Mikki Shepard: Arts Activist on a Mission (Part 1)

  This week’s Arts & Culture Connection Blog features Part 1 of an interview I conducted with Mikki Shepard, an independent arts consultant and a writer, about her work in the arts field.

Mikki joined the Apollo Theater in 2006 as a consultant and was the Executive Producer from 2009 – 2016. As a member of the executive staff leadership, she built and implemented a new institutional vision and organizational infrastructure. Under Mikki’s leadership, the Apollo Theater’s new artistic vision celebrated and re-envisioned its legacy with contemporary dance, theater, performance art, and spoken word programming. Prior to her appointment at the Apollo, she was a consultant to major foundations and performing arts institutions, such as the Ford Foundation, Heinz Endowments, Doris Duke Charitable Trust, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Meet the Composer, Jacob’s Pillow, Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy, and Future of Music Coalition, Inc. Her work focused on program development/assessments, strategic planning and organizational restructuring. She also produced more than 25 performing arts programs for the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) that included Steps in Time and Tappin’ Uptown, DanceAfrica, Dance Black America: 300 years of Black Dance in America. As founder and executive producer of Brooklyn’s 651Arts, Mikki produced 100 Years of Jazz and Blues Festival, Sung and Unsung/Jazz Women, Dance Women/Living Legends, and Lost Jazz Shrines and was the architect of the Africa Exchange Program, a major international initiative.

I have had the privilege of knowing Mikki since the beginning of my career as an arts administrator. She has always been a guide, helping me make sound decisions about career advancement, and she was instrumental in my being hired to work with George C. Wolfe at The Public Theater. Mikki and I worked together at The Apollo Theater for several years. It was an amazing experience for me to learn from her years of knowledge and wisdom as she developed an infrastructure and programming for The Apollo. Over the course of Mikki’s illustrious career she has generously mentored many of us who work in the field of audience development and community engagement. I am thrilled to be able to share her achievements and guidance for arts managers about how best to open wider the doors of the arts through building infrastructure, solid programming and community outreach.

 Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did you begin your work in the arts?

 Mikki Shepard: I was always interested in dance, but my parents were opposed to it as a career. So, I focused on math and language in school. In 1967, a friend, Steve Bowser, who worked at the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, was able to secure a summer position in the community relations area working for Chris White, who also was a jazz bassist. Working in the Arsenal Building on 5th Avenue, I was in close proximity to the then-Office of Cultural Affairs, and had access to many artists supported by Cultural Affairs.

Courtney Calendar led the Community Relations division at NYC Parks and Recreation and, in 1969, when the Cultural Affairs office became a full-fledged department, he was engaged as its first deputy commissioner. Dore Schary, the Hollywood director and producer, was appointed the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs. Although Schary was the commissioner, I always thought Courtney was the brains and driver for everything that happened. I was so fortunate, at 18 years-old, to be part of an amazing team under Courtney’s leadership. I should note that one of the unique aspects of then-Mayor John Lindsay’s tenure was that his administration provided employment opportunities for many diverse, younger people in key positions.

Many of my colleagues went on to become leaders in their own right—Andre Bishop (Artistic Director of Lincoln Center Theater), Ward Mintz (deputy director of the Jewish Museum and Newark Museum and now, head of the Coby Foundation), Trudy Kramer (Executive Director of the Parrish Art Museum), Karen Bacon, Joan Sandler, Virginia Kahn…the list is endless.

These were extremely exciting times and we were in pioneer territory as far as the business of the arts was concerned. There were very few books and arts management programs to guide and ground us. We were on our own, which for someone like me, was so empowering. I joined a community of like-minded people—artists and first-time administrators—on the same mission. I left college, for what was supposed to be a year, to work full time in this arena. I saw the opportunity and grabbed it, not knowing where it would lead, and I found my life’s work.

To me, this period was the beginning of another cultural renaissance.  Many of the arts groups that participated in the New York Department of Cultural Affairs’ (DCA) programs were in their infancy, receiving funds to do what they loved. DCA, along with several key foundations, began to focus on these new, diverse and contemporary artistic voices across the arts spectrum and made them visible to a broader audience.

This cultural renaissance was also fueled by the civil rights movement, which also influenced the women’s and gay rights movements and, and the movement on the environment. The civil rights movement coupled with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, President John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, and the subsequent riots in urban centers throughout the United States created, forced change. As I often heard then, the Lindsay administration used the arts to “cool off the city” after the riots.

During this period, there were an endless number of free cultural events, under the auspices of the Department of Cultural Affairs, taking place every day and night throughout New York City parks and streets. Specifically, I was charged with overseeing the scheduling of these events; engaging and collaborating with community leaders; determining the best communities and sites for each performing group, and ensuring the marketing and proper permits were secured. Though we didn’t call it presenting, in some ways, this work gave me my first experience as a presenter.

My career beginnings ran parallel to the civil rights movement and the birth of this cultural revolution and renaissance. I guess I happened to be in the right place at the right time.

 Donna: Where did you see you could have impact in programming? What was your approach in building infrastructure, programming and securing funding?

 Mikki: Coming from a place of activism, my overarching “program” goal has always been to build new institutions and create new support and forums for artists of color and, in particular, artists from the African Diaspora and dance artists. When I started, there were still limits on places for artists of color to perform. So, I thought it important to support artists working in both traditional and contemporary art forms and emerging and established artists. Placing work in a larger historical and cultural context was critical to informing and building the knowledge of audiences and the media.

I also had to consider that every institution is different. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), 651 Arts and The Apollo, my programming always considered each institution’s legacy, history, location, audience and, most importantly, available financial, human and space resources. Creating thematic work and festival formats allowed me to combine legacy, cultural/historical context, while informing marketing—Lost Jazz Shrines; Dance Black America (300 years of Black Dance), and Sung and Unsung: Women in Jazz, etc. It also allowed audiences and the media to see artists and performances in a different light.

Creating new forums, also meant opening the doors of existing organizations. In the early 1970’s, Courtney Callender became Harvey Lichtenstein’s Associate Director and brought me in as his assistant. It was a very different organization from the BAM of today. Harvey had to build BAM from the ground up and, simultaneously, contribute to building the area surrounding BAM. The area was considered unsafe by many people in Brooklyn and in Manhattan.

I did not have a specific programming vision during my first few years at BAM, which provided me the best training to develop my programming skills and consider the organizational infrastructure to support it. One big learning from my BAM experience was that the work was not just about the programming; to be successful, the programming, community engagement, audience development, marketing and fundraising had to go hand in hand. BAM was still in its infancy and many artistic avenues were explored before BAM became the arts center we know today.

In addition to the contemporary and experimental work presented at BAM, Courtney worked with a number of African-American collaborators to produce high quality, unique programming, such as blues music festival producer Jim Black, and theater festival producers Verdell and Eduardo Standard. This programming was not just reflective of African-American culture, but also from throughout the African Diaspora. This process gave me the chance to learn firsthand about presenting and producing a range of diverse programming in a professional house.

Some years later, Harvey asked me to work with Chuck Davis to produce the first DanceAfrica Festival. It was a huge success artistically and in attracting a predominantly black audience that previously had not attended events at BAM. I remember asking Harvey if I could produce another, different event.  His exact words were: “You can do whatever you want, just don’t lose any money.” I was thrilled to be given that freedom, but the challenge was obvious. Fortunately, aside from creating this major indoor and outdoor festival program content, I worked closely with Charlie Ziff, BAM’s Vice President of Marketing, to develop the marketing plan and strategies to attract an audience for the festival and BAM, which in turn, generated earned revenue beyond expectations. The experience also taught me how to live within a budget and to use my creativity when faced with a limited resources.

At BAM, I produced 25 major dance and music events including Steps in Time, a Tap Dance Festival (twice), and Dance Black America: 300 years of Black Dance in America, which included film, panels, classes, and 2 major stage events; an evening of African-American concert dance, and Sweet Saturday Night, celebrating 300 years of street and social dance. This program toured the state university system and also resulted in a documentary about the performances and artists that participated in Dance Black America. And, because I delivered quality programming and an audience that was African-American, which at the time was unique to BAM and most major institution, funds could be raised for these programs. BAM provided the best training ground for my work in the future.

 Donna: Next week, in Part 2 of the interview, Mikki shares how her BAM experience led to the formation of 651 Arts and helped prepare her for her tenure at The Apollo.