By Gina Tribotti
Daniel Gallant is a theatrical producer, playwright, director, teacher, actor, and executive director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Since 1973, the Cafe has operated as a multi-arts and multicultural non-profit organization, presenting poetry, music, hip hop, theater, and education events in New York City’s East Village. The Cafe’s history is chronicled in a new online exhibit from Google Cultural Institute.
Daniel has also recently been awarded a 2016 Eisenhower Fellowship for his work as an arts leader. Eisenhower Fellows travel abroad to meet with experts in their respective fields and deepen their engagement with a global network of leaders. In this interview, we speak with Daniel about the nimbleness of small organizations, the benefits of being an arts omnivore, and the delicate balancing act between artistic creation and arts management.
Daniel, you’ve recently received an Eisenhower Fellowship, which is awarded to visionary leaders from a variety of disciplines. How does your work as Executive Director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe complement the fellowship’s aim of “creating a more peaceful, prosperous, and just world”? Eisenhower Fellowships facilitate professional growth by allowing leaders to pursue international projects. From what I’ve seen so far, the most successful projects grow out of the fellows’ work experience and complement their professional endeavors without necessarily being tied to their jobs. I’m interested in exploring how foreign leaders use the arts to engage disadvantaged and at-risk students. I also want to study how innovative arts organizations in Europe and Asia have weaned themselves off of government support since the recession. American arts leaders could learn a lot about resourcefulness and creativity by examining how our colleagues overseas have shifted from public to private funding models. I also plan to initiate artist exchanges between foreign cultural venues and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
I think the most effective leaders are those who constantly learn from their colleagues and from the failures and successes of other organizations. I often go to conferences and participate in as many roundtable, panel, and networking events as possible with my colleagues who run other cultural organizations. Best practices do not arise from nowhere; leaders and managers create best practices through dialogue and collective learning.
You’ve maintained a robust career as both an artist and an arts administrator, formerly at the 92nd Street Y‘s Makor and Tribeca Centers and currently at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. In what ways have your creative endeavors informed your administrative work, and vice versa? My aesthetic interests and my management interests coalesce. I’ve always thought that the most effective arts managers are those who’ve spent time in the trenches as performers or creators of artistic work. Likewise, people who create or perform artistic work are more effective at navigating the practical side of the arts if they’ve spent some time in management. It’s easier for arts omnivores to collaborate and communicate with other arts omnivores.
If I didn’t have a creative connection to the arts, I probably would have stopped working as an arts administrator years ago. I started out as an arts maker, but became frustrated with the logistical procedures involved in auditioning for a show or having other people produce the plays I wrote. In college, I decided to start a theater company, and the first budget I ever wrote was for pizza. It was successful; the college agreed to supply pizza for our weekly meetings, and I was very excited to learn that writing down convincing numbers in the right order on a spreadsheet was enough to get someone else to pay for pizza. So bit by bit, I learned more about budgets, contracts and production. But I’ve always been interested in creative work that focuses on language and content rather than on production values, and that’s one of the reasons I gravitated towards the Nuyorican. Both as an artist and an arts manager, I favor inexpensive arts events that prioritize performance, verbal delivery, lyricism, and potent language. Sometimes that sort of work can be challenging to pull off. It’s easier to produce a solo show or a poetry slam then it is to stage big-budget theater, but raw and intimate performances demand more from the artists involved. You can’t phone in a slam performance or do a solo show on auto-pilot.
In 2013, you published an editorial in the New York Post asserting that rising rents and increased property values were not only threatening the livelihood of small innovative arts spaces, but the future careers of creatives who perform in those spaces as well. Has your prognostication of New York City’s cultural landscape changed within the last few years, and what advice do you have for arts administrators who are inheriting these challenges? The outlook for New York City’s small arts organizations is worse than it used to be. Some institutions, like the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, are positioned to weather the tides of gentrification: entities that own their own buildings, that are tax-exempt, and that have a reliable means of generating earned revenue can be immune or resistant to rising costs. The organizations that thrive are often those that address niche interests. But Manhattan is a difficult place in which to open or maintain an arts space unless you’re charging high ticket prices, or you have a favorable lease or major donors. Organizations that depend primarily on donors and subscribers are less likely to experiment with new or challenging work, or to have programming and ticket prices that attract younger audiences. So in a sense, most arts organizations that can afford to be in Manhattan are pricing themselves out of existence. Smaller arts organizations are better positioned to take risks so long as they can either buy their buildings or find some kind of compromise that allows them to survive in a rental situation. The smaller the organization, the more artistic and programmatic risks it can take. The larger the organization, the more buffer it has against gentrification and rising expenses in the short term, but the less prepared it will be for the rigors of the next several decades, when audience and philanthropic behavior will continue to change. Younger audiences aren’t donating and subscribing like their parents did; large organizations that play it safe in order to retain their aging donors and subscribers are failing to cultivate the next generation of arts patrons.
Since graduating from the Arts Administration program in 2004, you’ve found ample opportunities to put your skills into practice. Reflecting upon your days in the program, have you gained any insights into the field that might be beneficial to those currently in the program or looking to pursue arts administration in the future? In the current arts ecology, the silos and categories that separate arts genres are not as strict as they once were. A forward-thinking arts administration student should seek out opportunities for multi-genre cross-pollination. A challenge for many arts organizations is that today’s audiences are so omnivorous and so fickle at the same time. Spectators are less loyal to one arts venue or one art form then they used to be, which means that cultural venues need to be nimble and multifaceted if they want to grow their audiences. Someone who is searching for an arts administration job at any level is better off if they have a grounding in multiple art forms. A museum will usually want to hire someone with museum experience, but a lot of arts institutions seek managers who have wide skill sets and a plethora of experiences across a variety of art forms. Breadth of knowledge is quite valuable in our industry.
And I’ve found that a project-based mentality helps arts leaders who are also artists to balance their management work and their creative work. If you run yourself ragged for ten hours every day and you’re constantly juggling a dozen projects, your work suffers and you suffer. But if you focus on one or several big projects at a time, put a lot of effort and energy behind them, and then allow yourself to cool off for a little while before diving into the next huge project, the work benefits and you benefit. Arts leaders are more prone to burnout than most leaders are, because the projects we manage are inherently unpredictable. Chaos is exhausting. But art isn’t art without chaos. At its best, arts management juxtaposes orderly interludes with creative pandemonium.