First things first, the guy’s from Canada of all places so he has this slight Canadian twist on language, like saying abowt, (about) and neesh (niche), and he spells Centre in a funny way.
Beyond that, it’s hard to find anything not to like about Jamie Grant, the new Executive Director and grand poobah of the Long Center for the Performing Arts. No, he’s not from Texas, but he was smart enough to compliment my boots—he wears boots too—so he’s smart and fashionable.
It seems like a long way to travel for a new gig, but, Grant counters, “This is area code number eight for me. When it’s time for a new challenge, in most cases [in this business,] you’re moving to a different market.”
That’s code for experience. Jamie Grant moved to Austin just a month ago, “I’ve been here five minutes and just found out where all the restrooms are in the Long Center,” but his 30-year career suggests he has an idea about what he’s taking on.
"If we are ‘Austin’s Creative Home’ then we have to provide opportunities for Austin artists and we have to provide opportunities for Austin audiences, and that means that when we program we look for opportunities to program to audiences that currently don’t have a place here.”
The last three years have been tough for performing arts centers, and arts organizations around the U.S.
“In 2008 after the global financial crisis hits, every artist decided they were broke, … so in 2009, every artist went out on tour. As a result art centers were busy.”
Busy yes, but the competition drove profit margins ever thinner and then, “In 2010, there was even more activity but the audience didn’t have the money to buy tickets.”
That resulted in tough times for the arts. Just this year the Austin Lyric Opera cut their season down by one performance (from four to three) for each Opera they stage; and put their headquarters up for sale in order to save on expenses. Operas are expensive.
While the other Long Center founding companies, the Austin Symphony and Ballet Austin appear to be okay, the Long Center relies on far more performances (read: ticket sales) than those companies provide.
Keep in mind, unlike sports venues most performing arts centers don’t generally contain luxury suites. Grant suggests, maybe only half joking, they should, or at least, “We need to find ways to provide those enhanced experiences for live performance because that’s where the dollars are going to come from.”
Change like that is pretty unlikely, but the very thought suggests Jamie Grant is a different kind of PAC Executive Director.
In July, 2010, Cliff Redd announced he was retiring from the Long Center after six years at the helm. His health, and that of his partner, moved him to make that decision. Redd oversaw the rather difficult fundraising for the Long Center—a four-year project, downsized after fundraising failed to meet goals, but finally opened in 2008.
Grant moved to town September 19th, leaving his wife of two years and middle school daughter (from a previous marriage) in Canada to finish the school year. He and his wife also have four other children, in college or working, from their combined families. He says his daughter is looking forward to “swimming in March,” as well she should, the days of shoveling snow from the driveway are over.
The family lives in Kitchener, Ontario. Grant ran the Centre on the Square in Kitchener, the home of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery and the Grand Philharmonic Choir.
He’s a creative, imaginative and a self-described “metrics” guy. That’s code for ‘he likes to count things.’ “I’m, a big metrics guy. I can name for you the percentage of households we touched in Waterloo, it was 32 percent.” “Is that a good number?” I asked. “That’s a very good number,” he responded. And it’s a number Grant suggests is important.
“It’s paramount. From my perspective if we sit down 10 years from now, and I’m talking about our success—the number one way to judge our success is how many different people in our community we’ve touched. There are a number of zip codes that are not currently in our database, and that’s going to change. We will be counting our penetration level in the Austin community.”
“When you look at it, we are really in the community building business, that’s really what we do here. We do it through a Performing Arts Center that services Austin artists and Austin audiences. Being ‘Austin’s Creative Home’ means something.”
It’s easy to see Grant’s passion for his work, and he wears what’s important on his sleeve. On the day we spoke, the Austin Symphony hosted the first children’s concert of the season. A thousand grade school kids ran around the Long Center, shuffling into the auditorium. “This is an incredible place. This is a place where today, some young kid will discover something about him or herself that will change their life forever, as a result of [the children’s symphony].”
It’s how Grant found his love of the Arts. His mother insisted the family attend symphonies and arts events. “I think it was the third time I went—I was hooked.”
Look for Grant to start making changes; in particular, he sees a great opportunity to bring more Austin folks into the Long Center. One way is though the new community concert series—free concerts performed by Austin artists for Austin audiences on the Long Center terrace. That series kicked off last month with Grupo Fantasma and last week with Redd Volkaert and the Marshall Ford Swing Band (editor's note: CultureMap is a sponsor of that concert series).
While Grant didn’t start the series, he’s a big fan. “We really are the community center. If we are ‘Austin’s Creative Home’ then we have to provide opportunities for Austin artists and we have to provide opportunities for Austin audiences, and that means that when we program we look for opportunities to program to audiences that currently don’t have a place here.”
Kitchener is every bit as diverse, perhaps more so than Austin. Grant knows this is not a one-size-fits-all community and to get people in the door, he will have to convince them that the arts are not only important, but crucial to maintaining quality of life. He seems up for it.
“We have to create opportunities for people to acquire a taste for the performing arts and part of the reason I’m here is to make sure that that number grows.”