Interview with Houston Symphony's Director of Business Analytics

This interview is part of a series on various data professions in the arts. For previous pieces, read Big Data, Big Jobs or my notes from an industry panel on the subject.

Analytic jobs take different forms depending on the person and company. Brandon VanWaeyenberghe, the Director of Business Analytics at Houston Symphony, is one such professional. Before he became an analyst, he worked in fundraising as a Development Manager and in Corporate and Institutional Giving. While employed by Houston Symphony, the Chief Financial Officer created his position. When a company creates an analyst position, they have to decide how to structure it in order to supply needed resources and interactions across the organization. In this case, the Houston Symphony placed VanWaeyenberghe’s position in the finance team. Below is his take on data analytics and the skills that are important in his profession.

Julia Lewis: What is your educational background and what aspects of it led you to this profession?

Brandon VanWaeyenberghe: I have a BS in Music Management from the University of Evansville (IN), and both an MA in Arts Management and MBA from the University of Cincinnati.  After two years of work at the Cincinnati Ballet, I participated in the one-year League of American Orchestra’s Orchestra Management Fellowship program. Arts management has been my chosen career path since I have been in undergrad – it allows me to stay connected with the creation of art while using all of my skills and experience.

My capstone project in graduate school was a ten-year study about the supply and demand of orchestra musicians, comparing music schools graduation numbers and the number of listed orchestral positions.  I self-published an updated version of the study (27 years worth of data) in 2013, and an abbreviated version was published in the American Journal of Arts Management in August 2014.


JL: What led you to choose a job in analytics in the nonprofit arts sector? Do you have an arts background?

BVW: Until a year and a half ago, I worked as a fundraiser.  I was the Development Manager at the Cincinnati Ballet for two years, and then worked in Corporate and Institutional Giving at the Houston Symphony for five and a half.  In total, I have spent the majority of my 13-year career in arts management in fundraising.

I arrived at my current position at the Houston Symphony at the intersection of mutual needs.  While I still enjoy fundraising, I had been told by my mentors that I needed additional experience in finance and project management if I wished to become an executive director.  At the same time, the Houston Symphony’s CFO created the new position of Director of Business Analytics.  It was a mutual win for both parties.


JL: How does working in the symphony’s finance department change the nature of your work?

BVW: As a part of the finance team, I touch all corners of the business.  My work is not isolated just in one area – one day I may be working on subscription research, the next I can be designing budgets for a foundation proposal.  In finance, it’s our job to be a resource to the organization.


JL: What do you consider your most valuable skill that you utilize every day at your job?

BVW: If I were to ask that question to everyone else on staff, they would say Excel.  But in reality, it comes down to curiosity.  I want to know more about what makes our patrons behavior in certain patterns, what drives costs and how can we predict the future.  If I had a second skill, it would be one of listening.  Every day people come into my office to talk, not about my work, but about life and the symphony in general.  Building trust is one of the principal traits I have worked on in my career, and it has paid off in dividends.


JL: What advice would you give to someone looking to start a career with analytics? What about to a company hiring someone in analytics?

BVW: To someone looking to start a career, I would say make the job your own.  I was fortunate to have the position created within my organization and I have free range in developing the job description and responsibilities.

To the company hiring an analyst, I would say that hire someone who knows the industry.  They will bring a depth of knowledge to the job that will allow them to find connections others may miss.


Banner image by luckey_sun, licensed under Creative Commons.