Leadership / 12.02.20
Performing Arts Aficionado Matt Cooper is Living, Loving and Leading Like a Star
According to an old familiar joke, there are three ways to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. But Matt Cooper, Vice President at Ticket Philadelphia, somehow found four ways of his own. He got to what is arguably one of the world’s most famous concert venues first as an employee, overseeing ticketing operations; then as an afficionado, in the audience for a “riveting” performance by the Berlin Philharmonic playing the Brahms Second Symphony and the Brahms Second Piano Concerto; and later as both a performer and consultant. None of this should come as a surprise given Matt’s lifelong love of music and the performing arts.
“My dad was a choir director, so I was in choir with him when I was a kid. When I was in middle school and high school, I was in band, concert and marching band. When I was in college, I was in choir. I actually briefly flirted with a performing career as a singer and did a lot of professional choral singing both in New York and in Philadelphia,” Matt says. “I've more recently transitioned back to being an instrumentalist, and I play clarinet in a local community band, which is currently on hiatus because of the coronavirus, but I enjoy that a lot.”
If there is one thing that the coronavirus has taught us, it is the importance of having balance in our lives. Should Matt ever want to remind himself of this, he need only think of his grandfather, a mechanical engineer who lived to the grand old age of almost 102 and is best known for creating a machine that helps to balance motors at high speed. This invention led to the modern-day washing machine. Today, Matt proudly points to a wall in his Philadelphia home where he displays a series of slides that were once used by Westinghouse to market his ancestor’s invention — 20th century technology transformed into 21st century art.
“My grandfather was a model of moderation and thoughtfulness,” Matt says. “He was always quietly caring, looking after people and making sure the right thing gets done. It has set a template for consistency across both my personal and professional life.”
Performing arts have always been at the center of Matt’s personal and professional life. Getting “closer to the art” is one of the reasons why, in 2019, he left his position as President and Chief Operating Officer of Jacobson Consulting Applications (JCA), an international nonprofit consultancy based in New York. He would go on to join Ticket Philadelphia — a joint venture of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts and the Philadelphia Orchestra — an organization he had helped to create almost two decades earlier.
Matt is close to the action, seeing "Come From Away" at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia with daughter Betsy.
“I had been in the consulting business for a long time, and I had been able to do a lot of really exciting work with performing arts organizations and museums,” Matt says. “But my role at JCA had changed, and it took me away from doing work directly with those organizations. I found I missed that a lot. I really wanted to be closer to it.”
Matt continues, “At Ticket Philadelphia, I get to serve a bunch of really different and vital organizations. The Kimmel Center is an amazing place. It’s a convening place for all sorts of different art in Philadelphia. Broadway is a big thing that the Kimmel Center does, but the Kimmel Center does all these little things, too, which I find really amazing. They cultivate jazz artistry here in Philadelphia; they are working to engage in the Philadelphia school district, which has all sorts of needs around performing arts and arts education. The Kimmel Center is working hard to make itself accessible to the whole of Philadelphia, not just that traditional part of Philadelphia that feels welcome at the performing arts center. They are really trying to engage in different communities across the city, and that's amazing.”
The Philadelphia Orchestra, says Matt, is an equally incredible organization. “It is evolving and really trying to have an active part in fine arts or high art kind of conversation. The artistry of the orchestra is amazing. So, too, is the way it is trying to engage with the city, and trying to engage with the current challenges, whether they are racial or economic; it’s inspiring. Having these two organizations as the partners that run Ticket Philadelphia is just awesome. We also work with an array of other clients here that do such great work. It is fun to be able to serve a variety of organizations that are each trying to fit in and be vital in our city; it's an honor to be a part of that.”
Matt and wife Krys after participating in a performance of Mahler's 8th Symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Matt couldn’t get much closer than he is today, working with a team of like-minded professionals who, like so many others in the arts, have experienced a year like no other because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although at least one Ticket Philadelphia client is selling tickets for streamed performances on demand, live events remain on hold for the time being.
“We are operating with a tiny staff,” he says, “and it is going to be some time before we can welcome people back to our halls in a physical way, which is a challenge. But, on a positive note, the restrictions that come with the pandemic have given us an opportunity to think through how we will engage people down the road. Things will be different, that is for sure.”
Leading the Way
Matt believes a leader should be ready to listen and adjust, while being decisive and prepared to move forward. By leveraging these skills himself, Matt is helping Ticket Philadelphia navigate through the pandemic. He is also finding his INTIX membership to be especially valuable during these times.
“INTIX has been key to my progression through my career,” he says. “When I was in my role as a consultant, it was a place for us to look for business and to understand what the concerns of the industry were and what was going on in the industry. Now that I am back more directly in a venue, that knowledge about what is going on in the industry is even more important to me. In fact, in the past six months, it has been invaluable. I am sitting in on Wednesday Wisdom phone calls and hearing how folks from across the industry are dealing with the constantly changing landscape. I have taken any number of things back to our leadership to help us inform our decision making. I have told my team that we have a responsibility to share what we have learned and what we do back with INTIX, because we have gained so much from that community, so we look forward to continuing to be in that two-way relationship where we can learn and where we can give back to the community as well.”
For Matt, using his knowledge to help connect people to the experiences that make their lives more meaningful has become more of a challenge these days, but one to which he remains passionately committed.
“I am sure this is a feeling that many folks who are in the ticketing industry have — the understanding that what we provide is access to things that give people joy in life. That may be going to see the Philadelphia Orchestra or watching Broadway in Philadelphia or watching the Pennsylvania Ballet or going to see the Philadelphia Eagles. We have a great responsibility as folks who are in ticketing to make those experiences accessible, to help people understand how they can get to [these events], to make sure that folks who have needs for accessibility know that they are welcome in our spaces, to make sure that we are continually thinking about how we use language to welcome folks who have not traditionally perhaps been explicitly welcomed in our spaces — all of those things. In the role that I am in now, I feel like I really have an opportunity to be strongly part of that important conversation.”
It certainly helps that Matt’s team is fully on board. “One of the great gifts that I have in my team is their flexibility and their willingness to go there with me. A lot of them have been with us for a long time. They have a lot of institutional knowledge; they bring a lot of richness to conversations. One of the things that I really appreciate is they are not bound by what we have always done. There is the knowledge of what we have done and why we have done it, but also the acceptance that we do not have to do that; we can do something else.”
At a time when many families are separated because of the coronavirus, Matt takes solace in knowing that Krys, his wife of 25 years, and their three children, Betsy, Daniel and Katherine, are together and able to support one another through these difficult times. His parents, sister and sister’s family are all very important to him too.
“My life is organized around them all,” Matt says. “The fact that I have an excellent and well-functioning family, that we are together, and we take care of each other, and that everybody is well, is really important to me. Of course, we are unable to do many of the things we were able to do before COVID-19 struck, but I do my best to keep myself busy. I am working, so obviously there is that, but then what do you do in those other times? There’s cooking, and I like to run, so there’s that. I also practice my clarinet a lot, and that helps me to keep my sanity.”
Like all of us, Matt is eager to see some normalcy return to the arts industry. And yet, at the same time, he recognizes that perhaps this imposed “timeout” has been good for him.
“In the past, especially earlier in my life, I always wanted to get to the next phase of my life. I was impatient for whatever that next thing [would be], whether it was the next big job or the house, just the next big experience. If I had to do it all again, I would tell myself to slow down, that it will come, and to be in the moment. I am trying very much at this point in my life to stay in the moment.”
With this in mind, Matt reflects on what he might like to do once the all-clear is sounded and the pandemic is behind us. “I have not been able to travel much for various reasons. I have always been really excited about the idea of spending time in Berlin because I feel like there is just a ton of culture there and lots of history and things that would be interesting. I have never been there, but it has always been a fantasy of mine to be able to spend an extended amount of time there, to be able to travel around. My oldest child has traveled through Germany a couple of times. Last summer, my wife and I were planning to go on a choral tour of Italy. We were going to sing with a group and do concerts across Sicily, but unfortunately the coronavirus happened, and so we didn’t get to do that, which was going to be really exciting.”
Closer to home, Matt and his family enjoy visiting Chincoteague Island in Virginia for their annual vacation. “It is a place I just love to be. It is a place to be relaxed and be at the ocean. It is small enough that it’s really easily to navigate and it’s not overrun by people, so that is a place I have been to a lot and I will continue to go to because I love it.”
The Coopers in Chincoteague.
In the meantime, Matt takes pleasure in reflecting on past experiences that he treasures. He speaks passionately about his favorite book, “My Name Is Asher Lev,” by the late American Rabbi Chaim Potok.
“One of the themes of the book is that in order to be great at something, you have to understand its origins, where it came from and how it developed to be what it is. It also talks about how great art is made by breaking boundaries. You learn and you assimilate all of the system that is today, and then you make something great by breaking the rules. It is a beautiful book that I have read many times, and it really speaks to me every time I read it.”
And with his passion for music as strong as ever, Matt listens to the works of his favorite composer, Brahms, and remembers some of the most memorable live concerts he has attended over the years, among them the Benjamin Britten War Requiem. “The experience was literally out of body,” he says. Matt also fondly recalls his own days with the Philadelphia Singers, a professional chorus that sang with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
“We performed at the farewell concert for the orchestra’s music director, Wolfgang Sawallisch,” he says. “We performed the Beethoven Ninth symphony, and it was an amazing performance because the orchestra musicians were just pouring out their love for the Maestro who was retiring. Everybody was so invested in the performance in a way that was, well, it was not your everyday performance. You would like to think of every performance as being unique, but this one was amazing.”
Other than music, what inspires Matt? “I can be very much a pragmatist,” he says, “but I am really inspired by hope. People who have hope and can express hope for something better down the road in a constructive way inspire me. That takes the range of lots and lots of people, but that is what I am looking for. We are can-do people. I love ticketing folks because it is all about pragmatism and how we get the job done.”
Matt continues, “One of the things I have loved watching over time is how our industry has become more and more focused on providing really exceptional guest experiences, and really focusing on that experience. When I started, and this was true of me, we really focused on doing our work, but I think we have really evolved into thinking about doing our work in service of the guest. We are welcoming them into an experience. How do we do our work to welcome them and serve the organizations that we serve, to help make them successful and help them make them sustainable, but always with that eye on how we are welcoming people through the door to experience something transformative, whatever it is. It could be the joy of winning, the agony of losing, or sitting there wrapped in your seat and watching a concert for an hour and a half.”
Being able to create and enjoy live event experiences is what Matt wishes for most right now. If he had three wishes, his first would be “that we could open our venues and I could go back to seeing performances and having people come to them. I mean, I know that’s obvious. I just miss going to things as much as I miss ticketing them.”
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Tags: Memberships , Leadership