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  Industry Profile

Industry Profile: Sandra L. Gibson

— By Larry LeBlanc

This week In The Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Sandra L. Gibson

By Larry LeBlanc

The Association of Performing Arts Presenters is a national service and advocacy organization in the U.S. that represents more than 7,000 nonprofit and for-profit presenting organizations across the country. It has nearly 2,000 members worldwide.

For nearly 50 years, the APAP, based in Washington D.C, has been committed to increasing community participation, promoting global cultural exchange and fostering an environment for the performing arts to thrive.

Its members range from large performing arts centers in major cities, outdoor festivals and rural community-focused organizations to academic institutions, as well as artists and artist managers in all forms of dance, music and theater.

Almost two-thirds of the organizations have budgets of less than $1.5 million.

APAP annually hosts the "APAP Conference NYC," the world's leading forum and marketplace for the performing arts. This year's conference held Jan. 9-13, 2009, attracted 4,000 attendees.

Sandra L. Gibson was appointed president and CEO of the APAP in 2000. She immediately recognized the need for an assessment of the performing arts presenting field. The following year, the APAP joined with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to sponsor the first nationwide survey of the performing arts field.

The results of that assessment culminated in a position paper titled "Toward Cultural Interdependence" in 2002 that rallied the management of performing arts organizations and institutions in the U.S. to take up leadership roles in their communities, and to recognize the role of arts in American life.

Prior to coming to the APAP, Gibson served as Executive Vice President and COO at the Americans for the Arts, the national organization that supports the arts and culture through private and public resource development.

Gibson's roots are based in the West Indies, and she was raised in Painesville, Ohio.

Her formal arts education began at Wittenberg University where her passion for music led her to pursue a B.M.E. in Music Education/Instrumental Music Performance. Gibson later received a master's degree in Historical Musicology from Northwestern University in Chicago and she completed doctoral work at UCLA.

Gibson's experience in arts presenting and cultural programming began with the American Film Institute (AFI) where, between 1984-89, she held a number of senior level programming and operational positions, including running the Independent Filmmaker and Distribution Program.

Her appointment in 1990 as Executive Director of the Public Corporation for the Arts for the Long Beach Arts Council in Long Beach, California led her to work closely with the local arts community for several years.

Gibson heads the APAP at a time when many American cultural institutions are slashing their budgets in the face of a weak economy and government funding cuts. Many are canceling or postponing programs or are planning to lay off employees or have a hiring freeze in place.

During the presidential election campaign, Barack Obama talked up the arts, arts education and using artist exchanges to promote cultural diplomacy globally. Among the proposals put forth were creating an artists' corps to teach in low-income schools; streamlining the visa process for visiting artists; and more money for the National Endowment for the Arts, the independent federal agency supporting artists and arts organizations bringing the arts to Americans.

Last summer, a group of 16 leading American national arts umbrella organizations, including the APAP, banded together to ensure that arts issues would get attention under a new administration.

Their document, completed in November, 2008 notes that the federal policy towards the arts has been fragmented and calls for a holistic approach.

This was a crucial year for the APAP conference. We are now seeing the tough economic times hitting arts and cultural organizations, spurring cutbacks and new fund-raising efforts.

Every industry is impacted but we certainly feel the effect. My colleagues and I across the American arts community are all trying to get a picture of what is happening with our field. We don't have a clear picture yet. The story is evolving.

During tough economic times, the one thing that tends to be dropped by governments is their support of the arts.

Definitely, we are already seeing state and local governments pulling back. The federal government is on continual resolution. We don't know if the federal government will get its '09 budget before '09 (year end) ends on Sept. 30th.

President Obama had a brief but strong voting record on arts issues as a senator and his election platform calls more arts in schools. But we are still waiting to see what his administration's arts program will be. Are you optimistic?

I am very optimistic. We have a President who made arts and culture part of his (election) platform. He believes in the arts and in cultural diplomacy which we haven't seen in eight years. This is a person who is a holistic being and a holistic thinker about our connection and place in the world. (With him) it isn't about the U.S. and others. It is about the U.S. in with others in the world.

We are not going to achieve everything we want but the thing we really want to achieve is to be at the table for the conversation. To open up the debate with the public, and see if we can reset the climate for conversations where the arts are part of the agenda--which we never really have been.

There was considerable discussion about opportunities and challenges for the arts at your conference. This is an ongoing challenge for the community.

It is ongoing. We have put together an economic stimulus paper. My government affairs staff was on the Hill last week with the arts' caucus co-chairs, Republican and Democrat, laying out a 9-point plan that includes a $1 billion cash infusion to the arts through the National Endowment of the Arts. It dovetails with $20 billion (national stimulus package) that the U.S. Conference of Mayors has requested which also includes the arts.

We are asking for an artist corps (program) in communities, like the old WPA (Work Projects Administration program under the New Deal) projects; increases to community development; and block grants that include the arts. A lot of this is embedding the arts in existing stimulus funding. But we are going to have to get on Capitol Hill, and work with Congress.

Meanwhile, we all have to figure out how we sustain ourselves and have the kind of capital, to continue the level of programming for the audiences that want to come to our programs.

Most talk about the future of the arts tends to dwell on national or state issues. But aren't the arts truly local? Every small town has an arts program, whether it is theatre, dance, music or whatever.

Most of the arts-making in the United States is at the community level and it is not at big institutions. This is why our proposal is for direct infusion to local channels. Have local organizations decide how to fuel their arts and cultural community.

Politicians don't always understand the regional impact of government arts cuts do they?

Absolutely not. And I think we have a lot of work to do to help them understand. I hope we are ushering in an era where we are going to have more of an understanding of the arts.

Government cutbacks to the arts also affect funding from the private sector?

It does and corporations are already pulling back.

We have this triangle of public, private and individual (funding sources) in the United States. Government support is important but it is a relatively small percentage of all giving. The largest is individual. We'd love to foster the encouragement of individual investment at this time.

Corporations are responsible to boards and to investors.

A lot of (corporation support) is marketing money tied to sponsorship. The (corporate) foundation funds are tied to endowments. (Corporations) are looking payouts and their foundation funds shorten up quicker than private foundations. Small private and community foundations are now struggling because endowments are under water.

Large national endowments like The Ford Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation are staying the course for the next two years. Some are increasing their payouts because they won't feel the portfolio pinch for a couple more years.

One of the first things you did when you came to APAP was the survey with The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Was that because it was unclear where the arts community really stood?

Yes. We wanted to get a sense of the field beyond our membership. Quite frankly, we couldn't find any research. I wanted to know if I was running a special interest group in Washington or were we part of a larger field of activity. And what are the scope, distribution and size of that activity? What are the pressure points when it comes to globalism, technology, leadership, audience development, sustainability, and diversity? Those were the areas that we probed in addition to getting a lot of financial data.

So we took the temperature, and got a sense of what the field looked like. We learned that we are part of a field of about 7,000 professionally-staffed presenting organizations as well as teams of artists, managers and agents. And we learned that the field is diverse. No two organizations are alike.

We learned everybody was struggling with technology. They had a website and a few marketing bells and whistles but they were way behind in stage craft, innovative approaches to new media and technology.

We also learned that 75% of the field were presenting artists from outside of the U.S.

We were astounded that 98% of the field were doing after school programs or working in school during the day. That many had 10 audience development strategies. We hadn't imagined it was that robust.

The results of that assessment culminated in the position paper titled "Toward Cultural Interdependence" in 2002?

This was a manifesto that came out of a series of 12 conversations we mounted across the country with the field. Those conversations fueled this paper that said this is not only an exciting and growing field but it is just not a distribution network anymore. It is now a creation and distribution field.

What was behind the 15 month review the APAP launched in 2006?

Our 50th anniversary was coming in 2007, and the plan that grew out of the 2002 research was coming to term in 2008. Things had changed. We asked ourselves, "Is this association serving the needs of its members now?" We did 8 conversations (meetings) across the country and learned some new things that were different from what we had learned in 2002. Then there was a rigorous assessment of our systems of operating, staffing, programs, governance, everything we do.

Many APAP members don't know what you do beyond a conference and a newsletter.

Yes. I will 'fess up that 96% of our members' affinity with this organization is only the conference.

But we have learned that people want more from us. They want us to provide the training and learning experiences, and to provide professional development. They want us to be their "go to" source for research so they can bench mark themselves.

So we are re-tooling the way we have worked and trying to get rid of all of the "one size fits all" stuff. There were changes in the conference this year. We had more small group discussions, more member interaction, and less panel presentations. People reported that it was invaluable being able to talk with their colleagues, and find some solutions to issues they had.

With the demise of the International Association of Jazz Educators last year, your organization seems to have embraced jazz more fully. Was this the year jazz came home to the APAP?

It did. A lot of folks had dual membership, but they really looked to IAJE for their jazz education. In every one of the eight conversations (meetings) for our review, someone got up in the audience and said. "Art presenters have to do more for jazz and classical music."

Classical music, we have an endowment program and we have been doing some more things.

With jazz, we realized that we hadn't been doing anything to help presenters increase their understanding (of the genre). So (during the conference) I held a gathering of some jazz leaders. Over 75 people showed up, including (pianist/educator) Dr. Billy Taylor and (vocalist) Clayton Johnson. We had a conversation about the formation of a jazz network.

What kind of network?

People who came said they want a place to connect with one another and to share information. Not just about shows and performances. It can be online.

We also talked about collectively harnessing the assets we already have in the jazz community, and shine a new light on them. For example, Jazz at Lincoln Centre has been awarded a contract to do the Jazz Masters program for the National Endowment for the Arts. They are doing (the program) next year in conjunction with our conference. This will allows us to work with them on the symposium.

Several of us are involved with Jazz Appreciation Month (April) started by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. We are now talking about a jazz day in the United States, beginning in 2010, where we will really focus a lot of effort on performances, music and jazz history.

At the American Film Institute, you oversaw the independent filmmaker program, and the sub grant program for the independent film and video makers.

I was at AFI at an extraordinary time. I was working with [independent filmmakers] Bill Viola, and Gary Hill. AFI did the tribute to Billy Wilder during that time. Gregory Peck and Jimmy Stewart were on the board when I was there. I remember Jimmy Stewart speaking out against colorizing (vintage black-and-white) films.

You have several degrees in music education. Do you also play?

I am a pianist and a clarinetist. And I play the Metallophone, recorder and the brass kettle. At Northwestern, I studied with a great Medievalist, Ted Carp; and with Judith Schwartz (a specialist in music and dance of 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries), and played in a few ensembles. It was a great time.

Arts education programs in public schools have largely fallen away.

Three or four generations haven't had a comprehensive arts education. Some arts organizations have tried to supplant this but there are nothing like curriculum-based connected programs once offered by the schools themselves. I think we are going to see some shift there because we are going to see a shift in public education under President Obama.

When I was growing up, classical and dance companies were on television weekly.

So much of that has left the television realm. But what is exciting now is creating a new audience with digital radio, and repurposing (the arts) in movie theatres.

The Metropolitan Opera has the "Live in High-Definition" series at participating Cineplex Entertainment theatres that features 11 live opera broadcasts and 10 repeat performances on the big screen.

Peter Gelb [General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera] closed the conference with a keynote speech in which he played us the high definition DVDs that were shown in Times Square and in movies houses. Peter said, "This is a campaign for revival. I want to find a way to stimulate new (audience) interest and I have to keep my old clients."

Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008, Larry was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.

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