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Taking charge

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / September 13, 2009

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They came from London and Atlanta, New York and Texas, and they’re either new to town or programming their first seasons. Meet eight of the region’s new arts leaders; it’s a good thing they’re here, as in several cases they are succeeding big figures lured elsewhere.

HARRY CHRISTOPHERS, 54 Artistic director, Handel and Haydn Society

Recently: Founder/director of the Sixteen, an early music choral group in London.

What is the most amazing thing you’ve seen or heard and why? I was 9 when I first sang in the Canterbury Cathedral as a boy chorister. I had been brought up in the country and we had to move to Canterbury, it’s a bit like a Japanese coming to America and seeing snow.

Why can’t Boston keep some of its greatest cultural leaders? In many ways it’s the nature of the world at the moment. You can get anywhere very quickly. We can’t necessarily keep those cultural leaders for ourselves, but as long as those people are doing things and coming back - Yo-Yo Ma still lives in Boston and Robert Levin lives there - you’ve got the people.

What is the least appreciated place in this area? Saint Cecilia’s Church, near Symphony Hall. It’s always empty when I go in there. I go just because I love the architecture and it’s got a lovely feel to it.

Tell us what your institution will do this season that will surprise people: What I’d love to do is take the stuffiness out, to actually bring the orchestras and chorus to the audience in a way. . . . There’s an element to the sort of period music movement that can be a little self-detrimental. . . . What we need to do is cast it all aside a bit and really perform.

KATE WARNER, 39 Artistic director, New Repertory Theatre

Recently: Artistic director of Dad’s Garage Theatre Company in Atlanta.

What’s the most amazing thing you’ve seen or heard and why? Standing in the marketplace in Athens [Greece], you’re standing in a place that’s a constant history. People are still living there and it was the same marketplace 3,000 years ago and it’s still in use today.

Why can’t Boston keep some of its greatest cultural leaders? We had the same problem in Atlanta. You get to a certain point and if people are going to continue to grow artistically, you’ve got to have a change of venue. It’s part of the natural evolution of things.

What is the least appreciated place in this area? Downtown. There’s a lot of history in Atlanta but there’s not a lot of buildings there past 1864. Maybe it’s just that I’m such a newbie, I’m like, ‘Wow, look at how old this is.’

Tell us what your institution will do this season that will surprise people: The new work we’re doing, “Indulgences’’ and “boom,’’ are going to blow people’s minds a little bit. They’re both very smartly written and they’re both really funny.

TONY SIMOTES, 58 Artistic director, Shakespeare & Company

Recently: Associate director and fight director at Shakespeare & Company.

What’s the most amazing thing you’ve seen or heard and why? Peter Brook’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ when I was in college. . . . I was amazed at the sexiness of it, the incredible poetry and the performance.

Why can’t Boston keep some of its greatest cultural leaders? Everybody wants to leave where they’re from to prove to somebody else that they’re of value. In Chicago, they had a terrible inferiority complex about New York until [David] Mamet came in and it was like, Chicago, it’s a great city. And I think in Boston . . . people feel it’s still not the end of their career, it’s a step in their career.

What is the least appreciated place in this area? Pittsfield, in particular the blue-collar side. It reminds me of Joliet, Illinois, where I grew up.

Tell us what your institution will do this season that will surprise people: The circus isn’t coming to town. We’re not going to blow anybody out of a cannon. We’re in a place where hopefully some of the plays we choose, with some of the people we hope to work with, will reach the national and international levels.

DIANE PAULUS, 43 Artistic director, American Repertory Theater

Recently: Directed Tony Award-winning revival of “Hair’’ now on Broadway.

What’s the most amazing thing you’ve seen or heard and why? Going to Japan when I was 14 with my mother. She had not returned to Japan in the 25 years after she left. Landing in Tokyo, which was bombed out when she left. Seeing Japan through her eyes. That was truly life-changing.

Why can’t Boston keep some of its greatest cultural leaders? I think it’s the opposite. I’d like to rephrase that and say it’s time for Boston to start claiming itself as a cultural hub and when we do that we can own the incredible arts community we are and attract even more people.

What is the least appreciated place in this area? Dave’s in Davis Square. It’s an Italian fresh pasta store with incredible cheeses and sandwiches. Proscuitto, salami, ham, artichokes. It rivals the best Italian joint in New York City.

Tell us what your institution will do this season that will surprise people: We’re already doing it with “The Donkey Show.’’ The next show, “Sleep No More,’’ will have the supernatural transformation of a Brookline school into a massive theatrical installation - “Macbeth’’ meets Hitchcock.



JOÃO RIBAS, 30 Curator of exhibitions, List Visual Arts Center at MIT

Recently: Played bass in the Mooney Suzuki (1995-2001), curator at the Drawing Center.

What’s the most amazing thing you’ve seen or heard and why? The first time I heard St. Matthew Passion. I was probably about 6 years old and it was in a Baroque church at Easter. I sat through the whole thing and I was absolutely transfixed.

Why can’t Boston keep some of its greatest cultural leaders? I don’t think the question makes sense. . . . There are people so dedicated to the Boston art scene who have nurtured and built it. . . . You could flip it around and say it attracts the best talent.

What is the least appreciated place in this area? I’m going to say Fort Thunder [an artists’ space in Providence during the 1990s.] What’s really not appreciated is the contribution of Fort Thunder to a lot of contemporary art.

Tell us what your institution will do this season that will surprise people: [We want to show how] the issues at the forefront of contemporary art practice are some of the most pressing issues in almost any other field of inquiry or any part of daily life.

ESTHER NELSON, 56 General and artistic director, Boston Lyric Opera

Recently:
Consultant; six years as general director/CEO of Glimmerglass Opera.

What’s the most amazing thing you’ve seen or heard and why? Aside from childbirth? As a 12-year-old, I was invited to a rehearsal in Salzburg of Wagner’s “Ring’’ with Herbert von Karajan conducting. Not that I came out and said, ‘I had to be in opera’ at all, but it just got a hold of me.

Why can’t Boston keep some of its greatest cultural leaders? I don’t know if one can say there’s an epidemic, a Boston-rooted problem. But you don’t have a great deal of public support.

What is the least appreciated place in this area? The least appreciated art form clearly must be grand opera of the 19th- or 20th-century. The one thing that isn’t here is grand opera because we don’t have a place to do it.

Tell us what your institution will do this season that will surprise people: [We are] doing an opera in a found space. That’s “The Turn of the Screw’’ in February. . . . We are not taking a small approach. . . . The singers that we have hired you would find on the Metropolitan stage. At the same time, we’re also on the main stage. [There] the biggest surprise will be the “Carmen’’ because we’re going back to the way Bizet intended it . . . back to the original with spoken dialogue.

WYONA LYNCH-MCWHITE, 37 Executive director, Fuller Craft Museum

Recently: Deputy director, Fuller; director and chief curator of the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum, the art museum of Hollins University in Roanoke, Va.

What’s the most amazing thing you’ve seen or heard and why? As a grad student, I worked at the Art Institute of Chicago and did tours and I witnessed a group in front of one of Clyfford Still’s black paintings actually understanding the importance of that piece. There’s nothing but black on black on black. It doesn’t sound like much because to the untutored, there’s nothing there. But that was amazing.

Why can’t Boston keep some of its greatest cultural leaders? The way you said it makes it sound like Boston has done something wrong. But I would think it’s a testament to what we’ve done right. Other communities look in and decide to cherry pick, if you will.

What is the least appreciated place in this area? Of course, I would think it’s Fuller Craft Museum. It’s just lack of awareness. One of the beauties of Boston is the wealth of offerings. We’re off the beaten path for folks.

Tell us what your institution will do this season that will surprise people: [Shows featuring] digital technology. I think the word craft and digital technology is not generally involved in the same sentences. Also, we’re opening a discovery space for children. It allows families to interact with the mediums that are in craft. The first one’s going to be glass.

DENNIS KOIS, 40 Executive director, DeCordova Sculpture Park + Museum

Recently: Executive director, Grace Museum in Abilene, Texas.

What’s the most amazing thing you’ve seen or heard and why? I finally made the trip out to West Texas to Marfa, to see the Donald Judds at the Chinati Foundation. It was mind-blowing. The landscape and the art. It’s the perfect marriage.

Why can’t Boston keep some of its greatest cultural leaders? I agree there’s been sort of a brain drain but I think it’s great any time a city is on the national radar and people are being recruited out of it.

What is the least appreciated place in this area? The Danforth Museum is on the top of my list. It does great things for local artists and it’s sort of pulling itself up by its bootstraps but hardly anyone knows about it.

Tell us what your institution will do this season that will surprise people: In the next year you will see a huge-scale, international kind of sculpture commission appear in the park. We’re not sure who yet. We’re talking to Andy Goldsworthy and Antony Gormley, Nancy Rubins. . . . What will also surprise some people is how much serious scholarship is going to come out of this museum in the next year or two.

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