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May 27, 2010

The time frame for judging success

James Rainey's Los Angeles Times article on tepid press reception of Gustavo Dudamel's first U.S. tour as LA Philharmonic music director reminds me of a scene I'm watching unfold in Cambridge, Mass., where Diane Paulus is completing her first year as artistic director of American Repertory Theater. Both media and popular support of Paulus have been strong, but there's a less documented story on the street. Is she turning A.R.T. into an out-of-town stage for New York actors and other theater workers? Is her work serious or is it, as has been suggested of Dudamel's, a "publicity and fund-raising machine"? 

During her first year, Paulus has produced the biggest ticket-seller of any season at A.R.T. -- "Sleep No More" by England's Punchdrunk theater -- and her revival of "Donkey Show" that has been running nearly a year at A.R.T.'s smaller black-box space has a minor cult status locally. People love the work, or they don't. Critics love the work, or they don't. But the work keeps trucking, just as it does with the other theaters in the Boston area. Paulus' "Best of Both Worlds," a musical adaptation of "A Winter's Tale" staged in an inner-city vernacular, featured outstanding performances by an all-black cast -- a rarity at A.R.T. -- but the show didn't find the same kind of following as "Sleep No More," and the writing didn't cast the same spell for many who did attend. Same for another import, "Paradise Lost," Daniel Fish's update of Clifford Odets' play. Time will tell how Paulus assesses these two productions.

Paulus' newest work, "Johnny Baseball," is a musical about the Red Sox. The show opens June 2, and the local theater community is already noting that the cast is imported from New York -- even as the story is written by Massachusetts native Richard Dresser, stars Boston Conservatory graduate Stephanie Umoh, and features young Erik March, pitcher and infielder for the Newburyport Pioneer League. In previews, theatergoers wore Red Sox outfits and caps, and drank beer during the show. Can Fenway fans be far behind?

One colleague of mine asked: "It's fine to have hot dogs and beer at a show" -- a ballpark vendor is selling snacks in the A.R.T. courtyard -- "but is it serious theater?"

Such a question is likely to shadow any new kid on the block -- Dudamel, Paulus, the fresh face at your local arts organization. Change does not come easily to arts institutions, and we're in Twitter times: We like our answers served up quickly. 

The question for me is not so much about the seriousness of a show or about the success of a first season -- critically, financially, artistically. These considerations are incredibly important, but I'm more interested here in posing a more philosophical question: How long does it take for a creative newcomer to prove herself or himself? Is a year enough? How about five years? Or a dozen years? Should there be a 90-day evaluation? 

It make have taken God only seven days to create the universe. But it took Michelangelo four years to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. My guess is that it takes longer than a year and more than a personnel review to judge artistic leadership. And even then, arts and the communities around them have a mysterious, intangible way of determining what practices endure and which ones strike out.

May 27, 2010 5:32 AM | | Comments (2)


I am writing a book on the subject of arts leadership and believe that the time frame is at least five years, more likely 10, so that the ups and downs of the environment (economy for example) are less of the equation and that the society itself is changed by the institition. Interested in other thoughts, however.

James Abruzzo

I'm recently arrived in Boston from St. Paul, Minnesota. I have been the curator at the Photographic Resource Center at BU since mid-May. I'm glad I don't have to confront box office figures as an instant-feedback, and vastly distorted, measure of success.

I'm also engaged in an on-going struggle with the definition of leadership in the arts. It seems to me something best viewed in retrospect, and in historical context--how did a leader guide his or her organization during a time of transition? Did radical management changes lead to radical transformation of audience, program, artist response? Was "realistic" a better strategy than "radical"?

I feel as though my own course has to follow some initial commitments to ethical behavior, and lessons learned from the past, but over time I will be effective to the extent that I can guide my audience by listening to them, by seeing what they have to show me that I, in turn, feel moved to show the world.

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