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Front Page » Top Stories » Next Performing Arts Center Leader Will Be Looking For New Audiences

Next Performing Arts Center Leader Will Be Looking For New Audiences

Written by on February 28, 2002

By Jaime Levy
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As arts leaders nationwide work to expand audiences to ensure the survival of their cultural meccas, those hiring the leader for Miami’s planned performing arts center hope their choice will play out to making it a magnet for non-traditional crowds.

The trust will probably tap one of three candidates – Michael Hardy of Louisville, Lawrence Simpson of Cleveland or Colin Jackson of Calgary, Canada – to head the performing arts center, slated to open in fall 2004. The selection could determine the direction the center takes; participants in the process say it will be critical to have a leader who sees outreach as imperative.

"The arts world is changing, tradition is changing in the arts. The way our country looks is different than it looked 30 or 40 years ago. Miami is such a microcosm of what the country is looking like, moving toward," said Gail Thompson, project director for the center. "We can’t, as an arts institute in the 21st century, look at opera as what we’re about. We have to be about what the Cuban, Haitian, Argentine community is interested in, because they’re all here, they’re all our family."

Ms. Thompson came to Miami from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, considered nationally to be an example of both revitalizing an urban center and attracting an audience reflective of the community. Long an area considered unsafe and undesirable – Ms. Thompson recalled overhead walkways connecting the train station to office buildings so out-of-town commuters didn’t have to set foot in the city – Newark’s turnaround was since hailed as a rejuvenated destination in a November 2000 New York Times article that called the center Newark’s "single greatest hope" for revival.

But the transformative spark was lit several years prior to the center’s 1997 opening, when then-vice president of programming Stephanie Hughley hit the streets and began asking potential audiences what they wanted to see.

"I think heretofore, most PACs were built to house the orchestra, ballet, opera – all eurocentric art forms. But if you look at the demographics, a lot of people living here are not necessarily based in eurocentric tradition. Unfortunately, in this country, arts centers have not been catering to any other communities except those participating in those art forms," said Ms. Hughley, now executive producer of the Atlanta-based National Black Arts Festival. "All of them are trying to figure out now how to integrate those different communities into their programming. I think it’s kind of hard for many of them, other than, ‘Here’s something for black people for Black History Month.’ There’s not the true integration into the very fabric of the institution so that communities are not only represented on the stages, but in the audiences, on the staff, on the boards."

Richard Bryant, an arts and entertainment consultant who has worked with the New Jersey center as well as the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, makes a similar point.

"Let’s say there’s a performing arts center in any major metropolitan area that was built 30 years ago to house the orchestra. It’s not something necessarily in the tradition of some other large part of the city. So for 30 years, nobody from that part of the city is going because the form is not about them. Just because you start doing programming that is about them, if for two generations nobody’s gone, why would they suddenly start thinking it’s a place they want to go?" he said. "Many (arts centers) in major cities aren’t considered a place to go by a lot of people. There’s a long historical gulf."

But Miami’s center, as a new facility, will not be as steeped in historical patterns as existing centers trying to reconfigure existing audiences. Those involved in the search for a director for the center say the ability to broaden an audience base is an important quality, and all three candidates to lead the center say they are interested in – and have experience doing – audience outreach.

The candidates surfaced in a national search by Performance Executive Search and Management Consulting of Coral Gables. Prior to the county’s approval last year of $255 million in construction fees for a project expected to cost more than $334 million, the center had as president Tom Tomlinson, who left about a year ago, citing frustration with the center’s slow progress.

Mr. Hardy, president of the Kentucky Center of the Arts, who along with Mr. Jackson has twice met with members of the Performing Arts Center Trust search committee, said a project that brought artists to local community centers and subsidized tickets for participating children is "beginning to perceptibly change the audience" his community’s events.

"We’ve taken the centers from a time when they had a basketball net and a ping-pong table to the point where they have Suzuki violins," Mr. Hardy said of the Arts Reach program in Louisville and other neighborhoods in the county. "It starts by being out in their community and over time, it loops back to participation in the center."

Arts education programs, he said, are fundamental to growing new audiences.

"All the research shows that (of) people who wind up attending performing arts center events, the vast majority of them did it as children, generally because their parents took them along. Very few people just decide when they’re 25 years old, having never been to the theater, to go, because they’re not familiar with it."

A sense of ownership, said Mr. Jackson, president and CEO of Calgary-based EPCOR Centre for the Performing Arts, is key to ensuring a community’s involvement in a performing arts facility.

"Any number of big and small strategies can be undertaken to do it, to make it a place where everyone feels ownership of it by virtue of being a citizen of the county," he said, pointing to centers in Denver and Newark as models for audience growth. "Like all cities, Calgary is becoming much more diverse. The first-generation migrants are more Indo-Canadian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian. It’s a different migration pattern (than Miami’s), but it’s still the same principle – a lot of people from non-European backgrounds. When we’re talking about cities of the 21st century, it’s got to be a place where different cultures can find ways to collaborate with each other. The challenge is to build a sense of community, of something common, between a diversity of people. That’s where the arts center can play a supporting role."

The third candidate, Lawrence Simpson is president of Cleveland-based Cuyahoga Community College’s Eastern campus, a founder of Jazz Fest Cleveland and a former panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts. Because he has not met with the Performing Arts Center Trust for a second time – he is to do so March 1 – he said he was uncomfortable speaking too specifically about his strategies for augmenting audiences.

Still, he said, "I think performing arts centers have wonderful opportunities to expand audiences and in more ways, engage communities. That’s what they’re able to do in such a marvelous way and it’s a very important function they serve."

Aside from the community-building functions of growing audiences for a center, arts leaders agree on a practical benefit, too. As heavy-hitting donors grow older, centers need to develop a next-generation support base.

"Historically, arts support in America comes from a small number of people, but major kinds of supporters. With donors, it’s a constant search," said Nancy Herstand, executive director of the local Performing Arts Center Foundation, which, in representing the center’s five resident performance groups, raises private funds for the center. "You have to connect with people before they’re ever going to give to you. People give to things they’re involved with."

And so, despite the future center’s current lack of a permanent leader, its caretakers and directors are launching outreach efforts in advance. For example, starting in March and lasting through completion, monthly lunchtime concerts are to be held for construction workers at the site; when the building is finished, the construction workers and their families are to be the audience for its first concert.

"Our first concert in the completed center will be for the hardhats and their families. It begins to create an identity for the arts center," Ms. Thompson said. "It’s going to be different: ethnic, opera, symphony, jazz, reggae, merengue – it’s months of opportunity to say ‘We’re going to be about everybody."