Caroline Sharpen on her OAM and guiding the TSO into a new era

28 June 2024. Written by Stephanie Eslake. 

When I congratulate Caroline Sharpen on her Medal of the Order of Australia, she is quick to reply that her success belongs not only to herself, but to those who work alongside her in the Australian arts industry.

From the virtuosic musicians on stage to the dedicated arts administrators behind it, Caroline says her colleagues at the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra are part of “a giant ecosystem that is completely precious”.

Caroline Sharpen

Caroline received this royal acknowledgment of her “service to the performing arts through leadership roles” in the General Division of the King’s Birthday 2024 Honours List, which was announced this June. She says her position as CEO of the island’s major orchestra is “the best job in the world”, and it’s one she seems to embrace not for its status, but for its ability to help drive positive change and innovation from within.

“What we do in the performing arts – and that manifestation on stage – is the tip of a giant iceberg,” Caroline says.

“Underneath that is all of the work, all of the training, and all of the sacrifice and commitment that you make from a very young age.”

Caroline knows what it takes because she also trained as a professional musician, and started her post-graduate degree at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. It was in her first week of study that she realised she “wasn’t ever going to be one of those people that would walk out on stage” – so she chose to tread a different path, which would see her serve the arts community in a way she felt passionate about.

Her first step was volunteering with Musica Viva Australia, and it would eventually lead her to the role of Director of Business Development with the chamber music organisation.

Caroline then went on to build an impressive career that has seen her work as Director of the Australian National Academy of Music, Creative Partnerships Australia, Gondwana Choirs, and the Tasmanian Youth Orchestra; and Director of Development with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Working so closely with Australia’s top musicians for more than two decades, including through her own consultancy business, Caroline gained rare insight into what it takes for an arts organisation to support its talent – and “the things that need to be different”.

“To be so close to professional artists at the absolute peak of their career – and just knowing what it takes to walk out on stage, week after week, with a new program under your fingers – it’s nothing but profound respect, and wanting to make the environment around them as conducive, harmonious, and inspiring as possible.”

Caroline became TSO CEO in 2019, and almost immediately faced the onset of the pandemic – arguably the biggest challenge Australian arts organisations have faced in their histories. While the country went into survival mode, the orchestra found new ways of connecting with audiences despite the odds. It launched the TSO Daily Dose series of close to 200 videos, which were generated in house by the TSO team and achieved tens of thousands of views.

Soon, Caroline and the team would start thinking more about how to “enshrine change and adaptability, crystallise what Covid was teaching us, and make big decisions about the future of the company”. They worked on formulating a 10-year-plan, then realised they’d need to dig deeper if they were going to take the orchestra to the next level. They needed to come up with a new vocabulary – one that would help them define and articulate what their orchestra is really about. One that would ground them in their shared values. And who better to help pave the way than the members of the orchestra and their team?

“No CEO can walk into a company and announce what the values are going to be,” Caroline says.
“They’ve got to be deeply held, felt, embraced, embodied, and embedded by every person in the company – and you can’t do that unless you’ve had a role in creating them.”

After the TSO team discussed the question, “What does it mean to be an orchestra on this island, in this part of the world?”, a collective of five tutti musicians and five junior members of staff identified three main values for their own orchestra. These values would shape the future of “the decisions we make, the people we employ, the way we manage performance in the company”.

The three values are ‘artistry’, ‘integrity’, and ‘connection’. They reflect an intentional move away from the value of ‘excellence’ that traditionally underpins performing arts organisations.

“The dangerous thing about ‘excellence’ is that it’s often conflated with perfection – and when you’re striving for perfection, it makes you play small, and it makes you play safe,” Caroline shares.

“It’s ugly cousin is shame, so that wasn’t really a healthy dynamic we wanted to have at the heart and soul of the company. So we really interrogated that, and came up with ‘artistry’, and respect for everything that’s gone before us.”

In addition to listening to the needs of arts workers in the orchestra, Caroline is also enthusiastic about one of the TSO’s newest initiatives: an advisory group made up of kids aged 14-17 years old, who will meet with the orchestra and give opinions that could inform the way it connects to the local community.

“They know that music can have a profound effect on their mind, their motivation…and they use it as a way to connect with their friends.”

With the positive impact of music on children’s development, Caroline is excited for the orchestra to be doing some “genuinely heavy lifting for school music, education, literacy and numeracy, as well as the incredible cultural outputs that we will have as a result”. This also reflects the TSO’s goal for every child in Tasmania to experience their state orchestra by the time they reach grade three.

“Two years into the program, and already this year we’ve physically reached 7,500 kids,” Caroline says.

Next year, the TSO’s education team will launch new digital programs, adding to its already impressive collection of educational resources.

As Caroline returns to her office with the letters OAM after her name, she also embraces the news that her contract with the TSO has just been extended for another five years. In this time, she hopes the orchestra will continue to develop into a “thriving, amazing, precious jewel for all of Tasmania”.

“What I would hope to see when I come to the end of that next five-year term is a real sense of Tasmania as a place where incredible music, art, and creativity happen.”

“What I would hope to see when I come to the end of that next five-year term is a real sense of Tasmania as a place where incredible music, art, and creativity happen.”

Explore the full King’s Birthday 2024 Honours List, and keep up to date with TSO news including more behind-the-scenes interviews with our team.

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