Music Center's head of programming is leaving for a post at USC

Renae Williams Niles will leave the Music Center after 11 years as a programming exec to take a job at USC.

Renae Williams Niles will step down as the Music Center’s vice president for programming at the end of July, the third department head at the financially pressed downtown performing arts center to exit in a little more than six months.

Williams Niles said Tuesday that she is leaving to become director of fundraising for USC’s fledgling Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.

Together with the December resignation of Mark Slavkin after 13 years as vice president for education, and the spring exit of fundraising vice president Elizabeth Kennedy, Williams Niles’ imminent departure will clear the decks for the Music Center’s next president, Rachel Moore, to build an executive team of her own.

Moore, executive director of American Ballet Theatre in New York, was announced two weeks ago as the Music Center’s chief executive. She has said she will begin working on filling top positions even before starting her new job in October.

The highest-ranking holdovers are Howard Sherman, the executive vice president and chief operating officer who’s held management jobs at the Music Center for almost 30 years, and Carolyn Van Brunt, vice president of guest relations since 2001, a post that includes overseeing ushers and box office staff.

Sherman, who's served as interim president since December, when Stephen Rountree resigned to become top business executive at Center Theatre Group, said that the three vacancies give Moore "an incredible opportunity to build a team."

Williams Niles has helped shape the Music Center’s programming for nearly 11 years. Having performed with L.A.’s Lula Washington Dance Theatre during her undergraduate days at USC, she branched into arts management and joined the Music Center as director of dance, with a mandate that included strengthening its dance offerings.

Dance is now the Music Center’s foremost credential as a presenter — the one art form where it isn't overshadowed by the three dominant resident companies, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Opera and Center Theatre Group.

In 2013 Williams Niles was promoted to vice president overseeing all programming. Her predecessor, former opera director Thor Steingraber, had resigned without explanation after little more than a year on the job. He’s now executive director of the Valley Performing Arts Center.

Williams Niles said her departure wasn’t prompted by recent budget cuts in the wake of fundraising shortfalls. They have fallen heavily on her programming staff, where five of the 10 employees she oversaw were laid off. The arts education department also sustained significant reductions in staff and programming.

“I’ve been thinking for some time about what could be next,” Williams Niles said. If not for the opportunity at USC, she said, “I would have stayed longer to make sure everything was as solid as possible for Rachel” when she arrived.

Williams Niles knows Moore from having worked with her on ABT’s frequent appearances at the Music Center.

She said she recently called Moore to assure her that her hiring “had nothing to do with my decision” to leave. “She knows I want to continue to be a resource and be helpful.”

In discussing her new job at USC with Robert Cutietta, dean of USC’s schools of music and dance, Williams Niles said the question came up of whether she would now be competing against the Music Center to win over a limited pool of dance-minded donors. She doesn’t think that will be the case.

“Donors will give what they want to give to organizations, and it doesn’t deter other gifts they might want to give” to other dance-related causes, she said.

Williams Niles will remain at the Music Center long enough to carry out perhaps her most ambitous recent performance idea, “Moves After Dark.”

Four Los Angeles dance companies will offer works tailored to four unorthodox performance spots on the Music Center campus. They include Lula Washington Dance Theatre performing on the steps outside Walt Disney Concert Hall, and a piece by choreographer Ana Maria Alvarez of the Contra-Tiempo company that will be danced in the shallow reflecting pool outside the Mark Taper Forum. Performances are July 13-14 and July 20-21.

“It’s a longterm program” that won’t die with Williams Niles’ departure, Sherman said. “Renae has done amazing things that we’re anxious to build upon. We’re poised for growth, and a lot of it is because of Renae putting into place the programs she has.”

Another new initiative under Williams Niles is a weekly Friday night summer series of dance parties on the Music Center’s plaza that began in June, featuring dance lessons or DJs.

Music Center leaders increasingly hope to make the plaza itself a prominent venue, along with Grand Park, which the Music Center operates under a contract with the county.

Its aspirations partly depend on a long-proposed but not-yet-funded makeover of the plaza intended to make it a more inviting and cost-efficient place for performances.

The project, not yet taken up by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, calls for the county to pay $25 million of the estimated $30 million cost.

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