French-born Anne Berquist is happy to be back in Grand Rapids, where she sees many positive changes since she left.
Anne Berquist joined Opera Grand Rapids in December as executive director following the nonprofit’s national search to replace outgoing executive director Michael Havlicek, who retired in June.
Berquist was not only a good choice based on her professional experience, but also because she already has ties to Grand Rapids: She called the community home beginning in 2001 when she moved to the United States from France.
“My first residence was in Grand Rapids,” she said. “I was working in Kalamazoo, but I was living in Grand Rapids.”
Most recently, Berquist lived in Florida, beginning in 2012 when she began working as executive director of the Atlantic Classical Orchestra.
She said she is excited to be back in West Michigan, both because her three daughters still live here and because of how much Grand Rapids has changed since she left.
“Since the time that I left Grand Rapids to now, it’s a different town,” she said. “It’s incredible. I’m so impressed and proud.
“I wanted to come back. Michigan became home for me. My girls were here. I found this opportunity with Opera Grand Rapids.
“I think Grand Rapids is the place to be,” she added. “It’s on the map, it’s a destination, and I think the opera has humongous opportunities in front of us for how we can develop and go to the next step.”
In the year ahead, Berquist will spend a lot of her time connecting with different stakeholders and organizations in the community as she begins to chart the path for Opera Grand Rapids’ future.
“I think I can bring a lot to the table and take this organization to a higher level and developing new things,” she said. “It’s too new for me to know what we are going to do, but it’s going to be in discussion.”
She did say, however, that education and accessibility would be major focal points of the upcoming discussions. “How can we develop an audience for tomorrow? How can we educate and tell them what the opera is?”
Berquist grew up a musician — specifically, a cellist — taking up the instrument at the age of 5. Her father enrolled her in a school that provided intensive musical education alongside traditional academic studies. She won her first chamber music competition when she was 12.
In addition to providing a strong arts education for his children, Berquist said her father also instilled the idea of the United States as a place of freedom, so that as she grew older, she was eager to come here and experience it for herself.
By chance, while Berquist was living in U.S. briefly in the late ’80s, she met a music professor from Grand Valley State University who, in 2001, would recommend her to Fontana Chamber Arts in Kalamazoo, where she was named artistic and executive director and CEO.
“Something that was very interesting to me in that specific job is they were combining the artistic and the administration together,” she said. “It’s a small organization, and they were looking for someone with both talents. Very rarely do you get to do both.”
Berquist had recently completed her Master’s in Business Administration in arts and culture business management at the Sorbonne in Paris. She said the job was a perfect fit. She and her three daughters relocated from France, and she worked at Fontana for seven years.
“We became one of the anchor organizations recognized by the Michigan Council for Cultural Affairs,” she said of the organization’s development while she was at the helm.
Berquist said that one of the skills she picked up from her role at Fontana was fundraising, which was something that wasn’t done in France at that time and still isn’t common practice now.
In fact, she noted that it seemed like everything was different in the United States from what it was in France. One of the toughest things about the move was adjusting to the cultural differences.
“Everything I think that is happening here in the states, almost on a daily basis, is very different from the way I was raised,” she said.
“I was living at that time in Paris, and arriving in Michigan was a huge cultural change for me. I had to adapt and I’ve really enjoyed it since I became an American, so I am happy with this, but it was an extremely big change for me.”
She noted that arts education was one of those differences, mainly because here in the U.S., it wasn’t part of everyday life and it wasn’t accessible to everyone.
“I felt when I came here, I was so fortunate to have had this kind of education that I couldn’t even give to my kids because I couldn’t find the schools or teachers, and when I did, finally, I couldn’t afford it.
“One hundred percent of the students in France do something (in the arts), and it doesn’t cost money — you don’t need to be part of a certain circle in society or have specific resources, which you need to have here. You need to (be able to) afford it because it costs money here.”
Arts education and accessibility have been a motivating factor for Berquist throughout her career.
In fact, from 2010 to 2012, she served as president and executive director at the Ann Arbor School for the Performing Arts, and from 1997-1999, she held positions as administrative director and director of studies at Conservatoire National de Région Musique et Danse in France.
“Education is extremely important for me, whatever I do,” she said. “How do we educate the audience? You can’t just bring people into your hall without educating them to what you do.
“It probably used to be that way because you had to be in a certain place, you had to be seen. It’s not like this anymore.
“So, whatever I do, wherever I am, it has to have an education component.”
Berquist thinks Grand Rapids is on the right track, acknowledging several programs that reach out to the community and provide people — especially young people — with the experiences and education they need to become future audiences.
Berquist has eagerly jumped into her role with Opera Grand Rapids, so much so that she has yet to have time to hunt for a house. She said it’s because she’d rather be working than looking for a place to live.
She currently is overseeing the remainder of the 2013-2014 season, which includes the organization’s first performance at the East Grand Rapids Performing Arts Center. Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” will be performed there in March.
Berquist said that although she wasn’t involved in the decision to hold the performance there, it is exactly the sort of thing that is likely to occur in Opera Grand Rapids’ future, a move toward building a closer connection between the performers and the audience, including the opportunity to see performances in a more intimate setting.
It is a move that other performing arts organizations have begun to try across the country, as well, in an effort to attract a younger and more connected generation — one that is expecting something different from their evening outings.
Hopefully, Berquist said, her passion for education and accessibility will help Opera Grand Rapids attract the next generation to its performances, wherever they might be.