MOST ARTS administators are understandably wary of festivals. The same story is heard over and over again: cost over-runs, disappointing ticket sales, a staff exhausted from the double workload and strained relations between management and board over the size of the deficit.
One festival, 9th Street Crossings, is headed for a happy ending. The Washington Performing Arts Society was just about to complete the fifth year of its highly successful City Dance festival when project manager Alixandra Cohn last winter asked if I would have lunch with her and WPAS Piano Series manager Deborah Hanzlik. Since these two persuasive women had never offered me a free lunch before, I knew I was in trouble.
Sure enough, by my third iced tea I was telling them how wonderful it would be to have a series of avant-garde artists appear under the WPAS banner. Never mind that the series would cost $100,000, most of which could not be recovered in ticket sales. Never mind that I had never been to a performance of any of these artists. This was an exciting concept.
Their preparation could have been included in a test book on project management. On their own time and money they had traveled to New York and attended performances of every artist they were recommending, met with the artist's manager and developed a complete budget, performance schedule and funding outline for my initial perusal.
I asked Cohn and Hanzlik to develop a marketing plan and revise the budget. A week later, with a full prospectus in hand, the three of us laid the plan before managing director Patrick Hayes. Hayes, who introduced a modern dance series to Washington in 1969, when that art form was considered avant-garde, was intrigued with the idea and pledged his full support.
With the management team united we put the plan in final presentation form and submitted it to the WPAS program committee. With this committee's endorsement, the project came before the executive committee of the board preceded by careful briefings of several members and an advance copy of the proposal to every one prior to the meeting. When the chairman of the program committee stood up to ask the approval of the full board in June, he talked about a project proposal that already had been carefully scrutinized and refined. By voice approval, management was instructed to include the festival in the 1981-82 budget.
The challenge now became one of finding an audience. The key, we felt, was to bring together a variety of previously unrelated arts organizations and community activists to provide a large pool of constituencies we could approach by word-of-mouth. District Curators, widely respected for presenting new-wave and multimedia productions, supplied volunteers and production assistants for performances in the Pension Building. Washington Project for the Arts, which had already scheduled a residency for dancer-choreographer Lucinda Childs, helped coordinate gallery exhibits. The Smithsonian Institution planned a symposium with composer Philip Glass and Childs. A 22-member steering committee, chaired by PBS lawyer Deborah Werbner, included a lawyer, an architect, urban planner, curator, florist and restaurateur who planned special events that promoted the festival.
By the time Glass gave the cue for the first note of "Music in 12 Parts" at the Pension Building on Oct. 9, it seemed that half the town had taken part in some aspect of the 9th Street Crossings. Approximately 1,000 people attended opening night. The audience was unlike any other I have witnessed in Washington. The majority were young, some in leather, some in very little at all. But there were also quite a few gray hairs in evidence and a few three-piece suits. On the following day at the Smithsonian Symposium it was "standing room only," with many latecomers turned away.
By all measures the festival is a success. At the Washington Performing Arts Society, management is happy, and the board heard reassuring reports at its October meeting. The community is responding affirmatively and a new art form has received an auspicious debut in the nation's capital.