouring — you could just hear the rain hammering the roof. She was singing this song called ‘Morgen,’ which means morning [in German]. There is a really long orchestral introduction, and the very first line of text in the song is ‘And tomorrow the sun will shine again.’ When she sang that line, it stopped raining. It was the freakiest moment, and I kept wondering if it really happened. I think about that a lot. Apparently Tanglewood is quite famous for these sorts of mystical interactions between music and nature.”
Mara remembers that Renée Fleming show as her favorite event of all time. And her favorite venue?
“When I was in college, I did a summer abroad in Vienna, and the place where I studied was right across the street from the Vienna Staatsoper. Every time there was an opera, we would wait in line and get standing-room tickets, which at the time were the equivalent of two American dollars. You stand in line, get your ticket and then they put you in absolutely the best seat in the house. It is not a seat, but the best spot in the house. It is the equivalent of First Tier at Carnegie Hall, but instead of sitting, they have these velvet-lined railings that you lean on, so you stand and watch the opera. I think I went to six operas that summer,” Mara says. “I have never been back to Vienna, but I have such a fondness for that venue and the way they give their scrappy little standing-room people the best view in the house.”
The best view of the ticketing industry comes to Mara through INTIX — at the organization’s annual conference plus its program of year-round education and networking.
“Over the past year, it has been so inspiring to watch Maureen [Andersen, CEO of INTIX] pull people together,” she says. “Every Wednesday, I get my email from her, and it is like she is pulling all of us into this giant virtual hug. It has been really heartwarming and really special.”
Mara continues, “At Tessitura, we have had a long-standing relationship with INTIX, and it is very important to us. INTIX helps us to gain insights into what is happening in ticketing outside of arts and culture, and that can give us a clue as to what the organizations we serve are going to need. That is really valuable for us. The sharing back and forth of inspiration and insight is also something that we really appreciate.”
Mara and Maureen.
INTIX also helps Mara keep connected with a special mentor. “I have had several throughout my life and throughout my career, but one person who stands out and one of the people who I see every year is Gary Lustig,” she says. “I met him when I was at the very beginning of my career. He has looked out for me and helped me cultivate my own career over all of these years, so I have been very fortunate.”
Mara at INTIX with Gary Lustig and Kay Burnham.
In terms of her most memorable INTIX moments, Mara says she will never forget the INTIX Live! Digital Conference in 2021. “Seeing how the excitement and the relationships hopped over into the virtual world, seeing people [as avatars] and finally being able to do those back flips that I can never do in real life was so rewarding.”
“Rewarding” pretty much sums up Mara’s life to date. While becoming Chief Growth Officer at Tessitura may have been the result of a “side hustle” from many years ago, it is also the highlight of a career that has brought her everything she could dream of in life. “I am so proud of the work we do here to advance the business of arts and culture, and I love being charged with growth because I want us to be able to help as many organizations as possible.”
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