The state of the arts: the Kennedy Center International Leaders Forum

This past weekend the Kennedy launched its first annual International Arts Leaders Forum. It was a grand vision with as grand a title. The stated goal was that big institutional leaders would come together and tackle some of the performing arts industry’s “most difficult questions and chart the course to a more sustainable future.”

Keynote Speaker San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro -(Photo:  Yassine El Mansouri)

Keynote Speaker San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro -(Photo: Yassine El Mansouri)

Keynote speaker Julián Castro, the bright star mayor of San Antonio, kicked off Saturday’s events, and, though he swore he can’t carry a tune or bust a move, he staked out a vision for his city where arts and economic meet. Cities that invest in the arts, he predicted, will thrive; those that don’t will stagnate. prosperity go hand in hand when the local government invests heavily in the arts and particularly in the diversity of creativity and artistic experience.  Castro’s role in this event was to be both entertaining and inspirational, and this attractive, charismatic mayor succeeded in being both.

The good mayor was followed by the first of three weekend symposia that were meant to get at the heart of the “most difficult questions.”

Alas, that first afternoon, the conference nearly stalled. Creating a good vibe took precedence over substance. To all I spoke with it was a disappointing start.

David M. Rubenstein, whose brainchild this conference had been and who had underwritten the event, led a friendly conversation with the Board Chairs of the Miami City Ballet (Ana-Marie Codina Barlick), National Black Arts Festival (Sonya Halpern), Guthrie Theatre of Minneapolis (Wendy Nelson), and the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Victoria Sharp.) The talk did not penetrate sufficiently the wealth of knowledge these women obviously had.

Board Symposisum - Sonya Halpern - Wendy Nelson - Victoria Sharp (Photo: Yassine El Mansouri)

Board Symposisum – Sonya Halpern – Wendy Nelson – Victoria Sharp (Photo: Yassine El Mansouri)

It was a pity because the unique role that Boards play in America, particularly in the area of fundraising, including personal giving, was probably the most important area to define and address the international interest in such a forum.  As world economies face downturns, even countries that have a tradition of strong governmental support of the arts are being forced to examine new models to help share the burden of arts’ fiscal sponsorship.   In this country, the role of Boards is not well understood or successfully developed by most non-profit organizations. The expertise gathered Saturday afternoon might have offered significant insights.

Another disappointment was that the organizations represented mainly top tier, cultural “pillars” of their metropolises, whose Board Members were, at least in part, attracted to the social prestige and networks their arts affiliations afforded them. What would leaders of grass roots organizations have offered in the way of interesting models? How do they attract and retain Board members and balance loyalty to mission, needed skills sets, and the growing call for representational diversity with the classic motto seen dictating professional boards: “give, get, or get off the board?” How do organizations in other countries without the tradition of individual giving develop boards of directors who take their fundraising responsibilities seriously?

highlightpencilThe Q&A gave us glimmers into the critical need for such a dialogue by participants at the gathering. Glen Howard, theatrewashington board member and veteran concert performer, asked a question directly pertinent to the participants. “Is there something each of you are not getting from your board that you would like to see?” The audience sat up expectantly, but there proved insufficient time to compare the delicate operation of board development and transformation.

If people left the conference the first day slightly bewildered about whether the conference would find sufficient traction for its ambitious goals, a new tone was set when folks came back for Day 2. Brett Egan, Director of DeVos Institute of Arts Management, which has been carried under the umbrella of the Kennedy Center but which will be moved to University of Maryland in the Fall, launched into the second symposium with arts managers with fast-paced, focused energy.

Arts Managers Symposium - Devos Institute Director Brett Egan (Photo: Yassine El Mansouri)

Arts Managers Symposium – Devos Institute Director Brett Egan (Photo: Yassine El Mansouri)

Egan clicked along with an overview of what he called the industry’s “productivity challenge.” Projecting with graphs and charts, he laid out dire statistics. These included the sharp national drop in audience attendance, the accompanying plunge in percentage of revenues through ticket sales, the rising costs of producing art, greater diversity and other demographic shifts with new interests and tastes, and smart consumer demands for “best buys” matched with heavy competition on people’s leisure time. Perhaps most sobering was seeing the stark figures measuring the drop in arts education. If students receiving a music education has dropped to a chilly 20%, then dance and theatre, like our recent weather, were facing the equivalent to the polar vortex in certain parts of our nation and hovered in the low single digits.  It all amounts to a major crisis facing our arts “ecology.”

Egan had come prepared and handed out very specific topics he wanted each of the participants to address. Deborah Borda of the L.A. Philharmonic led off the panel laying out how the “LA Phil” had responded to the challenge with new charismatic artistic leadership and programmatic innovation targeting the new demographic realities of her city.  Joined by Howard Herring of Miami’s New World Symphony, Patrick McIntyre of the Sidney Theatre Company, and Chris Widdess of Penumbra Theatre Company in Minnesota, these indefatigable managers shared their search for solutions to the crisis by making some bold if controversial programmatic decisions.  These guys are trying everything from fireworks and all night Raves (LA’s Phil) to projected visuals and yoga classes thrown in with performances (Miami’s New World Symphony,) and reinventing traditional performance venues as hip social hubs (Sydney Theatre Company.)

What I took away was that “going conservative, getting small, or playing safe” is not an option.

But the question still remains if cultivating new audiences, slashing ticket prices, offering “value added” programming, and programming for niche markets  will be inviting enough, educational enough, and inspiring enough to develop return audiences willing to try something else and especially the more mainstay programming of orchestras, operas, ballets and repertory theatres.

Artist Symposium 1 - Mo Rocca - Deborah Voigt - Ben Folds - John Lithgow - Terence Blanchard - Judith Jamison (photo: Yassine El Mansouri)

Artist Symposium 1 – Mo Rocca – Deborah Voigt – Ben Folds – John Lithgow – Terence Blanchard – Judith Jamison (photo: Yassine El Mansouri)

Will programming become rekindled and reinvented through crossover work or will the rich, traditional forms go the way of dinosaurs?  Will people dig into their pockets and find money as they surely do to support Superbowl wannabes and rock concerts? It appears no one really knows.

We might have all been left flailing in a death spiral at this, but lunch brought a welcome surprise. Director Julie Taymor had been scheduled to speak but she’d had to bow out with laryngitis. Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center, stepped in and deftly carried the show.  We all got an up-close demonstration of why he is known as the “turnaround king” of arts institutions. He leads with passion, fearless conviction, and clarity.  He called for boldness in programming, marketing, vision, and education in the arts.

The final panel represented major performing artists from different fields.  As “stars” in their separate disciplines, they had naturally generated much interest beforehand. Some of them had made that rare transition into leadership roles in management. For decades Judith Jamieson served as a leading dancer in Alvin Ailey’s Company then led that organization for decades more. Ben Folds and Terence Blanchard are two musicians who have always charted their own courses and negotiated strategically what they would or would not do. Opera star Deborah Voigt probably should get the chance to lead a company or at least serve, as Renée Fleming has done as Artistic Advisor to Chicago’s Lyric Opera, in a key spokesperson position. Only American theatre’s own John Lithgow admitted in the role of a “for-hire” actor, he has too often been relegated to saying not only  “yes” to opportunities, any opportunities, but “please.”

Moderating celebrity Mo Rocca fanned the flames for good storytelling  “the stars confess” stuff.  Alas, too often panels with high-powered artists devolve into something akin to media gossip shows. With the platform at this conference, the gathering might have done more to respect and challenge these performers to deeply examine what roles performers should take in this new artistic landscape.

Afterwards, I caught Lithgow in the reception room. As we talked, it was hard to believe that this thoughtful and talented actor had never been asked to articulate an appropriate role for artists to assist in addressing the current situation. The man has, in fact, made regular contributions by seizing opportunities to teach young people about the power of music in venues from small classrooms to Carnegie Hall. I would have liked just such a conversation with everyone who served on the panel.

One is left to wonder if the real exchanges and learning at such events don’t happen over the drinks and finger food. Like our audiences who, we’re told, now want to participate and be interactive rather than ingest arts passively, I wanted more engagement and more “interactive” dialogue.

This was the International Forum’s first time out; like many shows, it could use a second run.  But the conversation doesn’t end with the Kennedy Center’s expensive invitational gathering. It doesn’t even begin with it.

HowlRound, the online, interactive discussion place for people in the arts at all levels, has held many conversations, including a series on Boards revitalization. Thomas Cott, Marketing Director for the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, assembles a daily electronic clipping service, grouped by subject: You’veCottMail, which draws together discussions from around the world. Most recent topics:  “do performance companies need “giant buildings”; the impact – good and bad – of tourism on the arts, subsidized artist housing.

Susan Galbraith About Susan Galbraith

Susan Galbraith received a BA in English and Drama from Tufts University, graduating summa cum laude and Phi beta kappa. Settling in Minneapolis for a time, she earned an MFA from the University of Minnesota, founded a theatre company, Performers Ensemble, and also collaborated with Prince on writing songs and the first draft of Purple Rain. Susan was part of the acting company at Boston Shakespeare Company under Peter Sellars. Since 1991, she has made D.C. her home where she has enjoyed the opportunity to write plays, direct, act, and produce. She helped co-found Alliance for New Music-Theatre and collaborated on original works across disciplines, styles, and cultural expressions of music-theatre. For the Alliance, Susan adapted and directed Kafka's Metamorphosis and is currently collaborating with composer Maurice Saylor on adapting Karel Capek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) as a retro-futuristic musical.This Fall she directs an "apartment performance" of Vaclav Havel's Protest which will perform in D.C. and NYC.


  1. I agree! The Board Directors could have gone deeper, Brett was awesome, Kaiser kinda preached his book, but the point was stellar. The celebs were hilarious and really told us what we already know. Meeting and mingling was great but I felt compelled to get to know the same handful of people during the 2 days so it really meant something later. I would have loved to see a projected image with the names of everyone in attendance so I could go find folks I needed to meet! Next time they can curate the social hour a little bit, maybe introduce a handful of people on a mic, who had something great to say, then unleash them into the crowd. I’ll be going back next year!



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