Theater

Venture Capitalists of the Performing-Arts World Gather for One of the Year’s Most Influential Showcases

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You become an artist because you want to lead a free, creative life. But you quickly discover that making art, theater, dance, or music requires twice the effort of the average denizen of a cube farm. You do your work, sure, but then you have to rep it, or pay an agent or manager — in other words, you have to hire staff. As it turns out, you’re running a small business, with all the paperwork and glad-handing such projects entail.

Then, in order to make a living from your passion, you’ll have to tour, so you need to find gigs outside your ‘hood, too. But the way we entertain ourselves has shifted drastically in the past decade: With so much fabulous television so easily accessible on so many platforms at such reasonable cost, in most parts of the country it’s harder to get people to attend live performances: to leave home, drive somewhere, park, and sit still for an hour or two, not to mention pay ticket prices that can range into three figures. Then there are video games. What’s an artist, especially one just starting out, supposed to do?

A good place to look would be the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP), based in Washington, D.C., now celebrating sixty years helping artists and presenters put work in front of audiences. Its annual week-long convocation happens this week in midtown; of APAP’s 5,000 members, 3,600 usually show up. “It’s the largest gathering of performing-arts curators and administrators in the country, possibly in the world,” says the organization’s president and CEO, Mario Garcia Durham, who worked previously at the National Endowment for the Arts. “You have to be in New York in January, seeing the new work, meeting the artists.”

Registrants can attend eighty conference sessions and browse the displays at nearly four hundred booths in APAP’s three exhibit halls. Offsite, nearly a thousand independently produced showcases happen all around Manhattan to get artists in front of the people who can book them.

“I always get work out of it, but it’s never what I expect,” says New Yorker Jody Sperling, who founded her Time Lapse Dance troupe in 2000 and has attended APAP for fourteen years. Last year at the conference, she struck up a conversation with Kevin Rice, director of the Payomet Performing Arts Center in Truro, Massachusetts, who turned out to share her interest in climate change in the Arctic. “Many conversations later, we ended up being the first dance company he ever produced. It was very successful.”

So many presenters gathering in Manhattan gives local artists unique opportunities to resuscitate and showcase the best works of the previous season, gaining another opportunity to extend the touring life of a piece. Ben Pryor produces one such showcase festival, American Realness, which he launched after working on APAP showcases for Pentacle, a “cluster management” service for dancers that lets several troupes share personnel and resources. Seasons at APAP gave him “first-hand, frontline experience of putting artists’ work into the marketplace…aggressively seeking out programmers and curators I thought were appropriate.”

The connections APAP fosters also shape the landscape of arts professionals. Ken Fischer, who’s directed Ann Arbor’s University Musical Society for thirty years, used the conference to find mentors early in his career. “I learn best from people who are smarter than I am, and more experienced. I’d go to APAP and find somebody sitting alone, [and] ask who they considered the ten best presenters in the U.S. Over a six-month period, sixteen or seventeen names were appearing on my lists. These became my ‘faculty.’ ” He learned to ask essential questions from one of these mentors, Ruth Felt, who recently retired after presenting for nearly four decades in San Francisco. “We’re a generous lot, and people freely shared,” Fischer adds.

Presenters are the venture capitalists of the performing-arts world, investing in new collaborations and assembling tours to defray high costs. APAP also trained Fischer to prospect for foundation and corporate funding to underwrite dance presenting, which is notoriously expensive. He’s brought on affluent Michigan athletes and physicians, in addition to arts agencies and foundations, to support his program. Along with Mike Ross of the University of Illinois’s Krannert Center, Fischer offers his own APAP track aimed at university presenters, and steers neophyte artists toward YPCA, the Young Performers Career Advancement Program. He also leads an informal event called the Fisch Bowl, a simulated interview — “the elevator speech opportunity in a safe environment.”

APAP’s reach extends beyond showcasing performances, embracing visa issues and other challenges to the free exchange of ideas. “We talk about violence in communities, how arts organizations can be part of the ongoing dialogue,” says Durham, the APAP CEO. “We focus on exposing artists to new audiences — around the country and the world.”

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