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May 262011
 

“People often ask what is the biggest change in the arts in Boston over 30 years, and it all has to do with technology. Diminished funding, economic downturns, and 9/11 all changed things. But what’s really driven change is technology.”

By Maureen Dezell.

Outgoing Celebrity Series honcho Marty Jones — Nothing if not outspoken.

Marty Jones bows out of the Celebrity Series of Boston on June 30, the end of her 25th anniversary year. She joined the organization as director of marketing in 1985, and spent the past 15 years as president and executive director. Jones is widely credited with saving the Celebrity Series by changing it from a struggling “mom and pop presenting organization” operating under the auspices of other nonprofits into New England’s largest independent nonprofit arts presenter. She expanded the Celebrity Series’ artistic and education programs, eliminated a half-million deficit, and doubled the Celebrity Series budget while raising $7.5 million endowment. A performing arts executive of national repute, Jones has been a candid and astute observer of the local and national arts performing arts landscape and its evolution over the past 25 years.

Jones spoke with The Arts Fuse about the tastes of Boston audiences as well as her thoughts about the past and future of the Celebrity Series.


AF: When you went to the Celebrity Series in the mid-80s, it was an almost exclusively a classical music presenting organization that brought in several major symphony orchestras (along with soloists, pianists, and choral and chamber music groups). Now, you offer jazz and Afro-Caribbean acts; the Kodo Drummers, acrobats, a slew of dance concerts, and people like David Sedaris. Why did you move away from classical music?

Marty Jones: We still have a strong, core, classical music audience. What really changed at the Celebrity Series was not a move away from classical music but building around what is now about 55% of the programming. That core is supplemented by other disciplines, which we presented only intermittently in the past.

AF: Why the shift away from orchestras, for example? Did public taste change?

How do you compete with the Boston Symphony Orchestra?

Jones: Boston is not orchestra starved. In this city, in order to compete with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in order not to shoot yourself in the foot, you can only bring the best. And orchestras have dramatically changed. Touring is incredibly expensive. There was much more corporate support for touring in those days.

AF: You’ve been called a champion of dance in Boston. When and why did the Celebrity Series become a major dance presenter?

Jones: We’ve always done dance. We were the first ones to bring the Russian ballet here—Kirov, the Bolshoi. We have presented all the iterations of dance: Alvin Ailey, Dance Theatre Harlem. We’ve raised the profile of dance with companies like Mark Morris, and that was our intention.

AF: You’ve also changed the way the series interacts with its audience; the way it markets itself.

Jones: When I got to the Celebrity Series, subscribers could choose 7 or 14 events each season. You couldn’t exchange tickets except through the mail. There were two people in the box office, and they did not talk to subscribers over the phone; subscribers did everything by mail, and all the single tickets were sold at the venue.

In terms of marketing, you put an ad in the newspaper or on the radio and you could sell your tickets. People often ask what is the biggest change in the arts in Boston over 30 years, and it all has to do with technology. Diminished funding, economic downturns, and 9/11 all changed things. But what’s really driven change is technology.

AF: In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when your subscriber base started eroding, you took some steps that were unprecedented for a Boston performing arts group at the time. I remember you saying in a Globe story: “You have to meet the audience where they are.”

Jones: Did I say that? Well, I’m outspoken.

AF: Well, you were right. You were one of the first Boston organizations to recognize that the old top-down programming and subscription models weren’t going to work with today’s audiences, who want more flexibility and programming choice. I think it’s safe to say every performing arts organization that’s survived the past 25 years has adjusted to meet audiences where they are.

Jones: Thirty years in Boston has taught me a lot about what flows in the city.

AF: What does draw here? How would you characterize Boston performing arts audiences?

Jones: Our audience is very discerning about where they hear certain concerts. And in many ways I think Boston audiences are quite smart, and they are more astute than many, including suburban New York audiences, for example. Boston audiences are less adventurous however.

AF: Really. Still? Would you say that’s true in music, or across the performing arts?

Emerson String Quartet —Beethoven sells tickets, but Shostakovitch is a dicier proposition.

Jones: It’s everywhere. There are pockets of very adventurous audiences in Boston, but their numbers haven’t increased. It’s tough to get an audience for some of the new work that the Huntington is doing and SpeakEasy Stage is doing. Putting on a major opera under an unknown or little-known conductor is one of the riskiest things you could do, especially if it was a new opera without a star. Because this is still a city that is high on name recognition; if they recognize a name, they’ll go.

Do you know we used to sell out the Emerson String Quartet, and we could bring them every year. Now we can’t guarantee more than 600 or 700 seats. If Emerson String Quartet were to do an all-Beethoven, it would be sold out. But if they were going to do an all Mendelssohn or Shostakovitch, it’s a lot dicier.

I also think that nowadays—as opposed to 30 years ago—people check things off in a box when it comes to the arts. They’ll try something—a season subscription or an artist—and move onto something new. There’s not much interest in exploring further, or going deeper. It is a very “been there done that” society. It’s almost like people have lists of what they want to see and hear before they die—but they start making it early on.

AF: Are young people actually more adventurous?

Jones: It’s hard to say with music audiences. Young people still like Beethoven. And they are even more impressed by a star. They want immediate gratification. (Look at American Idol.) We thought we would be taking a risk putting Joshua Bell in Symphony Hall because he had never given a solo concert there. He almost sold out Symphony Hall.

AF: Well, he’s a young, talented, attractive, and a celebrity. Sure he did!

Jones: We do spend a lot of time making our programming affordable for families and college students because we want them to grow up going to music and dance performances.

AF: You’ve also put a lot of time and energy into developing arts programs in the schools. Do those outreach efforts—and the programs for people under 35 or under 40 that the Symphony and the Huntington have—actually build future audiences?

Jones: I think they do. I’ve seen more audiences full of young people who clearly like dance. And some of them come up to me in concerts, including one young woman who said, “This is my life now, and I was a student at Charlestown High when you brought Alvin Ailey.”

Young people are busy. You have to give them a lot of notice way in advance. And, of course, you can’t reach young people through the same modes of advertising and marketing.

Mark Morris' PETRICHOR — the first dance piece commissioned by the Celebrity Series.

AF: Difficulty reaching audiences—a technology-driven change —and the funding crisis that hit a lot of arts organizations after 9/11 came together in what you and a lot of other people in the arts called a perfect storm. Has that calmed down at all?

Jones: The only real source of arts support is individual giving. Yes, people still give because of people. In this state there are not enough financial resources to support the non-profit arts and cultural organizations. I have been saying it for years, and the Boston Foundation said it some years back. Government support is very diminished; corporate sponsorships have largely disappeared. We had the title sponsorship of Bank of Boston and its other iterations (BankBoston, FleetBoston Financial, and Bank of America) for 18 years. It was unprecedented.

AF: How much did that sponsorship cover?

Jones: 10% to 30% of contributed income. So obviously, since they left us in 2007, it has been hard to make back 30% of contributed income. Foundations have chosen to tighten their reins and change criteria, shrunk funding, and it’s hard to argue with giving money to health care for kids or stopping violence in our neighborhoods. We are constantly having to scramble when those resources are limited; the unfortunate reality is that risky programming is going to be limited.

The fund that’s been established in my name is an innovation fund. That means different things to different people, of course. Does innovation translate into up and coming artists? That is one part of it. Does it translate into commissioning new works? Maybe. The Celebrity Series commissioned its first ever dance.

AF: That was the Mark Morris Dance Company dance in your honor that kicked off your season, wasn’t it? Petrichor. That was pretty fabulous.

Jones: Wasn’t it a great work?

AF: Your anniversary year is about to wrap up. What’s your next act?

Jones: I’ve formed a new consulting firm, Snowhill Strategies, and am going to be a full-time arts management consultant, specializing in organizational assessment, executive leadership, board development, and interim management. But the first thing I’m going to do is take the summer off.

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