Supermarket of the Arts or a Meat Market?

Upstairs, in posh convention headquarters, the members meet. They hear national figures in the arts reiterate some of the same goals, ideals and problems that arts leaders talk about whenever national organizations meet. They attend workshops, seminars and panel discussions dealing with the pretensions of art and education and with the daily issues of their working lives--box office, subscription sales, audiences and demographics.

Downstairs in the large exhibit hall they call "the pit," some 850 members of the Assn. of College, University and Community Arts Administrators (ACUCAA) meet more informally, directing their attention to the real business of this 31st annual meeting: the exposure to managers and artists and the subsequent booking of those artists for the 1988-'89 (or 1989-'90) concert season.

"A supermarket of the arts," a publicist has called it.

"It's more like a meat market," says one of the visiting impresarios.

"This is where the real action is," boasts a veteran manager, representing--along with what looks like a dozen associates--the largest single agency, Columbia Artists Management Inc.

And so it seems. At any one moment during these 4 1/2 days last month, there are more association members on the floor of the "resource room" in the lower lobby of the Sheraton Centre (at 52nd Street at 7th Avenue) than in the second-floor meeting rooms.

The attraction is clear: More than 200 management companies are represented here by more than 1,000 sales people in booths of varying capacities and tastes. On display are posters, recordings, videotapes, banners, brochures and artists' lists, in size from the modest to the humongous.

Many of the booths have continuous video showings of taped performances by available attractions, from dance and ballet companies to theater troupes to folk singers to touring orchestras to puppeteers, mimes and recitalists.

Some of the New York-based managements offer free tickets to current Manhattan performances by their artists--on Friday night, for instance, 24 different New York City locales beckon the visiting impresarios, with entertainments as divergent as the Elisa Monte Dance Company, Chicago City Limits (a comedy theater on the Upper East Side) and the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players.

In addition to their artists lists and business cards, the managers are giving out small souvenirs. One booth offers a glass paperweight celebrating the 25th anniversary (1964-'89) of Aman, the Los Angeles-based folk company.

"It's a very large marketplace," says Wayne Shilkret, executive director of the Ambassador International Cultural Foundation, the nonprofit organization that produces more than 150 events--at Ambassador Auditorium, Pasadena Civic Theatre and other halls--annually. The Ambassador Foundation--along with the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and a handful of East Coast culture palaces--is one of the largest presenting organizations, with an annual budget of $4.2 million.

Shilkret has attended association conferences every December since 1976, when he came to the Pasadena foundation after working for the Kennedy Center and, before that, the Philadelphia Orchestra.

"The conference has grown tremendously in these years, just as the business has grown," he observes.

In 1987, the resource room at Sheraton Centre was sold out early, according to association director Gayle Stamler, keeping some managements from participating. In 1988, the conference will move to the newer Marriott convention complex in Times Square.

Some of the smaller presenters do their actual booking for the coming season at the annual association meeting. The large-scale concert bookers cannot do that.

"Because of the competitive situation in Los Angeles, we have to be locked down in our 1988-'89 season before we go to conference," says Michael Blachly, an associate of Pebbles Wadsworth, executive director of the UCLA Center for the Arts.

"But we're still shopping, and looking, for '89-'90, and for any sudden contingencies that may arise before that." Blachly, who has worked as both a presenter (in Tennessee and Hawaii) and an agent (for CAMI), says "size--the steady growth of the organization--is a drawback at this meeting, because there are now so many people here. Getting together with your counterparts from around the country, just to sit and talk, can be complicated."

Yet those interactions are, according to many of the attendees, the most rewarding part of the conference.

"The ACUCAA meeting fills a tremendous need," says Shilkret, "because in our jobs we seldom get to talk to people doing exactly what we're doing, and we have a lot to tell each other.

"Sometimes, it will just be serendipity that at one of the banquets or large meetings I sit next to someone who runs a college series of, say, four or five concerts a year, with a budget of $30,000. That person is interested in how I handle my job, the problems that arise, the dealings with managers, etc. This is a very valuable time."

Some of the time is spent discussing trends and trying to predict the future. A handful of impresarios, one afternoon, talked about the so-called decline of the recital--not its decline as an institution, but its survival in a world where only celebrities can draw crowds.

Two weeks later, on the phone from Austin, where he directs the University of Texas Performing Arts Center, Ron Pearson complained:

"I don't know what will happen in the future, but there is a real problem here. It's great that we can get a fine recitalist for $1,000. But then we have to spend $4,000 to promote that artist.

"And where else, besides my series, can that person perform? Is there any future in being a successful artist if you're not also a celebrity? These days, if you're not an American Express card-salesman, or someone who appears regularly with Johnny Carson, no one ever heard of you. It doesn't look good."

Back downstairs at the Sheraton, there is information and resources. Following his visit to the conference, Blachly reported that, though he works hard to keep in touch with new artists in the field, "While I was there (New York), I got the chance to see some taped performances from a couple of dance companies I had known previously only by name."

Merchandising by tape has become, some of the agency people say, indispensable. One manager (who asked not to be identified) said, "There are presenters who will not book an unknown dance company unless they have seen a complete videotaped performance."

An old association tradition of live showcase performances survives. Saturday and Sunday afternoons, for two hours each day, eight of the 200 soloists and ensembles who had applied for showcasing were heard. In their performances, slickness prevailed.

Still, there was much to admire in some elegant Schumann and Haydn from members of the nonet who made up the New Jersey Chamber Music Society; in efficient pianism from Uriel Tsachor; in gorgeous string tone from a violinist named Kyoko Takezawa, and in impassioned playing from the handsomely blended (as regards temperament, tone and sex) Meliora Quartet, an ensemble trained at the Eastman School and now resident in Massachusetts, Florida and Vermont.

The most impressive of the showcase performers was the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, a polished ensemble composed of Anisa Angarola, John Dearman, William Kanengiser and Scott Tennant. They played with zestful authority in a suite from "El Amor Brujo," with mesmerizing concentration in Leo Brouwer's "Cuban Landscape With Rain" and with a variety of colors in Copland's "Hoedown." A small but enthusiastic audience--again, the real action was going on in the Lower Lobby--applauded lustily.

But conference attenders were not short of amusement. Many of them took the opportunities offered by weekend matinee performances at Broadway and off-Broadway theaters; some went uptown to Lincoln Center; a number could be found at a slew of weekend "Messiah" performances at Carnegie Hall. Still others did the seasonal thing and visited Bergdorf's, Bloomingdale's, et al. New York offers nothing if not temptations.

Mornings at Sheraton Centre were reserved for small meetings, and some of these had fascinating subjects. Alvin Reiss' was "Are You Getting as Much From Businesses as You Are Giving to Them?" and the question was clearly rhetorical.

Reiss, editor of Arts Management magazine and author of the book "Cash In! Funding and Promoting the Arts," had a number of specific ideas to offer the delegates, but his bottom line had to be admired: "Never change your artistic program to accommodate anyone. Your programming should be sacrosanct."

One provocative invention from Reiss: Before your concerts, offer a lecture series by respected business leaders, older members of the community who will attract ambitious, younger people more interested in wealth than in the arts. The younger ones will attend in order to further their careers, but may get hooked on your product (music or the orchestra) in the process.

At another small-room seminar, this called "Exploding the Myths About Senior Audiences," dancer/choreographer Liz Lerman, artistic director of the Dance Exchange in Washington; Pauli and Martin Greenberg, arts coordinators for Heritage Village in Ohio, and a roomful of impresarios from more than 20 states had much to say about seniors and the arts.

"Seniors' audiences are just like other audiences," said Pauli Greenberg. "The more challenging the program, the better the response." Think again, said Martin Greenberg, before you sell your audience short: "If you think your audience is not your intellectual equal, you're wrong. They're smarter than you ever give them credit for being."

Lerman, who has taught dance to seniors for a decade and now runs a senior-training program at Jacob's Pillow every summer, said: "If you find a way to make your audience members into participants, everything in your theater will change."

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