DER Member Spotlight:  Alison Murphy-Bernet, Director of Development, San Francisco Girls Chorus

In May 2023, Alison Murphy-Bernet will celebrate five years with San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC). SFGC is an arts education nonprofit that serves over 350 brilliant young singers ages 4-18 each year. Alongside guest artists and composers, SFGC choristers participate in rehearsals and performances, gaining the skills they need to succeed on stage and in life. The chorus has worked with everyone from Philip Glass to The Residents and focuses on generating new music from leading women composers, allowing SFCG choristers to be a part of shaping the music of their time. 

Alison first started in the development field while in college. She reflects, “My scholarship package included a work-study provision, and I got a job as a gallery attendant in the university museum. I had never imagined that a career in the arts was attainable, and this was my first step to realizing this might be a possibility. The following year, I started in the museum’s development/membership office as a student assistant, and I fell in love with arts administration. My first “pitch” was as a speaker for the paddle raise at the museum’s gala during the close of my senior year. I helped to raise $40,000 for the same program that had helped employ me, and pay for my financial aid, and I never looked back. Development allowed me to be close to what fuels me – art and music – and to make it possible for others to experience transformative moments with creative expression.” 

Now with 15 years working in development, Alison has seen the art sector shifting to a focus on broadening access for both participants and audiences. Alison explains, “I’ve seen a heightened commitment to having development practices, and the funders that support us, mirror the commitments of the communities we champion. Creativity, diverse perspectives, and new ideas are more encouraged as we attempt to widen the base and compete for focus amid a busy and demanding world. There is also a greater interest in using these tactics to grow the next generation of supporters, and more openness to buck tradition in favor of being responsive to our audiences.” 

Faced with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, SFGC could no longer perform choral singing in person. “We had to think creatively about how to provide our singers with consistency and opportunities for expression when everything else around them was in chaos. I learned a lot from SFGC’s Artistic Director, Valérie Sainte-Agathe, during this time. Where others saw barriers, she saw possibility and doubled down on the core aspects of our organization: artistic partnerships and the determination of our singers. COVID enhanced my ability to see what is important, then innovate, reflect, pivot, and then keep on pivoting. There is always another way, you just have to be creative–and flexible–on which roads you take to get there.”

Another way that SFGC adapted was in successfully executing four different gala formats during that time. “COVID threw a wrench in our ability to do a traditional fundraiser, and it took a lot to learn how to plan and run virtual and hybrid events from scratch, including all of the platforms and ‘quirks’ that go along with them. Through all these iterations, I came out the other side knowing more deeply what our audiences will respond to… and that I can downright fly up a flight of stairs in heels to fix a projector.” 

Alison has been an active member of DER for two years and participated in the DER Mastermind Small Shop program, taught by Chanda Lockhart. The program helped Alison gain a supportive peer community and learn practical ways to improve her work.

Outside of her job, Allison is a multidisciplinary artist and loves to work with her hands. She shares: “I have an encyclopedic knowledge of podcasts, and love to discover new music, especially through my favorite radio station 89.9 KCRW in Los Angeles. In the summer, you can find me in the garden growing heirloom tomatoes.” 

Looking forward to the New Year ahead, Alison observes, “In the moments when burnout is on the horizon, I try to take a few moments to go back to my ‘why.’ When I was at the museum, walking through the galleries, and at SFGC, I sit in on rehearsals and just listen. Development isn’t always the easiest path, it’s constant problem-solving with a potent mix of emotional labor. It’s important to take time to refuel, however, this might look, both in and out of work. I’m resolving to do this more in 2023!”