Meet the New Bosses
The Long Center's Cliff Redd and ALO's Richard Buckley compare notes on their jobs, challenges, and Austin
Leading an arts institution is challenging under the best circumstances. You can have an established presence in a prosperous community, loyal patrons, an enlightened and active board, talented and committed staff, and be presenting art that is both high-quality and invigorating, and still feel like you're juggling grand pianos. Staying afloat as a nonprofit, balancing aesthetically adventurous and popular work, and negotiating those ever-present creative differences will always be present, making demands on you. But imagine that you've been hired to run such an institution in a city that's new to you, where you don't know the lay of the land (or the taste of your audience), where you're expected to help your organization realize its loftiest artistic dreams despite the fact that the city is just groping its way out of an economic bust.
That's the case for both Richard Buckley and Cliff Redd. Buckley was hired last year as the artistic director for Austin Lyric Opera; Redd was named the new executive director for the Long Center for the Performing Arts this summer. While Buckley had 30 years experience conducting for opera companies and orchestras across the world, including stints as assistant conductor for Seattle Opera, music director of the Oakland Symphony, and principal guest conductor of the Seattle Symphony, he didn't know Austin well. He's spent the past 12 months getting a crash course in the capital city and Texas ways. Redd is much more intimately acquainted with Austin, but it's the Austin of 30 to 40 years ago. He grew up here when this was still a sleepy little college town of 100,000 or fewer. After three decades as an arts administrator in the Dallas area, founding and directing Theatre Arlington for many years, running the Shakespeare Festival of Dallas during the Nineties, and heading the ArtCentre of Plano more recently, he's returned to Austin to help realize the transformation of Palmer Auditorium into a home for many of the city's performing arts groups, including the opera. But it's a different city in so many ways. As Buckley prepared for his conducting debut with ALO Tosca, which opens the opera's 2004-2005 season this weekend the Chronicle brought these two men together to discuss their jobs, their careers, art, and Austin. The following conversation took place in Richard Buckley's office at ALO's Heller Opera Center.
Cliff Redd: I think Austin wants to go forward, but it's in this dichotomous dualism that's very hard for the city to resolve. You have what would be my generation of Austinites I was born in 1951 who are desperately clinging to a city that they don't want any changes in. "If you don't build it, they won't come." But of course they're going to come to Austin: It's beautiful, it's got a sense of warmth that very few cities have. So we [have that earlier generation saying], "I don't want change," and new Austin saying, "We've got to have change." And with that there have been some disappointments
City at a Crossroads
Richard Buckley: You mean like the museum?
CR: Yes. The museum is a good example. It hurts your heart, because this is trust-building for the community. This is getting our sea legs to let us know that we can do this, that lets us know that we can have you here [indicating Buckley] and lets us know that the best opera singer in America, if not the world, is going to be in Austin, Texas. [These] are quantum leaps forward, and there's this impelling desire to have the city do this. This is our capital. We have to have this stuff. It matters to us that we have not only "as good" but "the best." One thing that's been navigating these choppy waters is the Long Center. It started with a lot of grandiosity to it, but conditions changed. So now I'm navigating this sense of "Is this going to be a disappointment again? Please don't let us down. Don't let this not happen."
If you're the new guy with this great love affair for this city, the last thing you want to do is be heading a project that would disappoint in any way. This [center] has got to be reality. It's one of the reasons the universe dropped me here: to take this huge amount of personal energy that I have and throw it at this and keep throwing until we get the slot machine to come up oranges all across. Because we don't need a misfire for Austin. For a hundred good reasons beyond the immediate needs for the arts, Austin needs to know it can do this. Austin needs a performing arts center. It needs to be on a different playing field than it has been before. The arts institutions need to ratchet it up. And that means your own home, where you know what you're doing, you have the artistic equipment you need, and you're not hassling over any other things that are distracting.
Part of our job as arts leaders is to talk about these changes as value-added propositions. In the end, it's going to change anyway.
RB: That's the sad thing, that that realization doesn't come around.
CR: But we are drivers of opinion. You are in particular. Look at how you impact the city. Look at how you talk to our children. You bring an experience to them they can't have anywhere else. So people will listen to you.
Austin Chronicle: To me, Peter Bay was very effective in establishing himself as a public personality. Very approachable and very involved in the community that encouraged you to think of him as a part of our town. Consequently, when he chose to speak up on a subject, you wanted to listen to him. I see him as someone who helped make the symphony something for everybody.
CR: Our job in the community has changed so much, from the way-old, Forties model of the austere, unapproachable, glass people. I think the people who are doing our jobs at the highest level of success are eminently touchable. They're the person that you walk up and talk to in the grocery store. They're the person that you're standing in line with at the car wash. We're real approachable, touchable, caring for the community. Because this is the ultimate care job. You put a lot of stuff in your life to the side to do this work.
When you stand in front of 4,000 people a night in a free Shakespeare company all those years you know, they watched my hair go from brown to white; they watched my son grow up you realize there's a lot of community ownership about you. I'm authentic, as are you [speaking to Buckley], what you see is what you get. And what I realized, and the rest of the arts community in Dallas realized, was when you're speaking with that kind of authenticity, it gets you a different kind of buy-in. So we all started shifting to be the easiest person in town to talk to, the person anybody in town could pick up the phone and call. In Austin, that sure matters. You've got to know that Mr. Bouldin Creek can pick up the phone, dial your number, get you, and you'll talk to him.
RB: That, I think, Peter has done extremely well. The perception of me is still on the fence because I haven't performed yet. You can talk till you're blue in the face, you can present things, you can managerially bring things in, restructure the organization, restructure the management team, but until you get on the podium, until you are there conducting, and people see the product on the stage, there is always the question. So I've been sitting around here for a year waiting for that experience. And also I think some people still don't understand someone who has an international career still. Their only model is you're only here and this is your only job all the time.
AC: I think it's something that people have an easier time understanding now than they did 15 or 20 years ago. Then there was more small-town paranoia about outsiders, people who come in and want to change the way we do things or don't understand how we do things. You can certainly look at historical instances where outsiders did come in and didn't understand and made some bad choices.
RB: I was an East Coaster until I was 21. I had my 21st birthday and moved to Seattle, which was wonderful for me. I grew up there both operatically and as a conductor. But I: a) was an East Coaster, and b) had been heavily influenced by my father, who was also a conductor and was old, old, old New York-style, very much in your face, really fast, really straightforward and that was not very West Coast-y. So I really had to learn; there was a real adjustment there. Then I lived on the West Coast for 12 years, then I started to travel around. That's one of the gifts that this place has given me: that I'm not 9 months, 10 months out of the year on the road.
CR: The Long Center has a certain element of risk. It has to. If Austin is going to move forward, we have to challenge ourselves as far as we can go. Almost every other city that has the enlightenment that the city of Austin has, has had to challenge themselves in this way. I want this project to hit here as something that everybody wants to do, that everybody cares about. If people who are at a certain economic level and above care about it but nobody else does, we will never get there.
Who's on Board?
RB: Certainly this will serve Round Rock. Certainly this will serve Georgetown. This will serve Pflugerville. This will serve Dripping Springs. Is there a way to approach these municipalities for funding for the Long Center?
CR: There's a model coming out, a national model: Plano, Frisco, and Allen came together. There's a spot where those cities sort of meet, and there was a dream of putting a performing arts center there. Individually, these cities couldn't do it. It didn't make sense economically, but collectively it made lots of sense. So for the first time in this country, and not far from here, we have this trial balloon of three cities operating in tandem to build this thing and program it and figure out how to serve the communities. What I know about business in Texas is that it's so relational. It just so happened in those three cities that there was a lot of crisscross, relational crisscross: high-powered, top-level EDS executive that lived in Frisco, Allen, and Plano, city government people knew each other pretty well, which is unusual, so they were predisposed to try something that was unique. And the land was donated by a major developer. So they're off to the races on it. This part of Texas has a different verve, and I don't know how to accomplish it, other than it's in my heart to do. It's probably a five-year homework project.
RB: Which is too late for what we need. Unfortunately, that's the way you have to look at it.
CR: There are two mountains for the Long Center that are uncharted still. One is linkage with the kids through the school district. And the other is a true celebration of the pop or commercial music industry, because it resonates Austin. To me, if you create the Long Center as one of the greatest places in Austin and if you drive the kids there with your programming, then we're developing what our kids will inherit from us in terms of the arts patrons of the future. If we do our job properly and they bond not only to our arts institutions but to that place, then they bring their kids there, and we've got it. The kids and their infrastructure matter a lot to me, because they are our future.
If anything, you and I are having to navigate a time when we dropped not only a stitch, we dropped the whole shirt in terms of arts education. We cut out a lot of fundamental pieces of arts education in our schools, so we're struggling to put this in their lives when it wasn't put there to begin with. That's really important to me: to figure out how to integrate this place into what's happening in education in this city.
RB: We have teachers in the educational system who don't know the arts, so we have to sell them first because then they have to sell it to the students. They're the ones that are in the classrooms.
CR: You're right. One of our jobs is to educate and enroll the educators, because if they don't get us, the kids won't get us either.
RB: Now that I've been here one year, one of the things that we've been able to do, besides bring the budget back to realization with the growth patterns of the company and continue a lot of the growth, is increase the level of the singer that we're bringing in. To me, bottom line, opera is about voice. It's about other things, but without the voice you don't have opera. Here we have Carol Vaness opening our season, singing a role that she's internationally known for, having sung it at the Met and La Scala and Covent Garden, but in the youth of this community, they don't know who and what a Carol Vaness is and even what to expect that experience might create for them. So I'm dealing with how to share that information and knowledge and not be hoity-toity. I'm not an elitist, but as an artist you want to bring your art form to a certain level always and your production values up to that. But that can sound like you're being hoity-toity.
What Art Is
CR: Or pedantic, at the least.
RB: So that's the interesting conundrum in terms of coming to this community, because it has done so much in a short amount of time, it has grown so fast, and it's going to grow it's already 1.4 million, and they're saying 2.8 million in 20 years. We already don't have enough parking for the Long Center ...
CR: Don't start me on that! It's my worst fear.
RB: It's there! It's reality! Saturday afternoons, this thing is packed! But how do you do that, and at the same time go out and raise the whatever millions left that can truly allow the three major arts organizations to grow another step and another level?
CR: The gift that you bring to the community is that you do say, "This is good art. This is a wonderful performer." So if this is your first time seeing opera, you're seeing it at its best. To me, that's the gift you bring the city, your ability to raise the bar, so when that kid sees the opera and when even a hardened operagoer goes, they know they're seeing something different.
RB: But their growth as operagoers doesn't necessarily include the understanding that there might be a difference. And also they demean themselves in terms of being able to perceive the difference. I can't tell you how many people will say to me, "Well, did you think that was good?" I always turn and say, "What was your response? Art is not defined by me. Art is defined by you. All art forms are dealing with your individual emotional response to what you are receiving, perceiving, and experiencing. And hopefully the art form is allowing you within yourself to investigate the kaleidoscope of emotional colors that's out there. That's what art is." The reason for the Long Center, the reason for our arts organizations is to create a civilization and society and culture where people are self-aware enough emotionally that they can tap into those emotions and experience in a safe environment, as opposed to getting knocked down and killed on the street in an unsafe environment. But they're not even there.
CR: All my adult life I've been a very avid visual arts collector. I love visual artists. I think they're magic. It's not my field. It's just something I'm interested in, and if you're curious like me, instinctively, you learn, so you start buying what you like. But you have to trust yourself to say, "I like this." If you don't, that's okay. One man's kitsch is another man's living room. But that's a slow and steady kind of evolution.
I would stand at art openings, and there was this desire [from people there] for me to validate whether they liked it or not. I began to realize that giving people permission to know that taste is personal, and giving people permission to not always like what you do, what the exhibition was or the opera you chose and so on and so on, and giving them permission to say, "That sucked! I hated it," is fine.
RB: It can't always be great, you know. Sure, we strive.
CR: I like to talk about it as giving ourselves permission to fail, because our art forms don't grow unless we do. Unless we're out there on the really thin, teeny little branch on the tree of experimentation, then our art forms start to collapse on themselves. So giving ourselves permission to fail and giving our patrons permission to see work that's in progress, that could be good or not if it goes forward, that's the alive part of the process. I think that's part of what's killing us in New York, for example. There's no place to go try it. That's what made me want to move to Austin. This is a place to try it. Every once in a while one of those experiments is blinding, it's so brilliant, and the 10 failures before or 10 mediocre before are worth it.
Tosca runs Sept. 17-20 at Bass Concert Hall. For more information, call 472-5992 or visit www.austinlyricopera.org.