Thursday, August 21, 2014

Fall Preview 2014: Talking with Tampa Bay's newest arts execs

On filling big shoes, finding audiences, and making art in a tough cultural climate.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 21, 2014 at 12:48 AM

click to enlarge TODD BATES
  • Todd Bates

We called it a roundtable, but the configuration was more square than round: eight of the area’s newly anointed arts execs, plus A&E Editor Julie Garisto and yours truly, all gathered for a conversation at CL Space on a rainy Thursday night in August.

After pizza was dispersed (also rectangular, from Pizza Fusion) and pictures taken (by CL Creative Director Todd Bates), we began with introductions and an invitation: Name the one thing that’s happening in your season this year that everybody has to see. 

Find their answers, and their bios, here.

Following the introductions, we launched into the delicate subject of The Ones Who Came Before. 

David Warner: You’re having to fill some big shoes. Jennifer Parramore was at the film commission for 22 years, Anna Brennen at Stageworks 30 years. Seth and Meg, both of your Todds [Smith at TMA, Olson at American Stage] not only had been there for quite a while, they, like Anna, built new homes. So you’ve got this big legacy behind you. What’s that like?
Meg Heimstead: Todd — my Todd — has been really generous with his knowledge and his time. When I’ve encountered a roadblock or need some help, he’s a text away.
DW: For all three of you who are interim directors — it was pretty sudden, right?
Seth Pevnick: I was in Omaha helping to take the Poseidon show down. I got a text from Todd on Friday that said, “We need to meet before you come to work on Monday.”
DW: That could be bad, it could be good…
Pevnick: I flew back the next day, and he told me he was leaving. Which didn’t surprise me that much — museum directors tend to move around after they do something big. Then he said, “The board wants you to step in as acting director.” That was a bit of a shock. But that was about six weeks before he left… [To Meg] Like your Todd, my Todd was very generous.

click to enlarge TODD BATES
  • Todd Bates

What’s one piece of advice your predecessors gave you that you think was most valuable?
Karla Hartley: Just to focus on the mission… And understand, I had worked with Anna for probably nine or 10 years before any of this happened. So I’m familiar with the organization and what it wants to be and what it can be. And I think that new blood is valuable to an arts organization. Not that the old blood wasn’t — don’t misunderstand me — but I think that sometimes we as artists get a vision of what the topic can be, and we get stuck in that. Within any organization I think that. A new look and a new attitude is helpful.
DW: Do you have to deal with people saying, “Oh, she’s not Todd, he’s not Todd, she’s not Anna, you’re not Jennifer?”
Tony Armer: I haven’t really had that experience. I’m going to continue doing the good things Jennifer did, but put my own spin on it.
DW: Are all of you thinking that? How can I put my stamp on it?
Pevnick: I think coming in as a new director and coming in as acting director are two different things. My understanding of my role is to keep things going and not really to put my stamp on it. I already was putting my stamp on it as chief curator — the Poseidon show was mostly my doing, the other shows, some of them at least, were the result of conversations that I had with Todd and other people. And I was fortunate that at the end of 2013 I sat on the new strategic planning task force with our board and with Todd. … My goal is to keep us going on the path that the plan outlined, and since I have these other roles already I have to keep doing those. If a new director comes in six or eight months from now and there are no shows booked two years from now, then I have failed not just as acting director but as chief curator.
DW: If they offered you the job tomorrow, would you want to be the director of American Stage, of TMA, of FMoPA?
Zora Carrier: I would — yes, I hope for that. I really want to, and I’m doing the best I can. And if not, then I stay as a volunteer because I do really like that place.
Heimstead: No. Part of my employment agreement is that I would not throw my hat into the ring, and that made me very attractive to our transition committee.
DW: I’m sort of… disappointed in that.
Heimstead: I don’t feel like I’m what this theater needs right now, and I don’t feel like it’s the job I need right now. I love the idea of taking it out for a test drive and then bringing it back to the lot.
DW: And Seth?
Pevnick: We’ll see what happens.

“The challenge is to overcome other people’s fear.”

DW: I want to talk about the climate here. We think the Tampa Bay area is conservative and all, but Zora told me earlier that when she worked in Grand Rapids they couldn’t even show nude art in an art museum.
Pevnick: I was on TV a couple of weeks ago and I brought the Poseidon catalogue to show and they said, “We can’t show that.” I said, “Why not?” They said, “It’s a nude statue.”
DW: So what are the challenges of programming in this arts environment in Tampa?
Hartley: The challenge is to overcome other people’s fear.
DW: Who are the other people?
Hartley: Some of it’s board members. Some of it’s board members who are afraid of donors. Some of it is donors. Stageworks has built a reputation on doing things that are not in the mainstream, so I’ve got it a little easier than someone over at American Stage, say, which has a more conservative audience base. So it’s really about helping other people by saying, “Really? Do you think that that’s really going to be a problem?” … I had to do a lot of lobbying for The Motherfucker with the Hat. But it’s the one title that almost everybody picks out of the season. And happily it fits directly into the mission: working with people of color, people who are underserved… But that’s the greatest challenge for me — overcoming other people’s cold feet.
Heimstead: And I think change has to be slow. We do things that challenge our audiences sometimes, but not to the point that we alienate them. A big part of my job as director of education is to say why we’re doing a piece, why is there language like this, why it’s absolutely dramatically necessary…
Lawrence: I was directing A Raisin in the Sun in Clearwater and a guy who’s black didn’t want us to use “nigger” [though it’s in the script]. … I’m considered a conservative person. I don’t know why.
Hartley: You like to do Jesus-y things.
Lawrence: I did one.
Hartley: You did one Jesus-y thng?
Lawrence: Ive been doing comedies and classics. My family said, “Why don’t you do something faith-based? So I wrote Fighting God, which was heavy. Lots of church people came, but they weren’t all ready for it. I had one guy, a pastor, who got mad that the word “hell” was used. …

click to enlarge Margaret Murray. - TODD BATES
  • Todd Bates
  • Margaret Murray.

“We could honestly become the Yellow Pages if we’re not careful.”

Lawrence: I’m not afraid to try anything. Even though I do a lot of stage plays, my trailers look like movies sometimes.
DW: Get ’em where they live. That’s a big challenge for all of you, right? How do you get the butts in seats? Even the gay and lesbian film festival, which has a longstanding audience — is the audience still out there?
Margaret Murray: I think that it’s such a wonderful time to be an artistic director right now. I’m just amazed at all the people that I meet who have moved here from Nashville and Brooklyn and San Francisco and all of these places. We need to be as mindful of this new audience as we are of the audience that has supported us.
DW: You say we’ve got some sophisticated people coming in who have a different set of expectations than we might have thought?
Murray: I think that’s true. I look at freeFall Theatre and what they do. They are getting the audiences, and a lot of their stuff other organizations would shy away from — and they’re getting the ticket prices as well. We raised our ticket prices this year and everyone was saying, “You can’t do that, you can’t do that.”
DW: You were in D.C. and you came back. How do you compare the way it was [in Tampa in previous years] and the way it is now?
Murray: I just feel like some things have not changed. There are still the same people supporting the film festival, the same faces. And there’s certainly the graying of our audience. But I also saw that at the San Francisco film festival; their audience is graying as well. I think it’s a challenge for a lot of arts organizations.
Armer: Film festivals are tough.
Murray: They are. I mean, we could honestly become the Yellow Pages if we’re not careful.
Hartley: It’s interesting, though. Like, the people that you want maybe are not really the people that you want, you know what I mean?
DW: No. What do you mean?
Hartley: I was joking with David Jenkins [artistic director of Jobsite, known for attracting younger audiences]. I said, “Send us some of your young people.” And he said, “You can have them. They don’t have any money. Send me some of your middle to older people.” And I was like, oh, that makes more sense. … This is a culture that is used to getting entertainment that is free or 99 cents. And they do not have the attention spans that they used to have.
Armer: With a film festival, if you’re going to get a general audience and it’s not Transformers and it doesn’t have big-name actors in it, they just don’t show up. That’s why festivals bring in John Waters, and why we were excited to have John Travolta twice.
Murray: It’s true for a lot of genres. You can’t just show a film, you can’t just mount an exhibit — you have to have talkbacks, you have to have a Chinese rock band playing, you have to have Scott and Patti do a drag show before you show a film, you have to partner with MFA. People want that experience.
DW: Can anybody share a successful idea for getting new audiences in?
Tonia Krueger: We had a reading of Cobb at the St. Petersburg Museum of History. The museum handled concessions, we helped bring in the audiences, we supplied actors. The partnership worked well, which is why we’re moving forward in partnerships with the Dali.
DW: And it felt uniquely apt — a play about baseball in conjunction with a museum exhibition about baseball. That was a wonderful collaboration.

“I would call the situation in funding arts education critical.”

You’ve got to be the public face of these organizations. How is that for you?
Hartley: I hate it. I really do.
Heimstead: I’m used to it, because as director of education I’ve had to be out there… But when I started, I hated it — I’ve had to make friends with introducing myself to people on opening nights and things like that.
Hartley: That’s the part I hate.
DW: But you have to ask for money, don’t you? You have to go on fundraising visits.
Hartley: Those are fine. In groups I’m good, I can talk about the work all day long. But put me just with you three and I’ve never met you before and I have to like talk to you and shake your hand and sell you…?
Pevnick: For me, the fundraising is mostly with people I already know, who like the organization. It’s not like they’re surprised when I say, “We could really use some help on this one.”
Armer: But those aren’t the people you need. You need the new people. They’re hard to find. They have to be passionate about it. If they’re not really passionate about it they don’t really want to open their wallets. Film is hard to raise money for.
Carrier: That’s interesting. Because in museums we think that the easiest thing is to get money for film. To underwrite a show is a problem.
Armer: I’m speaking more from the film festival side than the commission side, which is non-profit. The film commission is different — we’re a government organization, but all of our funding is through the hotel bed tax for the convention and visitors’ bureau. Which is nice, it feels a little more justified — it’s the tourists paying for what we do. … But as we all know it’s just hard to raise money in general. When there are so many worthy medical-oriented organizations out there, what are you going to say to, “I decided to give my money to cancer research, not a film festival?”
Heimstead: It’s like, critical needs. Even though in education it’s easier because it’s "for the children," often times we’re competing with critical needs organizations for a lot of grants. And I can’t blame those funders because they’re, well, critical needs. It’s difficult to raise money in the arts, period. You look at cities like Minneapolis — there’s a culture of arts philanthropy there — and culturally, we’re just different here. As more people move here, that may change because they’re coming from regions where arts philanthropy is evident, but it’s difficult.
Armer: That’s not the reason people move to Florida, to Tampa or St. Pete. St Pete, maybe it’s a little different now, but people don’t generally move here because of the arts.
Carrier: I understand that there are more critical situations in, let’s say, cancer research, but arts education is in a really critical situation. Because the public schools are cutting the arts programs since 2008 for sure. And it’s ongoing — every time there needs to be some budget change, the band is cancelled or drama class is cancelled. So our institutions have to offer more programs for children because very quickly we will have a whole generation of kids who were not exposed to art by the time they were 13 or 14, and you know what? I don’t believe they will ever build that relationship — and there will be this huge hole in their life and the whole society will suffer from that. …And I understand that we have to save puppies and [such], but I would call the situation in funding arts education critical. We are offering scholarships to deserving kids — all they need to do is to show that they really care.
Hartley: And part of the problem that’s tangential to that is that 80 percent of what children will see when they go to the theater is shit. I sat on the board of International Performing Arts for Youth, and the difference in the work aesthetic between the U.S. and the rest of world is amazing. The Dutch, the Israelis, they’re engaging kids in intelligent, really interesting ways that encourage complex thought processes — and we show Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. It’s what people will go see. If you book something [for kids] that’s interesting and thoughtful, nobody will come see it.
DW: There’s nothing inherently wrong with taking a kid to see Beauty and the Beast, though, right? There’s always one kid who sees that show and says, this is it, this is what I’m going to do with my life.
Hartley: Of course, but there has to be balance. If that’s all that you see… if all you eat is McDonald’s you do not develop a taste for higher cuisine.

“I got a nastygram from somebody I forgot to mention in the curtain speech.”

I actually came from Minnesota before this — it’s hard everywhere. I’ve been thrilled with how supportive the Tampa/ St. Pete community is — all of the theaters that are working here and the amazing work they’re doing. I was concerned that I would lose the environment that I was in with cultural support for the arts in Minnesota and I’ve found that it’s a very wonderful community here — with a lot of support.
Heimstead: And every year as a nonprofit… you start over. We just entered a new fiscal year — made it to the mountaintop of July 31 — you break even, that’s what you do. It’s not like you have a huge vault.
Armer: And you’re happy to break even!
All: Yes!
Heimstead: It’s true, St Pete really is becoming a community of the arts. What’s lacking here is state and government support — there are other cities and other states that give a whole heck of a lot more. We got lucky with arts funding this year because it’s an election year. American Stage and others have benefited by getting the full funding amount. We got $30,000 the year before that, then it goes up to 150, that’s like amazing. But where’s that going to go? It’s that roller coaster — and it’s not that roller coaster in other places.
Krueger: Politically in Minnesota, we lost the government funding. I was part of the founding years of the Great River Shakespeare Festival, and when the economy dropped, the government suffered as well, and there were a number of additional political issues that made it suddenly feel not like Minnesota anymore for the arts.
Hartley: And I think you’re also seeing a shift from silent philanthropy to “Is my name going to be on that?” philanthropy. You used to have a lot anonymous donors — a lot of people who would send money and say, “Please don’t tell anyone I’ve done this.” And now 85 percent of the people who send money are, “How come my name’s not in the program? Is that naming right available for the whosawhatsits in the lobby?” It’s… philanthropy for notice. Like, there was a woman — I don’t know if I should say this — I got a nastygram from somebody I forgot to mention in the curtain speech. All her friends were there and that was embarrassing for her because I didn’t...
Murray: You only received one of those? [laughter]
Hartley: And I’d made a conscious decision that night — I said, there are so many donors in the audience I’m bound to forget somebody because I do that. And I said, I’m not going to miss anything. And then all of a sudden it was like, holy balls, why didn’t you talk about me in front of my friends so they knew I gave this money?

click to enlarge Seth Pevnick and Rory Lawrence. - TODD BATES
  • Todd Bates
  • Seth Pevnick and Rory Lawrence.

“I heard people walking around saying, ‘Who’s Day-gus?’”

Julie Garisto: I was impressed with [Stageworks’] A Few Good Men. That was one of those times when you were able to appeal to the mainstream but still put on some great art at the same time.
Hartley: We really hit that — I was nervous about it. I felt for sure i’d get some blowback from that — because it’s not nice to the military.
Armer: Was everyone waiting for The Line?
Hartley: I’d never directed a play that had such expectation coming into it before. It was challenging. … That did really well. Things that have been movies and have been books do really well.
Heimstead: But you can’t do a whole season like that. I wish people were more willing to take a chance. I’m doing season research because part of my responsibilities will be picking the 2015-16 season. I’m just reallly in awe of some of the other established theater companies across the country that are doing new work and world premieres. That’s exciting, to be the birthplace of something that may take off or may not, but they’re cultivating the next generation of theatrical voices. And it’s such a risk here. It really is. 
DW: What about local artists? Are you doing enough to support local filmmakers, playwrights, visual artists?
Hartley: We use almost exclusively local artists. Over the last 15 years we’ve done maybe four premieres by local playwrights — and every year we do the TampaWorks festival that focuses on local playwrights as well. Of the three plays we’re developing now, one writer is local, one lives here part of the year. I think we are [doing enough], but I’m sure there are people who say we are not. That used to be the rap at American Stage — but that’s really changed.
Armer: I meet a lot of people who want to get into film, or their daughter and son wants to get in film. I tell them, go do theater — and sometimes you get that look where you can tell they don’t really want to be an actor.
Heimstead: They want the short cut.
Hartley: They want to be a celebrity.
Lawrence: They want to be seen. That’s one of the things that I’m learning in this theater festival — so many [would-be actors] are untrained. I tell them, come to the audition, we need you to slate. They ask what’s that. I will be a student forever, playing catchup. When I do a show I can’t even predict my followers — a lot of them are first-time theatergoers. I would do shows at Stageworks, they would say is this your theater? They didn’t know Stageworks was around — they don’t learn about other theaters. Like August Wilson plays at American Stage. My wife and I go see everything there. But there’s these older, predominantly white crowds going to these predominantly black plays — where are we? I tell my constituents — you guys gotta be more open-minded.
Heimstead: Well, we’re so into our comfort zones — it’s the stay-within-my-box mentality. But the whole point of arts is to take us out of our comfort zones. So thank you for going to American Stage.
Lawrence: Karla teased me — she called me “Jesus-y.” Everybody knows me, I’m a Christian. But one of the favorite plays I saw this year was Normal Heart at freeFall. Open your mind, see what’s out there, hear wonderful powerful stories. Like Eric [Davis, who played the AIDS activist protagonist of the play] — I didn’t want to miss a word he said.
Hartley: That’s one of the everlasting questions, though. We’ll get African-American audiences in for Raisin or Colored Museum, but we cannot retain them. And I don’t know why.
Lawrence: I don’t think they know. I’ve seen Tyler Perry plays sell 10,000 tickets at USF — but not 20 of them will come see an August Wilson play.
Garisto: I’ve seen your video trailers, Rory. All of you… have you seen a difference when you use YouTube or new media to promote your offerings?
Lawrence: People are eating it up. I can see when they’re sharing or whatever. You can’t be afraid to try something new.
Hartley: And you can’t do something once or twice and decide it failed. When we do the trailers it’s helpful, but I don’t do them enough to judge their efficacy.
Heimstead: Some of it’s a matter of resources. At American Stage everybody has so much on their plate — we have enough work to hire three more full-time people, but we don’t have the resources for that. Trying to keep up with technological advances and ways to market is totally separate challenge in itself — and because our audience is older, you can’t not do the traditional ways. But trying newer ways to get younger people — there’s a lot of things on our wish list of Things To Find an Intern For.
Armer: The technology side is interesting, especially when talking about film. When I got the commission job, people said to me, “I didn’t even know that job existed. I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as a film commission.” I’m making a huge push into digital media — having the commission create its own content to brand the organization and brand the area as a place to bring digital media and business. People don’t necessarily watch film and TV like they used to — everything is streaming or it’s digital. Variety just did a poll where they polled teenagers 13-18 — and YouTube stars are now more recognizable to that age group than Leo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt or whatever…
Hartley: But will they pay to go see them?
Carrier: You would be surpised what kind of spending budget 20-year-old people do have. But you really have to earn their trust. Because they are a very smart audience and they will do really thorough research on you before they spend 10 bucks. This is a very different group of donors. Baby boomers are 20th century, we are working now with millennials who are the 21st century. They have totally different way of deciding what is quality. They will do their own research — and they will do it on their phone during the math class. All we have to do is work hard and show quality and they will come.
Lawrence: I believe that, too, but when you go to theater…. Imagine this: If you go out to a show at the Straz, it’s 30 bucks, if you take a date it’s 60 bucks, you paying ten more bucks to park — and if you go to dinner, that’s one evening and it’s over 100 dollars. So you go, I don’t want to waste my money on somebody I’m taking a risk on. And if you lose them that first time, more than likely you’ll lose them. But if you get them… you can put on a show about talking dogs and they will come.
Armer: Don’t underestimate the value of talking dogs. I have a good friend who’s a sales agent, and his job is to sell his films at festivals. He’s got an action film with Ving Rhames he can’t sell — but he’s got Army Dog — which is a kids’ movie with a dog who joins the army — and everybody’s buying that stuff up.
Hartley: I’m going to kill myself.
Armer: So he’s completely changing his business model to do family-friendly films. Stick an animal in it. And that’s how he’s going to make a living, because people aren’t going to stop having kids — so family-friendly films will still be around. Dolphin Tale 2 is a huge example coming out in just a month or so.
Heimstead: I think you need multiple gateways into whatever organization you have. Education is a gateway. We have an improv training program which is a way for younger people to come in and experience [the theater] and then maybe work their way up to [seeing a play].
DW [to Seth]: Do you think at the museum there’s a way to get people as interested in antiquities as they will be in Norman Rockwell [in a retrospective opening at TMA in 2015]? And how do you feel about Norman Rockwell?
Pevnick: Norman Rockwell is one of the most popular artists in the history of the United States of America.
DW: There’s that.
Pevnick: There’s that. I think Norman Rockwell will be a great gateway. Some of the images are challenging. A lot of the works in that show will speak to the Civil Rights movement, there are stories that are difficult even if the artwork seems very simplistic. And yeah, I mean, it’s a constant struggle. We have all these different ideas about how we’re going to get people through the doors. We did a show with Matisse, we did a show with Degas, and I heard people walking around saying, “Who’s Day-gus?” That’s what we’re fighting.
DW: Leaving Las Degas.
Pevnick: We have brought a lot of shows to Tampa that have been very, very successful in other museums in other cities of comparable size and they just don’t draw the same numbers. It’s not because of the quality of the artwork, it’s not because of the quality of the buildings. I think it’s just the culture here. There are so many other things to do — not just the organizations represented around this table, but there’s the beaches, the Bucs…
Armer: Nobody shows up for the Bucs either.

click to enlarge Tony Armer. - TODD BATES
  • Todd Bates
  • Tony Armer.

“…a little boozy and a little Jesus-y at the same time…”

Garisto: I notice that you’ve tied in some of your shows with events happening at Curtis Hixon Park. We’re seeing a lot of these craft beer festivals, tequila and rum, too — there’s all kinds of boozy festivals. Are you guys working with these outdoor festivals more? Because they all seem to be a really popular crowd draw.
Pevnick: When the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts is in Curtis Hixon, that’s one of our busiest weeks. Yeah, we try to take advantage of these partnerships. [To Tony] I was thinking when you were talking about the Blue Ocean festival — we have a show up on Poseidon and the Sea.
Armer: That’s a natural. You should contact them — I’ll give you the info.
Pevnick: One hopes that all of of our constituencies are sort of like-minded. They may have a limited amount of resources and time, but one would hope they would go to see a play, then hear about an art exhibition and go to that.
Armer: That was one of the exciting things with Sunscreen this year. In past years we were at Muvico. Now they’re under new corporate ownership out of Georgia, and suddenly their [rental] prices were 500 percent higher than last year. So then I got ahold of American Stage and Dalì and Studio, and now we were showing film at multiple venues. It was amazing and I’m glad it happened — because now we’re going to be out that way every year. I know American Stage is happy to have us back, the Dali is excited, so to partner with those organizations... It doesn’t have to be theater and theater, film and film. If you can sort of cross-pollinate — maybe get a little boozy and a little Jesus-y at same time…. [big laughter]
DW: A little boozy and a little Jesus-y… there’s a song there!
Hartley: That could be the title of the article!

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