Vilar Institute steers minority arts exex

Executives from 17 minority-owned theaters and arts groups from around the country are getting a crash course in the finer points of arts management from the Kennedy Center’s Vilar Institute — all expenses paid.

The institute’s Capacity Building Program kicked off in Washington, D.C. last month with a three-day seminar aimed at helping minority arts orgs build audiences, maximize their boards and jump numerous other hurdles. It is being bankrolled for its first two years by a $500,000 grant from the SBC Foundation, the philanthropic arm of telcom giant SBC Communications Inc.

Along with the annual seminar, to which an artistic director, managing director and a board member from each org was invited, the program includes bi-weekly online discussions with Kennedy Center brass.

“We will only have a healthy arts environment if we support the smaller and diverse organizations that create great works, great artists and new audiences,” says Kennedy Center prexy Michael Kaiser. Minority orgs face issues of visibility, subscale budgets and the loss of artists and works to more mainstream counterparts, he contends.

Kaiser, who drew international acclaim as an arts world “Mr. Fixit” before taking the helm of the Center, was clearly in his element as he listened to one arts manager outline her strategy to improve artistic product and boost her struggling organization’s visibility. “You have outlined your ambitions,” he tells her. “But increasing visibility is a goal, not a strategy, and it demonstrates why most arts planning processes fail — they stop too soon. We need to get deeper and more organized here.”

Also on hand were a dozen Vilar Fellows, aspiring arts managers participating in an intense nine-month training program with the Institute funded by philanthropist Alberto Vilar. Each fellow has “adopted” one of the minority arts groups, and is helping that group with strategic planning while personally gaining managerial experience.

Among participating organizations are L.A.’s East West Players, the nation’s largest Asian-American theater; Gotham’s Intl. Arts Relations Inc. (Intar), a Latin American arts group; L.A.’s Lula Washington Dance Theater; Pregones Theater in the Bronx and Brooklyn’s Urban Bush Women; Detroit Repertory Theater; Philadelphia’s Philadanco dance ensemble; and from Washington, D.C., the Gala Hispanic Theater, the Dance Institute of Washington and the African Continuum Theater Co.

At East West Players, the challenge includes reaching out to a diffuse population of Asian cultures that have little interest in each other theatrically, explains artistic director Tim Deng. “The ability to come here and work on these problems is invaluable to us all,” he says. The point is echoed by Jennifer Nelson, a.d. of African Continuum Theater Co. “The program forces us to plan strategically and gives us the tools to do it,” she says.

What’s next for the program? The Kennedy Center’s Kaiser is hoping to raise sufficient money to hire each Vilar fellow for an additional year and then place them directly with each organization. Also, the online chats will be expanded to create a separate forum for junior staff of minority arts orgs to dialogue with center brass. The center is also creating opportunities for the groups to showcase their art on its stages.

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