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A ballerina of the boardroom and activist for the arts -- say hello to the new Music Center CEO

Mark Swed
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Music Critic

I have a long history with the Music Center. I know the nooks and crannies of the campus' four theaters. But the one place I had not been until recently is the office of the president and CEO. I had no reason. There had never been an artist in it. Now there is.

Rachel Moore, a former American Ballet Theatre dancer who became head of the company, is a radical departure from the conventional administrator model of a chief executive overseeing Walt Disney Concert Hall, Ahmanson Theatre, Mark Taper Forum, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and Grand Park. She is a ballerina of the boardroom who peppers her sentences with business jargon.

But in an hour's conversation, she tirelessly emphasized that the business of the Music Center was art. Budgets were barely mentioned, and when they were it was with a skilled performer's roll of her eyes and an engaging laugh. Instead, Moore avidly presented her broad artistic vision for a performing arts center that desperately needs one. She knows her audience.

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Indeed, one of Moore's most useful talents may be her understanding that business is also performance.

"Because they speak different languages," she says, "the business community and the artistic community think that they are at cross purposes when they really aren't."

Moore is hardly the first performer to head a performing arts organization. Musicians have run the Los Angeles Philharmonic for nearly four decades. Ernest Fleischmann had been a conductor; Willem Wijnbergen, a pianist; and current president and CEO Deborah Borda is a former professional violist.

Even so, Moore's background goes deeper because she happens to be the daughter of two economics professors at UC Davis who indulged her childhood obsession with ballet and music. But she says her parents also instilled in her a sense of responsibility, forcing her to finish high school instead of immediately jumping at an opportunity with ABT in New York.

But in 1988, when an injury at age 24 ended her career as a member of ABT's corps de ballet, Moore sort of followed in her parents' footsteps by getting an MBA at Columbia and going into arts administration. This was the beginning of what Moore describes as her mission to find ways to build a vast network of bridges between art and business, art and education, art and politics, art and diverse communities, art and everything and everybody.

Before returning to ABT, this time as its chief executive, Moore ran a project for the Boston Symphony designed to identify talented children of color in public schools and train them to ensure more diversified orchestras of the future. She had also worked for the National Endowment for the Arts as part of its congressional liaison office. This happened at the time when a homoerotic Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition in Washington created a national controversy about public funding of the arts.

Moore describes both of these experiences as seminal. She sees arts education as essential to the future of not only the Music Center but of sparking creativity in all walks of life. Her political trial by fire — "I was young, completely naïve, a retired ballet dancer, and I remember picking up the phone and having [then-Sen.] Jesse Helms' office scream at me: 'You're a smut peddler!'" she says — paved the way for the political side of the Music Center job. The all-powerful county supervisors must be regularly and persuasively courted or nothing gets funded.

On a practical level, Moore also credits her dance experience.

"When I went to ABT having been a dancer in the company," she explains, "I really understood what it was like to do eight shows a week as the third swan from the left.

"So when we had conversations with the unions, I knew what the dancers were going through. That's half of it, feeling like you are being really heard. And it helped to problem solve because I could come up with some creative solutions that were not just business-focused."

Not that Moore isn't business-focused. Her first book, "The Artist's Compass," will be published in May, and it is a nuts-and-bolts guide for young people who want a career in the arts. Moore walks young dreamers through dealing with the IRS, traffic tickets, landlords, life on the road, the media, stage fright and failure. She mercilessly advocates taking the proper advantage of education and career opportunities. While infinitely encouraging, she has only patience for the pragmatic artist. Nothing must stand in the way of striving for greatness.

This pretty much sums up Moore's goal for the Music Center as well.

"At the root, it's all about the work," she maintains. "This place was built for the work.

"Every day I get up thinking about the work and how arts transform communities and what constitutes excellence and what does a performing arts center look like in the 21st century and what makes it relevant. Those are interesting questions to me, and they are all rooted in what's happening on the stage or in the studio or on the plaza."

Moore doesn't claim to have the answers. She is a gutsy New Yorker with a lot to learn about L.A. But having grown up in Davis, the West Coast is not foreign to her. She knows the Music Center well from having managed ABT tours in the Chandler, and she also brings the perspective of having worked at Lincoln Center, where ABT performs fall and spring seasons.

As for her vision of the Music Center, "I'm not interested in anything that isn't striving for greatness," Moore again emphasizes. "I trained hard as a ballet dancer, forfeited my childhood, because that's what dancers do. You want to change the world."

Pirouetting on a dime, Moore rephrases that in practical term: "That's also what draws people. People want to associate with excellence, and that gets them in the theater."

What further draws people in is creating a feeling of inclusion, she says, making space for diversity.

"If America doesn't look today like it did in 1950," Moore says, "then we can't function as an arts organization the way we functioned in the 1950s.

"One way of doing that is that we need to have people of color on our boards, on the stage, behind the stage, in our audiences."

Moore takes inspiration from watching what happened last year at ABT when Misty Copeland became the company's first African American principal dancer.

"I remember having a conversation with a businessy person, who said, 'I don't think there is going to be any difference in the audience when an African American performs.' I said, 'My gut tells me things are going to change.' And so they did.

"When Misty did her first 'Swan Lake,' half of the audience was African American. That was very new to ABT. They came to support Misty, but they also needed to see people who looked like them on stage.

"White audiences are shrinking, so there is a business imperative. But it's also the right thing to do."

The other bridge-building Moore is striving for is fostering artistic partnership between the Music Center's resident companies — the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Opera, Los Angeles Master Chorale and Center Theatre Group. Finally a Music Center president is calling for festivals.

"I think festivals are a huge opportunity," she says. "I would love to see a summer festival, something like an Edinburgh Festival. Downtown is exploding, so we have a huge opportunity.

"If we had programming a little avant-garde, young people might see this as cool, and that is one way to start training people of the next generation to come to the Music Center, to show that it can be a welcoming place to people who are not elite. There is this perception that this Music Center is for the 1%, even if that perception is not true."

To change that perception, Moore insists that everything must be looked at. "The world is changing quickly via technology and demographics, becoming more complicated," she says. "We need to figure it out, and nobody's figured it out yet.

"People 30 and under have never existed without technology mediating their experience in the world. How does that translate into the performing arts? Does it translate into the art form? Does it translate into how you get them into the theater? Does it translate into the distribution system?"

Infrastructure is an issue. The long-awaited project to renovate the plaza, Moore says, is undergoing its final studies and she expects county approval in coming months. This will involve leveling the ground, almost doubling to 2,500 the number of people who can be accommodated and offering a wider choice of restaurants.

"If you're somebody coming with two little kids," Moore reasons, "an $8 hot dog is ridiculous.

"I want more seating outside, so people will see that there's all this activity, that it's not a white slab as it currently is. Having come here for many years with ABT, I've long known the plaza doesn't feel welcoming, especially in the middle of the day when it's really, really hot."

All of this is to say that the Music Center lacks, and has always lacked, an identity. One of Moore's solutions will be redefining the position of senior vice president of programming. She is interviewing candidates who will not only run the dance series (which Moore, given her experience, might find it hard not to have a hand in as well) but who will coordinate others brought in to run festivals, events in Grand Park and education. "I really believe that not only does everything need to be integrated but that education, in particular, has to be integrated in all we do."

Another way to raise the profile of the Music Center, Moore says, "is trying to see what is the value-add that we can provide, finding ways we can make ticketing for everybody easier and working with transportation to get people here from the Westside."

And let us not forget the elephant in the room. The Chandler, now 51 years old, is in need of major renovation. But first Moore plans to focus on fundraising for the plaza.

"Then we will turn our heads toward the big kahuna," she says, laughing. Renovation has been promised for at least 15 years but has never gone beyond empty promises.

"I was with a touring company for 12 years," Moore says. "I saw a lot of different theaters with a lot of different amenities. Some were spectacular, and some were a misery. I understand the value of things that work. It's not simply about niceties.

"These are things that transform a company's ability to put on a high-quality performance," Moore, the artist, says. But the businesswoman finishes the thought with: "at a price point that is sustainable."

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 13, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "A ballerina of the boardroom" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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