New Carnival Center chief sees high profile programming on horizon
By Risa Polansky
Striking a balance between offering high-profile shows and presenting the local and Latin American-themed performances favored thus far by Carnival Center for the Performing Arts officials will be the challenge that comes with his new artistic director role, said the center's new president and CEO.
Lawrence Wilker, tapped to assume the artistic director position last week only days after being appointed the center's interim president and CEO, said he's up for the dual duty.
Mr. Wilker said he plans to line up for future seasons "outstanding, highly recognized artists, as well as to support and work with local artists in the community."
He was chosen by the center's Trust to replace former President and CEO Michael Hardy in hopes his extensive experience as president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and as a Tony- and Emmy-award-winning producer would give the Carnival Center the boost it needs to rise out of its financial difficulties after an inaugural year of poor ticket sales and staggering debt.
Days after Mr. Hardy's ousting came the resignation of Justin Macdonnell, who served as artistic director since 2003.
Rather than replace him, Mr. Wilker is to assume programming duties during his sixth-month stint at the helm of the center, where the programming focus since its opening last year has been on local performers and internationally themed performances.
The center finished its first fiscal year with a $2.5 million shortfall, even after a $4.1 million bailout from Miami-Dade County — due largely to lower than expected ticket sales.
"I don't know that there were weaknesses" in the center's programming strategy thus far, Mr. Wilker said, but he acknowledged that programs at the center "may not have been as recognized or high profile as they should have been, especially in the beginning."
Though the center's programming to this point has been "exceptionally high quality from an artistic standpoint," he said, "we just need to do more and more high profile" performances.
Mr. Wilker is credited with earning the Kennedy Center more than $2 million in profits through co-producing shows such as Tony Award-winning revivals of "Guys and Dolls" and "The King and I," along with other productions.
Even after advice during a summer visit from Kennedy Center executives to beef up higher-profile, internationally known programming, former Carnival Center management insisted Miami audiences preferred local artists and Latin and internationally themed performances.
"What worked well in our first season and what Miami audiences clearly expressed a strong preference for, we are making sure there's a good supply of it," Mr. Macdonnell said in August. "Miami is a special place, and our mission has to be guided by the nature of Miami. There is no formula or no easy solution, but we have a strong response to support, encourage and present local artists — that's something that cannot be negotiable for us."
Mr. Macdonnell did recognize that "Miami audiences also have a strong preference for well-known major stars from Broadway and the world of entertainment."
He planned for the center this season to offer six Broadway shows, one more than last year, opting also to present fewer Carnival Center Presents shows this year — 60% fewer — to free dates for performances presented by outside companies.
Because Mr. Wilker inherited the job with this season nearly fully planned, he said "it's going to be tough to make any immediate changes" in programming, as there's "not really much open space until next season."
He hopes still to squeeze new events into the few open dates left, he said, and "absolutely" plans to step up high-profile performances in the future while continuing to reach out for community performers and cultural performances.
It's a "complicated mix," Mr. Wilker said, but he remains confident the center will strike the balance over time. "Everything takes time, especially if you're going to do it right."