Mikki Shepard: “Activist on a Mission” Part 2

  This week’s Arts & Culture Connections Blog is a continuation of last week’s interview with Mikki Shepard, an independent arts consultant and writer about her work in the arts field. You will find a link to Part 1 at the end of this posting.

I have had the privilege of knowing Mikki since the beginning of my career as an arts administrator, and she has been a mentor and career guide. I am honored to have the opportunity to share her guidance for arts managers about how best to open wider the doors of the arts through building infrastructure, solid programming and outreach.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did what you learned at BAM shape your future work?

Mikki Shepard: Harvey Lichtenstein was a genius—he produced high quality work, gambled and risked a great deal, but he also won more than he lost. This environment allowed me to sharpen my problem-solving skills and learn about designing multiple strategies to achieve greater impact. To the latter point, the Dance Black America festival partnership with Patty Ross of the New York State University system and the producing of the documentary and tour demonstrated that by extending the life of a program, I could also expand its visibility and audience, as well as develop financial resources for future work.

My full-time tenure at BAM was from 1977 – 1983 (not counting my year and a half in 1971 – 1972 while Courtney Callender was there). But, in 1983, I decided to leave to work as a consultant advising other organizations on programming and audience development. Harvey insisted I stay and offered me a consultancy, sweetening the pot by giving me an office and assistant. BAM was my first client and the consultancy lasted two years.

At the end of the consultancy, Harvey persuaded me to be on the BAM Board and, subsequently, asked me to represent BAM with the Brooklyn Borough President’s Office on a committee regarding the Majestic Theater (now known as the BAM-Harvey Theater). Harvey wanted the theater, primarily, for director Peter Brook to produce his work. The NYC Department of Cultural Affairs and the Borough President’s office were concerned that there would not be programming that would appeal to a Brooklyn and more diverse audience. I worked closely with Nanette Rainone, who ran the Fund for the Borough of Brooklyn in the Borough President’s Office, to craft a strategy that would allow BAM to secure the theater and for Brooklyn audiences to be served through new programming.

This was the beginning of the 651Arts strategy. Harvey was initially opposed to building another organization and thought a BAM program could achieve the same programming and audience goals.

I convinced him that there had to be a separate organization in the space with its own artistic vision for this to work. Harvey only agreed to this strategy, if I agreed to run 651. I did agree with the proviso that I would be engaged in a consultant capacity for two years—build the foundation and move on. I was there almost nine years. In the long run, I was glad I did stay longer. I learned to build a new set of muscles—create a new organization, artistic vision and institutional program plan from the ground up. It also taught me how to partner with a major institution.

Working in a smaller organization within a larger institution’s space and having to handle most of the same concerns as BAM (union space, for example), was challenging, but there were also many upsides. 651 had access to BAM’s 2,100-seat Opera House, as well as the Majestic Theater. This was particularly important because large-scale, popular programming generated earned-revenue that supported the more experimental work 651Arts produced in the 900-seat Majestic Theater.

Donna: The Apollo Theater was not only a Harlem institution, it was a world-renowned cultural icon. How did your work there evolve?

Mikki: The Apollo’s environment in 2006 – the state of its facility, organization and neighborhood—were similar to BAM’s when I first went there in the early 1970’s. Harlem was a community, still perceived as being unsafe and in the early stages of a transition. The Apollo Theater was just completing the first phase of renovation, primarily a rental house without the appropriate administrative infrastructure, programming or audience base. Because it was so similar to the early BAM, I was able to apply similar strategies at the Apollo that were used to build BAM and 651Arts.

I initially went to the Apollo to consult on a potential archive program and became involved with the Apollo’s strategic planning and, then, was offered the executive producer position. This role involved, not just programming, but working closely with the Apollo’s President/CEO Jonelle Procope to build an organization that could support the new Apollo vision. Because of the Apollo’s rich legacy and its role and contributions to American culture, it provided a unique opportunity to develop programming that could have an impact in Harlem, but also beyond.

The new Apollo artistic vision and program goals were mission-driven and were built on and reflected the Apollo Theater’s legacy. They were also broad enough to accommodate any change in artistic leadership and the engagement of diverse curatorial visions. They were:

  • Celebrate and re-envision the Apollo’s and Harlem’s legacy in a more forward-looking, contemporary way
  • Create forum for emerging artists and curators
  • Support new directions for mid-career and established artists
  • Develop and present new and cutting edge multi-disciplinary work
  • Value culturally diverse artists and audiences
  • Promote an intimate and engaged experience for audiences

Specific small- and large-scale programming were grounded in these program goals—music, comedy, theater, dance, global.

As the executive producer, I was directly responsible for building and overseeing the programming, marketing and development areas, each led by senior directors. My role, then, also had a coordinative function, ensuring that connections would be made across departments, creating an integrated strategy across these three areas that allowed for the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts.

Donna: What are some of the current challenges you’re seeing as a consultant in this field?

Mikki: Many small to mid-size organizations do not have strong boards or diverse revenue streams. Some have strong executive staff leadership, but limited senior staff to support them. Founders and/or executive staff leadership, who have been in their positions for a very long time, are retiring or moving on. In some of these instances, succession plans are not in place. We see a leadership crisis within the dance community seeking managing directors and the search for executive directors for many small- to mid-sized organizations. Additionally, the “bench” has not been sufficiently built—the next generation of executive leaders to step into these positions.

There have been discussions among colleagues and ideas have surfaced that might address these issues. Many of our retired or soon-to-be retired leaders might be great executive coaches for emerging or mid-career leaders and for the boards of the organizations they might lead. Providing fellowships to new leaders to work directly with strong, successful executive staff leadership of larger institutions would go a long way in enhancing their skills and knowledge. Three great examples of leaders that groomed new leaders are Colleen Jennings-Roggensack (Michael Reed) at Arizona State University Gammage; Ken Fischer (Michael Kondziolka, Ben Johnson) at University Musical Society at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and Ken Foster (Angela Mattox) at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. The challenge going forward in the field is to make space for the next generation—executive training and succession planning—and for the appropriate financial resources and investment to support this activity.

Donna: Next week, in the final segment of the interview, Mikki shares why she approaches her work as “an activist on a mission.”

Read Part 1 of the interview with Mikki Shepard