Fellows learn with the Sondheim Celebration

WASHINGTON — Ah, the heady days of accolades at the John F. Kennedy Center.

As the Sondheim Celebration wraps after four delicious months, weary but elated staffers are savoring the experience and bidding adieu to performers and designers. Behind the scenes, the center’s Vilar Institute for Arts Management is enjoying an equal measure of success as it ends its inaugural class of fellows and prepares for the second crop of budding arts managers.

The Vilar Institute was created as a comprehensive management training program and is funded by a donation from arts philanthropist Alberto Vilar. A dozen Vilar fellows from the U.S. and abroad attend for free. They participate in a curriculum of classroom learning with Kennedy Center prexy Michael Kaiser and other key execs, along with gaining hands-on experience in a variety of departments. After an exciting year, the inaugural fellows are headed off to arts management jobs.

The program got off to an unnerving start, as participants had a front-row seat for the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon, just across the river, on their second full day at the center.

Fellows helped prepare for the Sondheim Celebration as well as assisting fundraising and marketing, organizing the American College Theater Festival and meeting the relentless demands of seven performance spaces.

Student Kathryn Colgrove, who took a sabbatical from her post as managing director of Dad’s Garage, a small Atlanta improv theater company, returns as an “empowered managing director,” she says. Colgrove says the experience has enabled her to understand the importance of strategic planning as a tool that “helps you every day to assess which risks are worth taking and determine what the critical success factors are.”

Fiona Richards, one of six foreign fellows, returns to London’s National Theater. She was especially intrigued by the American style of fundraising, which she says European arts orgs are being forced to adopt.

Most important, the fellows will take home Kaiser’s mantra of success — “great art well marketed” — a concept they say was underscored at every turn.

Meanwhile, the program will be tweaked slightly following the first year’s shakedown cruise. It will be shortened from 11 months to 10 so that students can apply for jobs during the summer hiring season for many arts orgs.

In addition, the institute has discovered a novel way to help translate the lessons learned in the center’s rarefied air to smaller, needy arts orgs. It has “adopted” San Antonio’s National Center for Latino Arts & Culture, called the Alameda. The Kennedy Center will offer management and fundraising expertise to the organization, which includes a new theater, museum and business center. Vilar fellow Jeanne Ryan has been named its director of development.

The institute’s incoming class of fellows includes five Americans and seven foreign students. Its international members come from Jordan, England, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Spain, Estonia and Canada. All currently employed in the arts, the fellows were selected from 180 applications from 52 countries.

As for the Sondheim Celebration, which Kaiser says “has been simply astonishing,” the repertory season of six musicals ended a 12-year drought of theatrical production at the center. It drew auds from 28 countries and across the U.S., playing to mostly full houses in the Eisenhower Theater. Budgeted at $10 million, the festival earned roughly $7 million at the box office, as expected.

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