Mikki Shepard: “Activist on a Mission” Part 3

This week’s Arts & Culture Connections Blog is the final portion of my interview with Mikki Shepard, an independent arts consultant and writer about her work in the arts field. You will find a link to Parts 1 and 2 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, partnerships and outreach.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: You have been at the vanguard of establishing and shaping initiatives at several major cultural institutions. What stands out most for you from your vast experiences of transforming communities, shaping culture, and reaching out to audiences?

Mikki Shepard: My primary goal throughout my career has been to create new platforms for diverse cultures and artists of color by building new programs or organizations and creating access to existing organizations. I approach my work as an activist on a mission. To this end, one very important aspect of my work at BAM was program and audience sustainability. DanceAfrica is a 40-year old festival that, now, has roots in many cities throughout the United States. Its sustainability has a lot to do with building the appropriate programmatic, community engagement and audience foundation. It also has to do with having the right leader. Someone has to continue to push it forward and solve problems as they surface. I produced the festival for five years, but there is no question that Chuck Davis was critical to DanceAfrica’s continuing to exist.

651Arts, budget-wise, was never a major organization. However, it’s impact, particularly in black dance, was extremely significant. 651Arts was built to be a horizontal, not vertical organization, meaning each component was valued equally and on the same level, and that it, programmatically grew across communities. For 651, the most important component was its partnerships in programming, community engagement, and funding—locally, nationally and internationally. We valued and understood the benefit of partnerships with community-based organizations, neighborhood arts organizations (Ifetayo, the Brooklyn Arts Exchange, El Puente), artists (Donald Byrd, Reggie Wilson, Ralph Lemon, Betty Carter), foundations (Ford and Mertz Gilmore), and organizations around the country (Arizona State University; University Musical Society/University of Michigan; National Black Arts Festival; New Jersey Performing Arts Center, and Aaron Davis Hall/Harlem Stage). These partnerships extended each partners’ audience reach, financial resources and access to artists, allowing for all of us to have greater impact.

I am particularly proud of 651’s Africa Exchange program. It was one of our most important programs because it was our entry point for working with international artists. This program was realized in partnership with Christine Vincent, who was at the Ford Foundation during that time. The program goals were organic to both 651 and Ford, which really made for a great partnership. The focus was on “internationalizing new work;” creating relationships between African and American artists towards the end goal of creating new work. In fact, artists were greatly influenced and learned from each other’s culture. The opportunity to spend significant time with each other in their respective countries successfully impacted the artistic vision and future work of many artists. Our partnerships were with artists, presenting and educational institutions throughout the United States, and countries throughout Africa, including South Africa, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, and Mozambique.

Baraka Sele, Stephanie Hughley, Laura Greer and Linda Walton were critical to the development of the program’s concept and Baraka and Linda worked as a team to further develop and manage the program.  We still see the impact of our work today.

Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead was 651’s other very important program. It’s currently anchored at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and led by Jason Moran. It was conceived by Betty, Leonard Goines (co-director of 651) and myself in 1992. This was a partnership with a significant artist, which allowed her to dream about a project she most wanted to do. Betty was often referred to as a teacher and her trio was the training ground or “university.” Jazz Ahead was designed to build on this legacy and included an annual residency for emerging jazz artists identified by Betty. Up to twenty artists worked with Betty over the course of a week. Betty charged them with composing new work and selecting ensembles from the overall group. At the end of the week, she would select the best compositions and ensembles to perform their work and also to perform as her larger band on the main stage. Many of the participating artists returned over a number of years and have since become important jazz artists.

At the Apollo, I was probably most proud of Apollo Club Harlem. This program provided an opportunity to build on the Apollo’s legacy around jazz, which was the first popular music that opened the theater in 1934. And, it allowed for the creation of a unique environment by using the Apollo’s main theater in a different way—as a club, allowing for more audience engagement, which was one of the Apollo’s core programming goals.

Many performance spaces were built in a very different era for very different programming. An arts organization’s programming mix is often dictated by the space/venues they have. It can limit or expand your artistic vision and it will impact the way you think about your business model. For Apollo Club Harlem, we created a club by eliminating all the orchestra seats, built a platform at the same level as the stage with cabaret tables and chairs. In this setting, we expanded our artistic work and the way audiences engaged with artists, and we could offer both very high-priced seats for club seating and more affordable seats in the lower and upper mezzanine. Though much fewer than the usual 1,500 seats, we were able to do multiple performances and enhance revenue to cover costs.

We also used the Apollo’s Soundstage in a different way, converting it to a Music Café and Comedy Club, opening up a new platform for emerging music and comedy artists.

Donna: The Apollo’s legacy seems to have been a cornerstone of the strategy you helped develop there. Why is an institution’s legacy important in building infrastructure, programming and community engagement?

Mikki: The Apollo continues to be extremely important to our community and its contribution to American culture is enormous; it’s considered sacred ground. Re-envisioning it for the future meant clearly understanding and building on its legacy, not try to duplicate it.  I found that you have so much more to work with when you acknowledge the past. And, the Apollo’s legacy offered so many program opportunities.  The Apollo’s legacy included support for emerging artists; providing a forum for established artists (James Brown, Charlie Parker) to innovate and experiment, and to engage audiences in the work.

Though I led the institutional program planning process, it was a collective approach. In my position, I approved all programming and, in some instances, produced events. However, I believe that to be a sustainable institution, the Apollo required multiple curators with expertise in a variety of different areas. This approach also allows for the growth and development of new curatorial talent and expanding the legacy of supporting emerging talent beyond artists.

The Apollo’s legacy in engaging audiences extends in new ways with Amateur Night, Apollo Music Café, and the Apollo Comedy Club. Social media strategies allow audiences to engage in real time, while promoting these programs to potential audiences.

Over my ten-year tenure, I helped build the organizational and programmatic foundation. I had to be involved, on some level, in almost every aspect of the organization to make all the appropriate connections across the institution work together. It was challenging and I’m most proud of my Apollo accomplishments, but also know that the Apollo is still a work in progress.

For the Apollo, of course, sustainability is critical. But, perhaps, as consultant Steve Wolff reminded me, we want to build “not just a sustainable institution, but one that is vital and thriving!”

Donna: How does funding and access to funding impact your work and the future of multicultural arts organizations and artists?

Mikki: I was fortunate to begin my work in an environment and at a time when there was more institutional funding. Government and corporate support, in particular, has since been reduced. Where federal and state support were critical components of an organization’s contributed revenue mix in the past, it currently makes u a smaller component of budgets. An exception is in the local arena where significant support for capital projects is more available and accessible. In the early days, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) supported the growth and development of the arts field and, in many cases, provided the majority of funding to many small and mid-size organizations. 651 Arts, for example, realized about 20-percent of its budget from the National Endowment for the Arts over a few years. Luckily, 651, as a relatively young organization, had not become reliant on these funds. However, many organizations of color and other small to mid-size organizations relied heavily on government support and had limited opportunity to generate earned revenue. When funding priorities changed, many of these organizations could not survive or have not recovered from the hit they took many years ago.

Significant corporate support, mostly from their marketing departments, tends to be available for certain larger organizations because of their visibility and sizable audiences. This same corporate priority makes smaller to mid-size organizations less likely to access these funds. Although foundation support continues to be in the mix, it doesn’t fill gaps left by government or corporate funders.

Most successful arts organizations have a more diverse mix of revenue, including a significant base of individual donors. Many small- to mid-size organizations do not have the internal expertise or capacity to build an individual donor base, and, in some instances, the programming to attract these donors. And, for those with smaller spaces, generating sufficient earned revenue through ticket sales to fill the gap is not realistic.

In addition, many major institutions are beginning to support more artists of color, as well as integrating or diversifying their boards and staff. Some believe this will give these institutions greater access to funds and will negatively impact organizations of color, who can’t compete with larger organizations.

Of course, this is not a new challenge. There are many examples in the 1980’s of major institutions securing funds for audience development projects, for example, focused on attracting “minority” or “non-traditional” audiences. Many of these efforts failed due to a lack of institutional commitment to the necessary and deep work and learning required to be successful.

I have had conversations with more enlightened funders that understand the importance of the work of organizations of color—consistently providing opportunities for different artistic and curatorial voices and perspectives; training and employment for administrative and technical staff, and audiences to be engaged around a diverse range of work.

Many of these organizations are not sitting still. There are key leaders who are exploring different strategies and entrepreneurial models to address these challenges and that consider their competitive niche in the arts and cultural landscape. Some are merging to take advantage of shared resources with the intent of creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts; while others, particularly those with small venues, are investigating the digital world as a way to expand programming, audiences, and revenue. Still others are looking beyond their geographical area to attract new support systems.

We are at a moment in time when the political challenges in our country have heightened the issues around race and culture, and many organizations of color are grounded in the very communities impacted by today’s political climate. There is no question in my mind that an honest assessment of organizational and arts sector challenges; a realistic plan, and appropriate support can position organizations to take advantage of their competitive niche in the arts landscape.

Donna: Mikki Shepard is a fierce example of leadership, creativity and shining brilliance. Her efforts have inspired many people to pursue a career in the arts and to work to make them accessible and responsive to the broadest possible audiences. Mikki’s work demonstrates the necessity of having a bold, activist’s spirit; the importance of taking risks; and the fearless determination to create to unique programming that is both artist-driven and economically sustainable.

 Mikki Shepard, thank you so much for making the time to share your experience and wisdom. Please, take a bow!

 Read Part 1 of the interview with Mikki Shepard

 Read Part 2 of the interview with Mikki Shepard