For evidence the Creative Class is thriving on the Central Coast, look no further than Bettina Swigger, an arts powerhouse who writes, plays viola, hosts a radio show, drops prose on Instagram and now helms Downtown SLO as its new chief executive officer.

Like the eclectic Festival Mozaic she led as executive director for eight years, Swigger is a mixed bag of influences and experiences, from co-founding an underground punk rock venue in Colorado and authoring a literary zine to leading two other arts organizations and serving on the Emerging Leaders Council for Americans for the Arts.

With this year’s Summer Festival now in the rearview mirror, we caught up with Swigger to talk inspiration, humility and strategies for surviving 30 events in 13 days.

Early riser or night owl?
My former punk rock self would be astonished, but middle age has turned me into an early riser. These days I wake up at 6:30 or 7 and write. Every day.

Song currently on repeat:
Whenever I’m feeling down, I listen to “Rasputin” by Boney M, and if I’m ever feeling really stressed out, I watch the video. Fantastic disco dancing, great costumes, unexpected and brilliantly executed key changes – it’s got it all. And also, because I work in fundraising, Aloe Blacc’s “I need a dollar” is in pretty heavy rotation.

Best Halloween costume:
The scariest has to be when I dressed up as Carrot Top. The resemblance was uncanny.

Pet peeve:
People not voting.

Can’t get through festival time without:
Adrenaline, applause, coffee, text messaging, a daily meditation from Headspace, and a sense of humor!

Best post-festival spot:
Anywhere that serves food after 9:30! Most of the musicians don’t like to eat dinner before they play, so they are hungry when the show’s over. I’ll never forget the time I took an Italian violin/piano duo to In ’n’ Out Burger. They were horrified that potato was the only vegetable on the menu… but I think they secretly liked it.

Most reliable source of creativity:
You can’t be creative without witnessing other people being creative in real life. For me, watching a live performance of any kind opens up those floodgates. And going outside is imperative – thus my deep love for the incomparable natural beauty of the Central Coast.

You’re currently working on a memoir about a transformative time in your life – what’s the hardest part of working on such a personal project?
I’m almost finished with my manuscript – a memoir about how my life changed when my mother died suddenly. But the hardest part about writing the book isn’t the re-living of the experiences; it’s writing. Writing is hard! Organizing the chapters and structuring the narrative is like solving a puzzle. I’m reverse engineering my own history, and I want to be sure that it resonates and has value to a reader who has not lived inside my skin.

Nurturing creativity in others is central to your job – what’s your approach?
I’m a proponent of design thinking, which starts with empathy and encourages experimentation. For our staff, I want to make sure they feel the freedom to come up with ideas and experiment, whether it’s new venues or a new ticket sales strategy. For the musicians, they work really hard, so we ensure that their schedules are accurate and that they have good directions to our various venues, adequate time to rehearse and  decent snacks.

In the 2018 Festival, I brought together artist Bryn Forbes and pianist Christopher O’Riley. They had never met, but they collaborated, sight unseen, on a performance of O’Riley’s solo piano arrangements of Radiohead songs accompanied by video art by Forbes. They are going to try to do that project again in other cities, because it was such a success. That started because I saw Forbes’ show at the SLO Museum of Art. To be creative, you have to pay attention to everything around you and always be thinking of the next possibility.

You work with top musicians from around the world – what commonalities do you see?
They’re like Olympic athletes, in terms of the sheer hours they have devoted to their instruments, and in some ways, the things they have sacrificed in order to succeed. Unlike Olympic athletes, musicians must be collaborative.

In my experience, the better someone is at their craft, the nicer they are. So the people who get to the top got there because they were special and talented, yes, but also because they were nice enough for other people to want to keep working with them, to lift them up, and get them to the next level.  At the end of the day, they’re human beings who are committed to working really, really hard. And being kind, and being good listeners along the way. There’s humility in that, and real inspiration.

Photo credit: Kelly Donohue