In Chicago, the first Asian-American to head a major regional theater

The Los Angeles Times, 5/4/11

Chay Yew, the playwright and stage director, was named Tuesday as the next artistic director of Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater, making him the first Asian American to head a major regional theater.  Yew, 46, will take over July 1 from Dennis Zacek, who has led Victory Gardens for 34 years, establishing it as one of the leading players on the nationally respected Chicago theater scene.  "I think I'm probably the first, but I don't want to think about it," Yew said. "It's a lot to live up to."  The Victory Gardens job appealed to him, he said, because of the company's long tradition of emphasizing new work that's ethnically and racially diverse -- approaches that make his new job a continuation of what he did [as head of Center Theatre Group's Asian Theatre Workshop in L.A. from 1995 to 2005].  "I'm going to go in as an Asian American, a director and playwright, and an American theater artist, to open doors for Asian and non-Asian artists," Yew said. "Someday, if I die and they say I was the first, great. I think it's important for the Asian American community, but I don't like blowing any horns. It's my job, and I'm going to do it."  Playwright David Henry Hwang, the first Asian American to win the Tony Award for best play, said that Yew's hiring "represents an important breakthrough, similar to when George C. Wolfe was named at the Public Theater.  Chicago is a very important theater town, and it's a reflection of how the Midwest is changing demographically and culturally." Yew said he aims to immerse himself in Victory Gardens' traditions, and hopes to draw on Zacek's experience as he settles into his new job. "Institutional memory is so important. Change is good, but you need to know what you're changing from," he said.


In Minnesota, four women who have revitalized arts institutions

The Minneapolis Star Tribune, 4/30/11 [hat tip to Kathy Davis Graves]

One rescued her organization from financial collapse. Another took a middling agency and built it into a national model. A third has been honored for creating high-visibility arts within the Hmong community. One more is hoping that her golden touch extends to a new service that could transform Minnesota theater.  These four women -- part of the new arts generation -- have revitalized institutions that provide the fuel for artists to flourish, and in the process they have shown that leadership can make a difference.

Theresa Sweetland, Intermedia Arts.  She became executive director in December 2007.  By October 2008, it seemed likely the organization would cease to exist. The budget showed a deficit of $300,000.  A business plan envisioned as unfolding in 3-5 years needed to be instituted in three to five months. Intermedia invited 200 arts groups to talk about the challenges and use the crisis for a moment of clarity. Some of the changes actually resulted in short-term losses in revenue but Sweetland understood the necessity of getting back to the mission and building long-term capacity.  A retooled Intermedia has rebuilt its staff, increased its earned income and eliminated short-term debt.  The refocused mission also has attracted new grantmakers.

Laura Zabel, Springboard for the Arts. "Springboard was in a bad place," said Zabel. "My first month here, I had to hold my check because we didn't have the funds." 6 years later, Springboard has a $1 million balance sheet and is the subject of national attention for its work supporting artists and organizations.  Zabel's agency helps artists but considers itself an economic-development organization. She recalls proudly when Xcel Energy urged her to withdraw a grant application submitted under the arts category and to reapply under economic sustainability. 

Kathy Mouacheupao, Center for Hmong Arts and Talent.  Mouacheupao was not terribly interested in working for CHAT when the opportunity arose in 2003. She felt she was doing important work with Asian Women United, a community group aimed at reducing domestic violence in the Hmong community.  Asked to speak at a post-show discussion of CHAT's performance of Hush, Hush, Mouacheupao was impressed by the audience that stayed to talk about the issues of abuse raised in the play. The group was far larger than any she had reached through Asian Women United.  She took over the executive post in 2005, raising both Hmong participation in arts and the visibility of those efforts. She recently received an Initiative honor at the Sally Awards. Her next goal is financial growth and focusing on social justice. "We can do a lot of things with little budget," she said. "But we aren't just trying to create art and entertainment. There is a greater cause."

Leah Cooper, Minnesota Theater Alliance.  Cooper was looking for a job where she could work part-time, be in charge ("I'm kind of bossy") and build something from scratch. The Theater Alliance was looking for someone who wouldn't need a lot of money and had a track record of making things happen. Kismet. While other theater communities have large service organizations, Cooper, a staff of one, wants to keep the Minnesota Alliance small so it doesn't rob resources from other arts groups.  "I want to be a convener, not a competitor," she said.  Cooper ran the Minnesota Fringe Festival from 2001 to 2006, pulling it out of a deficit crisis, nearly doubling its annual budget and raising attendance by 72%. In recent years, she and playwright Alan Berks have established Minnesota Playlist, a website for and about the performing arts. It has become an essential platform for actors, designers, directors and writers.


Commentary: Surprise!  What teen curators are saying about museums

Judith H. Dobrzynski, Real Clear Arts blog, 5/5/11

Fear not, all you who think the younger generations want only to play games at museums, or take pictures of the art with their cell phones, or socialize in the galleries.  Teen curators at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which I wrote about here last year, are proving that they are more interested in "old-fashioned" museums than some people think. Every year, the AK's teen curators curate an exhibition from works submitted by area teenagers. Here's the "surprising" part. This year's exhibition ["raw'], which runs through July 3, has this theme: "...citing the widespread influence of technology and the difficulty in imagining the modern era without it...they have selected works that delve into the realm of introspection and represent a specific emotional state, incorporating motifs that are both organic and visceral. The works and the messages they evoke correspond to an era before mass communication. The result is an exhibition with an atmosphere free of the pollution of technology -- a sort of sanctuary from the mechanics of everyday life. The works reject the recognizable and commercial: each is, in itself, raw."  Strong words. Do today's teens see museums as sanctuaries, as many adults do?

From Future Curator Chelsea Butkowski: "I think so. A museum is a place to appreciate. The most important conversation to be had there is within a person's own mind. By using a museum the right way, people can learn volumes about themselves in a calm environment. That is what a sanctuary is all about. Our lives are too encompassed by habit; a lot of people are thirsty for the challenge that a museum presents. I am sure that "raw" presents this challenge."

From Future Curator Leigh Ann Gantz: "I don't think this statement always applies to art museums; I believe it can, and often does, but doesn't necessarily have to. It is often the case that art applies the mechanics of everyday life, to make a statement, and the idea of removing one's self from the real world in order to create is unrealistic to many artists. At times, art museums reflect this view, and the "sanctuary" idea is lost. I don't think that's a bad thing, though. I think the idea of twisting the world of everyday things into art is brilliance; it's just not what we chose to do here. There are a lot of ways to present art. This way just happens to be ours. We're very proud of it."

There's hope.

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