"And the beat goes on........................"
Bio: Kenneth J. Foster is Associate Professor and Director of the new graduate Arts Leadership Program at the Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California. He was previously the Executive Director, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from 2003 - 2013. Foster has served as a board member for such prominent arts organizations as the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, Dance USA, and Chamber Music America, among others. Prior to joining YBCA, he served as Executive Director of UA presents at the University of Arizona. Prior to directing UA presents, Foster served as Professor and Director at the Center for Performing Arts at Pennsylvania State University, as Managing Director at the Kirkland Fine Arts Center in Illinois, and as Executive Director at the multidisciplinary Town Hall Arts Center in Colorado. In 2007, Foster received the prestigious Fan Taylor Award for Distinguished Service from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. The award honors individuals whose outstanding service, creative thinking, and leadership have had a significant impact on the profession of presenting. His first book, Performing Arts Presenting: From Theory to Practice, was published in 2006.
Here is the interview:
Barry: You have a substantial resume in both the presenting field and in facilities management. What do you think are the three major challenges in each of those arenas? And how can we best address those challenges?
Ken: I consider myself both blessed and cursed that every position I have had, included managing a facility as part of the job. It’s great to have your own space, even though in every single case I have had to share it with others, which is probably challenge number one. There is always more demand for the space than time available, especially for “prime” spots, and when you are in the decision-making position, you wind up making lots of enemies because you can’t give everyone what they want. You can never win; someone is always unhappy; often it’s yourself. The other two major challenges facing facility management are the expectation that somehow the building represent something more important than the art that occurs within it. “The edifice complex.” Even arts professionals sometimes think that getting or having a building means the art is magically better or the audiences instantly larger. Not true. It’s just a means to an end and is too often seen as an end in itself. The other challenge for facilities is an environmental one – the resources it consumes to build and operate, even in “green” buildings are staggering. Only someone who has had the opportunity as I have to run (and pay the bills for) everything from a 250 seat to a 2500 seat hall knows that they consume staggering amounts of energy. How sustainable is this? One more challenge – we are in an age of fragmentation and the idea of coming to a designated spot at a predesignated time for a time based arts experience is becoming increasingly uninteresting to audiences. I worry about what will happen when these gigantic behemoths of arts facilities built to revitalize a downtown area go dark for good.
As for the presenting field, our challenges are no different than all of the arts. First, it is a field (STILL!!) dominated by white men “at the top” making serious artistic decisions for a population that looks less and less like them every day. It’s well past time for us to make a serious effort to completely deconstruct this paradigm and I don’t just mean more affirmative action and mentoring programs. I mean a wholesale rethinking of arts organizations, how they are run and by whom, who governs them and how they are funded. Tweaking the current system only ossifies a methodology whose time is rapidly coming to an end. It’s a culture shift that has to happen if the arts as we know them are to remain relevant in the years ahead.
I am actually encouraged at small signs of progress I see in the second big challenge facing the presenting field, which is working to embed the arts into the life of the community. Many leaders have seen the light here and realize that the transactional nature of art’s relationship to audiences has to shift to one that is more experiential in nature – that art is not a product, it’s life. Without it we simply can’t live. It can occur in many forms and formats but it is the most human part of us and we’ve pretty much reduced it to a commodity to be bought and sold. One of my very few regrets at leaving YBCA is to step away from the program we had just launched to address this issue with an innovative “in community” program throughout the Bay Area. I’m delighted to see Deborah and the staff carrying this on with enthusiasm. Wish I could be there with them to watch it grow and develop.
The third challenge for presenting is very much related to the above. If art is no longer a commodity to be bought and sold then the whole presenting paradigm (managers, presenters, tours, negotiated fees, etc.) collapses in on itself. Personally I think that’s a good thing but it will be a cataclysmic shift and so far we haven’t quite figured out how to keep art in front of people and enable artists to create and perform without this infrastructure. But there are folks out there experimenting and I predict a sea change over the next decade.
Barry: Having now just left Yerba Buena Center for the Arts after a ten-year stint, what are the major lessons you take away from that tenure?
Ken: I have to start by saying I absolutely loved my time at YBCA and loved my time in SF and would not have traded it for anything. It was the most challenging job of my career and also the most rewarding and hands down my favorite. That said, it was a killer job. So…
Know when it’s time to leave and leave without looking back and without worrying too much about what will happen to your “legacy.” Your legacy was the time you were there; a new leader will create his or her own legacy, not extend yours. Detach with love.
Leadership requires courage and tenacity, especially at a highly contested space like YBCA. Have a vision, hold on to it and pursue it with everything you have, even as you are surrounded by SO MANY people telling you how wrong you are and how right they are. You have the job, not them. Be strong.
Relationships matter most. They are your lifeline, personally and professionally. Build the good ones; cut off the unhealthy ones quickly and cleanly; nurture and care for those you love and whose love for the organization is what sustains it, them and you through the tough times. YBCA has a great staff of highly dedicated, passionate people, which made it both a fantastic and demanding place to work. Tempers flare, feelings get hurt, people care, maybe care too much. In the end, building and sustaining those relationships – board, staff, audiences, community is the core of your job. But it takes attention and tenacity to keep at it.
Barry: One of the hallmarks of your tenure at YBCA was your commitment to ‘innovation’ in programming. What is the role of a presenting / facility organization in terms of nurturing innovative programming, and how does one best do that?
Ken: If you don’t innovate you die. It is literally that simple, especially now. Everything we thought we knew about how the arts work has pretty much been damaged almost to the point of destruction. I continue to be SHOCKED, that in a field dedicated to creativity and the creative spirit is dominated by so many people fearful of change and sad to say that includes a lot of artists who keep doing the same thing over and over and expect you to love them for it. I loved that we brought so much new thinking, new aesthetics and new ideas to SF through the YBCA programming and I don’t care two cents whether the critics – official or self-appointed – liked what we presented or not. I am so proud of the art and artists we advanced and the fresh ideas we brought to this community. Our job as a contemporary arts center has been and must be to always push the boundaries, no matter what, and as an “institution” we have should have the resources to both promote innovation and withstand the inevitable failures and missteps without feeling like failures ourselves. It goes back to what I said about presenting – courage and tenacity.
Barry: What don’t funders fully understand about the needs of arts presenters?
Ken: My experience with funders – especially the program officers - is that they actually do understand what presenters need, but that too often their own internal politics and cultures get in the way. I know most people disagree with me, but I’m generally not a big fan of Foundation support for general operating support because it doesn’t always encourage innovative behavior, which our field desperately needs just now. So I’m in favor of Foundations who provide funding for new ideas and new projects and I’m impatient with presenters who complain about this. What are we about if not new ideas? It’s just that it’s often too little and has unrealistic expectations attached to it, especially around reporting and quantitative analysis of something (like audience development or the creation of new work) that really can’t be adequately assessed in a short time frame. So we play this little game with each other of “proving” results and that often results in way more paperwork than any of us need or want. If I were a funder I’d say, tell me what your vision is, tell me how you plan to make some progress toward it and tell me how I can help. And then I will.
Barry: How do you best keep a facility / presenting organization involved in, and engaged with, the local community.
Ken: For years I have said, and believed, that the arts center should be like the local library. It’s there in your neighborhood; it’s open a lot so you can come whenever, there’s stuff there that gest checked out every day and there’s stuff there that gets checked out once every decade and we need both of them. The arts center ought to be the completely democratic repository of our cultural heritage – past, present and for a contemporary arts center especially – the future. We’re not just warehousing the past we are creating new knowledge. There should be easy, unfettered, largely free access at all times of the day and night. There should be food and drink and Wi-Fi and homeless people sleeping on the benches and teenagers looking at porn on the computers. When the day comes that the arts center comes down off of its pedestal and really connects with the community we will find that art has become the center of the community. Gustavo Dudamel of the Los Angeles Philharmonic says that art is a fundamental right for human beings and I agree absolutely. If we start from that premise, we’ll find all kinds of ways to embed the arts in the community rather than wasting time trying to figure out how to “market” the arts and “do outreach” to the community. Can we stop that already??
Barry: In your mind, what are the fundamental qualities of an effective leader?
Ken: Well I’ve already mentioned courage and tenacity a few times and they are right up there at the top of the list. Vision. People pooh pooh that these days as being “soft” but that’s usually because they are uncomfortable with things like feelings, passion and emotion, which are central to the arts experience. By vision I don’t mean goals I mean a comprehensive, inspirational, expansive vision of the world in which your organization thrives. Leaders have to be savvy. The world is complicated, people are more complicated and there’s no straight line to anything. Figure out how to navigate around obstacles. Know when to retreat to live to fight another day. People are your lifeblood so you better be compassionate, caring and tough when you need to be. Couple compassion with very high expectations – higher than the persons themselves believe they can achieve. Expect more from them and for them. Laugh a lot because it’s a serious business but if you take it too seriously you’ll wreck things for yourself, the folks and the organization. Be a good public speaker and really good writer. There is SO much writing in leading an arts organization. Get good at it.
Barry: Presenters really have three basic constituent client groups to serve: the public in their local communities, the artists being presented, and the stakeholders in the organization itself. How do you balance those sometimes-competing groups and needs?
Ken: If you have the larger vision of the organization in mind at all times then in the long run, you will never fail any of these constituencies. In the short term, someone is always unhappy and as a leader you have to understand and accept that. But people will respect you and your vision if they see that you are committed to it and that you pursue it not just with passion, but also with integrity. It really is a compliment if someone says, I disagree with you but I respect where you are coming from. Getting everyone to understand and buy into the vision is the toughest part, but it also appeals to peoples’ higher natures. Work on that.
Barry: If you were asked to advise the NEA on how to better serve the performance arts community, what advice would you give them?
Ken: Provide funding to artists to create. Fuck Congressmen if they don’t like it. The resources for artists to create work are practically nonexistent. You want a robust arts community? Fund artists. We fund scientists and researchers to explore ideas. Do the same with artists.
Barry: What have you learned over your whole career that were you to go back to the beginning would cause you to make different decisions at different points?
Ken: My first job (at a small community based arts center) was both wonderful and a nightmare, mostly because I didn’t understand finances. It taught me to be really cognizant of the finances. But a lot of my jobs were of the “if I knew then what I know now I would never have taken this position” variety and yet I don’t regret taking them. Had I been more thoughtful I wouldn’t have gone after them and would have missed some amazing experiences, not all of which were good by the way. I wish I had taken more risks earlier in my career. I think sometimes I think people will ”get better” over time and give them too much slack when I should have encouraged them to move on sooner.
Barry: Funders are grappling with conflicting thoughts on whether to provide large grants to a few organizations, vs. smaller grants to many more organizations. Where do you stand on that question?
Ken: Larger grants to more organizations. Seriously! This is a trumped up “conflict” that arises because Foundations stick closely to their “5% payout” as if that is a law. It’s a minimum folks, not a maximum! Want to make something happen? Give larger grants to more organizations.
That said, too many arts organizations, especially in the Bay Area, believe that simply because they exist they deserve Foundation support when in fact, they are producing some pretty mediocre work. Foundations should support the organizations that look like they are going to make the strongest impact and support them often and with significant sums of money.
Barry: Your successor Deborah Cullinan, in an interview I did with her last month, suggested that there needs to be an increased role for people to participate in the curatorial structure of a presenting organization. First, what do you think is the curatorial role of a presenting organization, and second, how can that role be opened up to more of those the presenting organization serves?
Ken: First let me say how absolutely delighted I am that the Board hired Deborah. She’s one of a very few close colleague/friends that I have in the Bay area and will make a mark during her tenure at YBCA that I know will be significant. I couldn’t be happier.
Re: public curating –well this is not an all or nothing. Remember my library metaphor? I like best sellers, I love Hollywood movies and I cry at sentimental songs. These “public curated” events (i.e. give ‘em what they want) are an important part of our culture.
But I also know from experience that “people know what they like and like what they know” and if they don’t ever get to see something outside their comfort zone they won’t grow, they won’t develop and they won’t develop the joy of an ever increasing, deep engagement with art. So curators have the responsibility to seek that stuff out and bring it in and say hey, I know you don’t know about this and you don’t think you’ll like it but if you give it a chance, you might be surprised. People LIKE to be surprised – not always and not at a prohibitive cost – but they do have a curiosity about the world. All of our lives have been shaped by teachers, mentors and others who introduced us to stuff we had no idea existed and had no idea would make us happy. That’s what curators do. It’s not a matter of “taste” – it’s a matter of the curator’s extensive, deep knowledge and her/his dedication to searching out and finding the best, the most interesting, the most provocative – and sharing it with our community. We’d be lost without them.
Barry: Facilities like YBCA have only so many dates available for the organizations in their community that covet those dates. How do you balance that local demand with the value of presenting established artists from beyond the local community (as a service to the local public)?
Ken: You gotta love SF. The little known fact is that more than 70% of the time in the two theaters at YBCA in any given year has been devoted to local artists and there were still dates available and I don’t mean Christmas Day. But everyone wants the second week in October and gets PISSED if they can’t have it. And if they are prevented by a touring company from Africa or New Zealand then they say, well YBCA doesn’t care about local artists. That’s the biggest fiction out there. It made me crazy for a while and then I just accepted that people were never going to be happy. It’s in the mission and it’s in the actual programming that YBCA is a site for local artists and national and international artists. For SF to be a vibrant arts community it needs both. And it’s not like we were presenting musicals or circuses or comedians in order to just make money. We are talking about serious artists from around the world who have something to say to and for our community and by the way no one else in the Bay Area would present them so we did. And I think we made the right choice every time.
Barry: Both UCLA and Golden Gate University had Arts Administration degree programs. Both are gone now. However, Claremont College now has such a program, and you are joining the faculty at USC and chairing a graduate Arts Leadership program. Can you please describe that program and what you hope for it in the future. How will you grow this new program?
Ken: When USC recruited me to head this program I was very clear that I was interested in Arts Leadership and not Arts Administration. There’s big difference. I’ll admit to being old school and believing that arts administration is learned on the job more and in the classroom less. I started my career as a high school teacher and I feel the same way about education. I learned how to teach by teaching, not by the case studies in my education textbook.
My belief, and what I told USC and what resonated with them, is that we are in a fundamentally changed world and that in fact, teaching “arts administration” as it is generally taught these days, teaches you yesterday’s skills for tomorrow’s world. I’m not interested in that. Instead, I want to work with folks who realize this and have the courage to take some risks and develop the kind of new thinking and new ideas that will save the arts from oblivion. I have some degree of wisdom and experience from 30+ years of LEADING arts organizations that I want to share. But I also want to work with students who want to try new ideas, explore options, create new organizational models, figure out new ways to fund the arts, figure out how to use the creative process to make the arts vital and viable in ways I have never experienced.
I’m not at all interested in “best practices” or creating a “safe space” - two phrases I detest. Best practices are from yesterday and safe spaces are all about fear of the unknown. I want to work with folks who want to innovate, take risks and be unsafe in their practices because that’s where the juice is. We have a fantastic entrepreneurial moment just now and I want to do everything I can to support and aid those folks who see that and want to jump into the fray. That’s what this program is all about.
The program launched this fall with a one-year graduate certificate and a two-year Master in Public Administration that we offer in collaboration with the Public Policy School at USC. I’m developing other programs in collaboration with the USC Schools of music, theater, visual arts and dance that will offer an MA with an emphasis in the area of your choice. Because we are in Los Angeles, we draw from the amazing artists in that city who are remarkably generous and share my vision of a richly diverse arts world.
Barry: On the general topic of providing professional development opportunities for our managers in the field, what do you see as the major challenges and how are University programs such as the one you will head at USC in a position to be part of addressing those challenges - apart from the service they provide to students enrolled in their institution?
Ken: In addition to the academic departments, we are working on developing collaborations with national service organizations to address this issue. I’m well on the way to creating a partnership with APAP and there are a couple of others in the works as well that I can’t really talk about yet. The challenge here, as you rightly point out, is that we are dealing with people who are working professionals who can’t always drop out for a couple of year to earn a degree. But at the same time, I don’t want to create a lame program that is thin with content because we want to make it cheap, fast and easy. There’s already too much of that in the arts world. That’s what I like about being at USC – we/they are committed to rigor and demanding excellence but within a framework that makes it possible for working professionals to take on the challenge. I had three different experiences in my life – through NYU, through Berkeley and through Stanford that were critical – life changing I would say - to my professional development as an arts leader and they all had rigorous content in a format that made it possible for me to attend and learn without quitting my job. That’s what we are working on.
Barry: And while University programs across the country are providing excellent training and education in arts administration for a new generation of leaders, there is a whole cohort of entry and middle level managers already working within the field who (because of cost, time and other factors) have little to no opportunity to increase their skills levels. How does the field address this unmet need for easily accessible, low cost, convenient professional development opportunities for middle and entry level mangers already in their jobs?
Ken: See above.
Barry: Isn’t part of the problem for the arts field providing better professional development opportunities that almost no arts organizations have a line item in their budgets for such training and education? And with those that do have such provision, more often than not, it is, in practice, reserved for the more senior leadership? How do we get more organizations to budget for professional development, and include junior managers?
Ken: That’s a good question and symptomatic of something I see all the time at nonprofit organizations which is the focus on the immediate and the tactical and almost a disdain for the long term (“how can I think about training staff when we barely have the money to keep the doors open?”) Strategic thinking demands a much larger perspective than that. We can easily get caught up in the day-to-day activities of “putting on the show” and lose sight of the longer vision. For arts leaders, that’s disaster; we have to have the long view because no one else does.
That said, even at YBCA this was usually dealt with as “we need money to send people to workshops and conferences” rather than as part of a systematic plan to strengthen the organization by investing in the people. Working at a nonprofit arts organization ought to be an ongoing process of professional development – not a class that we take every now and again on how to be a good supervisor. Leaders need to integrate staff development into the daily work of the organization. Mentorship. Cross-departmental training. Executives spending some time on the floor. Reading groups. Shared arts experiences outside our organization. When I was at Penn State we took a “field trip” to Pittsburgh so the staff could meet colleagues in other arts organizations. It doesn’t take that much time and money but it does require commitment and a certain amount of creativity on the part of the leader.
Barry: What one big problem facing the nonprofit arts field worries you most about our future?
Ken: Oddly enough, I worry most about whether we will be able to exercise the creativity necessary to remake the field in the face of so many enormous and important environmental shifts (changing demographics, outdated business models, environmentalism, new technologies, etc.) If we don’t, or can’t, then we risk becoming just a niche product available to, and the province of, a diminishing elite class. That would be a tragedy. I come from a working class background in which attending performances or art museums was not part of my experience. My life has been so vastly enriched by the chance to participate in the arts. How can we deny this to others like I was?
Barry: In your address to the APAP Conference in 2010 from your paper “Thriving in an Uncertain World: Arts Presenting and the New Realities”, you advised presenters to embrace “resilience thinking” making our organizations able to better absorb the shock of changing times and “recalibrate and continue existing and moving, without substantially changing the underlying purpose of the organization.” You opined that rather than cutting back and “streamlining operations” in response to diminishing resources, we needed to move away from certain business values and embrace our own arts values more as part of our organizational values: including, risk taking, chaos, less smoothly functioning, but better able to absorb the inevitable blows of the times without damaging the core of the organization. How do you feel the field has done in adapting to that kind of approach, and what do you think of that position today?
Ken: First, I am even more convinced than ever that this is the way to go and increasingly view the economic collapse of 2009 as simply the ringing of a bell that needed to be rung for a long time. The economic collapse gave us the impetus and the rationale to make change but it didn’t create that need. That need was created by many other trends that have been happening over the last decade or so, most importantly demographic shifts and the technological innovation that is remaking the fundamental rules of the world.
I believe in the environmental model of resilience thinking because it springs from the “natural world” and therefore is organically generated and understood – it’s not some crazy idea I thought up one day while ruminating about the state of the world. It coheres with what is actually happening. I also think it provides a metaphor for action and activity that resonates with art and artists and is not alien to the creative process but quite the opposite. One day I hope to write a paper that centers the artistic process as a methodology for operating a business, not vice versa. I think that day is not far off.
As for how we are doing, I’d say we’re partially but not completely there which is the source of my answer to the question you raised above about my one big worry. Many organizations are still in denial about what’s happening around us. Too many are trying to do old ways better rather than finding the new way of operating. It drives me crazy when I, still today, hear people say that they just need a better strategic plan, a better board that will actually fundraise for them, a rich person to give them money, etc. We’ve heard these comments for years and simply made no progress. Stop tweaking and start changing people!
That said, many organizations are out there making these kinds of changes. Deborah has certainly been in the forefront of this with her work at Intersection and 5M, which is why I think she’s such a great choice to lead YBCA into the next phase of its life. She’s got the creativity and the courage to make it happen. I think George Steel at NYC Opera could have made this happen – he has a very contemporary and I think correct vision for an alternative opera company in New York – but unfortunately he was too little too late and the forces for yesteryear around that organization too strong. Everyone was pining for an era when the money kept flowing and “the people’s opera” racked up annual deficits of incredible amounts. Steel balanced the budget for two years for the first time in many years. Yet he’s getting the blame for he demise of NYC Opera. It’s a shame.
I will say, throughout my career, I have ALWAYS looked to the organizations operating on the margins to learn about how to be resilient, adaptive and thrive in an essentially hostile world. When I was in Pennsylvania I worked with many rural organizations that figured out how to make art happen in their communities because they had to and they wanted to. Contemporary dance companies that I have worked with in Africa – Congo, Mozambique, Kenya, Nigeria and others - have thrived with working conditions and resources that we can’t even imagine because they were so committed to the work. They just figured out how to make it happen. Every story is different but the one common thread is that they had to or they would die, and sometimes that was literally true. That kind of passion for making art puts us to shame with our whining about how tough it is.
Barry: In the same paper you talked about presenters (and really all arts organizations) becoming more resilient to the constantly changing environment by considering five possible prescripts for survival (an expansion of some of the themes in your book: Performing Arts Presenting: From Theory to Practice). Those prescriptions include:
- Behave like an Artist not like a Business.
- Privilege Experimentation
- Embrace and Engage Diversity
- Strategize (basically to vet new ideas and move them quickly to implementation)
- Focus on Relationships
Though you qualify this advice as possibly limited to a point in time, it seems to me very good advice today. How do you see your thinking back then as applied to today’s reality?
Ken: I think I pretty much answered this above. You’re right – when I wrote this I was responding to a moment in time when we were all searching for explanations and solutions and the simple logic of this approach was, for me, a port in a storm. While the storm may have receded a bit, things are still pretty challenging and as a methodology, it works. And by the way, I followed my own advice and applied these ideas to how I ran YBCA, much to the chagrin of some of my staff who were desperately looking for stability in the form of a rock like organization. Those who were comfortable with a degree of instability loved it. And I must say, my Board completely and totally got it. We had/have a fair number of entrepreneurs on the Board and this is not at all foreign to them. They worked with me to rewrite the vision and mission; they agreed to throw out the strategic plan and focus on four strategic priorities; they supported us when we maximized our relationship with Apple, when we launched not just one but two house raffles. They were along for the ride and they loved it. That made a huge difference.
And just to end the story, I left YBCA with a $10-12 million budget and a cash reserve of over $2 million. When I started ten years ago we had a $6 million budget, no cash reserves and I faced an immediate $100k deficit that had to be handled in my first six months. So in every way –artistically, managerially, financially and philosophically – I am proud of what we accomplished at YBCA under my leadership.
I just returned from giving a talk to arts leaders in Toronto on this very topic and, as happens whenever I give this talk, the ideas resonate with leaders in the field. So I think I’m on to something. I’m hoping to further develop my thinking about this in the next several months and ultimately write a second book about it.
Barry: Who, outside the arts field, inspires you, and why?
Ken: This will sound like a cliché I know but I think I admire Barack Obama more than anyone for his incredible leadership. Not that I agree with everything he’s done, god knows, and I am one of those who often wished he would fight back louder and harder against his enemies. But the hatred of Obama is personal and its racist and it comes from people who see the world of their own privilege diminishing under his leadership and who will stop at nothing to retain their wealth and power. It’s actually quite frightening to see the intensity of the hatred directed at him. And it is personal.
He is paying an enormous personal price to do for our country what someone had to do – be the first. As the first black president he was doomed to being on the receiving end of anything and everything that racist America can throw at him and it’s astonishing to me to see how many people have taken the chance to try to take him down. It’s staggering. Yet he takes it, keeps his eyes on the prize, keeps pushing forward to the vision that he knows he will not realize during his time in office and maybe not even in his lifetime, but he stays focused and keeps going. Would that we all had his courage, tenacity, humanity and vision for a just world.
Thank you Ken.
Have a great week.