NEA Arts Magazine

Connecting Artists and Audiences

The Association of Performing Arts Presenters Conference

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The APAP conference offers more than 1,000 showcases where performers get a chance to demonstrate their talents to a roomful of presenters. Photo by Warren Westura

Ken Fischer, executive director of the University of Michigan's University Musical Society (UMS), has faced a 40 to 50 percent decline in funding over the last three years. His major contributor, Pfizer, has left the state, which has gone from being one of the top five arts funders to the bottom five. "What are you going to do in these times?" Fischer asked, as UMS has already eliminated five positions and cut the salaries of everyone making more than $50,000.

"For us, it's fairly simple. It’s always going to be art first and connecting artists and audiences in uncommon and engaging experiences...and we’re going to APAP."

APAP, of course, means the Association of Performing Arts Presenters Conference in New York City from January 8-12, 2010. With an expected attendance of more than 4,000 presenters, the APAP conference is the largest meeting of its kind, "a network of networks and convener of conveners," in the words of APAP Executive Director Sandra Gibson. It is a huge, unwieldy conference that itself plays host to many complementary state, regional, national, and international meetings.

The Association of Performing Arts Presenters began in 1957 when a group of college university concert managers joined forces to address changes in the performing arts field. (Its founder, Frances Taylor, would later become the first director of the Music program at the National Endowment for the Arts.) The association quickly expanded to include regional, state, and local arts agencies; service organizations; producing companies; artist managements; booking agencies; and individual artists. Today APAP represents an industry with more than 7,000 not-for-profit and for-profit organizations that bring performances to more than two million audience-goers each week and spend in excess of 2.5 billion dollars annually.

The 2010 APAP conference includes professional development sessions for artists and presenters, with a special emphasis on jazz this year. Photo by Warren Westura

People come to the conference for various reasons, but mainly to learn about the business, to find new talent, and to connect with their peers.

When Ken Fischer comes to the conference, he brings along a crew of 12 to 15 others from his staff, as he's done for the last 24 years. (Several will be interns who, thanks to an APAP program, attend for free in exchange for assisting with the conference.) Though times for arts funding have been particularly bad in Michigan, Fischer still believes it is critical to bring as many people as possible to APAP: "We definitely get back in value every penny we spend."

For Fischer, "It's all about personal relationships. I mean, most of the business we do, we do with the artists' management coming to see us or over the phone. For us, this conference is about deepening relationships, touching base, and checking in, as opposed to signing your name on the line."

Barbara Nicholson, executive director of the King Arts Complex in Columbus, Ohio, on the other hand, is coming to the conference looking for fundraising solutions. Due to tough economic times in Columbus, the King Arts Complex cancelled a popular summer arts series in order to use those funds to support a summer camp for at-risk youth. "It's hard to compete for arts funding when you’re worried about feeding people and keeping a roof over their heads," said Nicholson.

"Expenses are our number one priority. How can we project a deficit and still take care of our community? It’s a Catch-22...but we have to stay in business. Now, more than ever, the arts need to inspire people to hope. We feed the spirit. We feed the soul. I'm hoping to find some answers by connecting with people in the same boat!"

One such opportunity will be the open clinic on fundraising led by Halsey and Alice North of the North Group. The open clinics allow participants to meet one-on-one with experts in the field. For the open clinic on fundraising, the Norths will meet to listen and give counsel on financial questions.

"Ticket sales are remaining about the same, but we’ve seen a marked drop in endowments and corporate support. In the open clinic we meet with presenters individually to help them find solutions right for their specific situation,” said Halsey North. As far as getting some fundraising tips from one’s peers, Cathy Weiss, director of the Webb Center in Wickenburg, Arizona, would like to share a funding idea that worked—a partnership with a local dude ranch to host retreats for arts groups. The revenue helps her center and the dude ranch stay in business and the artists on the retreat create original work which the Webb Center then premieres.

The main reason Weiss attends APAP, though, is booking opportunities.

"We’re a 600-seat theater in the West, with the nearest theater 600 miles away. Most companies can only travel 350 miles a day, so there is no way we can get excellent productions without working together with other small theaters in the Southwest to bring excellent productions out our way."

With a staff of three, Weiss handles everything from writing press releases to cultivating donors, so it's difficult for Weiss to see new acts anywhere else. The conference offers more than 1,000 showcases, plus the Under the Radar festival featuring more experimental acts. "I don't get out much so I go to as many showcases as I can," Weiss said. "It's my one chance to see what's out there. I'm a presenter in small town. This town depends on us to provide entertainment. I depend on APAP. It's my time with my people."

The EXPO Hall at the APAP conference includes nearly 400 booths by leaders in the presenting field. Photo by Warren Westura

Ed Noonan, executive director of the Myrna Loy Center in Helena, Montana, agreed: "We're dependent on the conference for about 60 percent of our booking. With the small size of our theater and its out-of-the-way location, it makes sense for us to find artists at the conference and catch them when they’re already traveling our way."

He especially enjoys the Under the Radar festival, which is co-sponsored by APAP and held in off Broadway theaters throughout the city. "I love the mad dash around Manhattan from one show to the other. You see a great variety of acts."

Professional development is another draw of the conference: it's divided along three tracks—artists, audiences, and business.

"I attend all the professional development sessions that I can as well," Weiss said. She might attend "New Borders of Creativity—Transparent Transformation" to keep abreast of the world of artists; "The Arts and the Creative Campus" to learn more about audiences; or "New Frontiers in Technology" on the business end. If one of her board members decides to come along, there is also a special track of sessions such as "Get On Board: The Presenting Field in Context" for board members.

Terri Trotter, chief operating officer at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas, loves being able to network and reconnect with her peers, another benefit of the APAP conference.

"We don't see each other more than once a year, so it's such a great time to reconnect, see how things are going and hear new ideas," she said. "And this year, NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman will be addressing us [as the keynote speaker], telling us about the challenges in our field. We’ll get to hear directly from him. What could be better?"

This year, APAP is presenting a special focus on jazz, a theme recommended by past participants of the conference. This year’s conference will celebrate its first partnership with the NEA Jazz Masters program and Jazz at Lincoln Center by launching a new jazz track including sessions with jazz legends and the 2010 NEA Jazz Masters awards ceremony and concert.

Sessions such as "Got Jazz: A New Age of Audience Enlightenment" and “Jazz in the 21st Century— America's Expanding Legacy" will be held during the conference; NEA Jazz Masters will participate in some of those sessions. On Monday, conference attendees will be able to meet the 2010 NEA Jazz Masters in a special panel discussion led by A.B. Spellman. Then on Tuesday night, the last night of the conference, the NEA and Jazz at Lincoln Center will host the 2010 NEA Jazz Masters awards ceremony and concert. Wynton Marsalis will lead the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, with honorees Annie Ross, Kenny Barron, Yusef Lateef, and Cedar Walton performing as well.

In addition to the conference and all its offerings, John Ellis, managing director of the Diana Wortham Theater in Asheville, North Carolina, reminds his friends that there is much to be learned just by getting out in New York City, the epicenter of performing arts producing. "The first year I did nothing but the conference, but I've learned you have to get out. There’s so much going on in the city. People bring a taste and a desire to the table that’s impossible to find anywhere else."