Dan Barnard has a lot on his mind as he settles in to his new role as the executive director of the MSU Riley Center Center for Education and Performing Arts.
Barnard comes to Meridian from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he served as associate dean of cultural affairs and director of the Bailey Hall performing arts center at Broward College. He succeeds Dennis Sankovich, who earlier this year retired.
In a recent interview with The Meridian Star’s editorial board, Barnard spoke about his background and laid out his vision for the center’s future. What follows is part of that conversation, edited for clarity and space.
QUESTION: What drew you to your career?
ANSWER: I got drawn to this career as a surprise. When I finished my doctorate at Kansas, I took a job in Pennsylvania, and they included a chamber music series as part of that job. It opened up this whole world of presenting that I had never even considered. So, for me, the act of choosing artists for a series is the exact same skill it takes for me as a composer. I’m thinking about ‘how is an audience going to react to this?’
I knew right then that’s what I wanted to do, but it took me about 10 years to actually get that job, because people that are hiring for that job are very interested in someone with experience, and my experience was as a college professor. It’s an odd transition, so it took a while.
Q: Why the transition from the performance side to the business side of the arts?
A: It’s not a transition from the performance side — I’m heavily involved in the performance side. I’m just one layer back. My concern is the artistic product and that connection with the audience. That’s still what motivates me more than anything else.
Q: What drew you to Meridian and the MSU-Riley Center?
A: A couple of things. One, the venue itself – it’s just a magical place. It does half the artists’ work for them before they even arrive. The audience has already been transported to a different place. That intrigued me. The second thing is how vested the community is in that center. That’s very rare. Nationwide, season tickets are dwindling, and ours have been gradually increasing, steadily, in the entire 13 years it’s been here. To have a third of our seats sold from day one, that’s a lot of community investment.
Plus, we have the support of two large foundations that gives it some financial stability that a lot of arts organizations don’t have. And the support from Mississippi State, there’s nothing but upsides to it.
Q: What did you think the first time you walked in the Riley Center?
A: It’s stunning – it’s like you’ve stepped into a time machine, and gone to an entirely different place. It’s very, very cool.
Q: What has been most surprising to you since your arrival, maybe first about the building and then about your job?
A: There are some maintenance issues with the building. The south windows had to be replaced a couple of years ago, and now the north windows are going to need it. That was an eye opener.
If you look around the bottom of the venue, there’s some blistering in the paint. The foundations knew that would be the case, so we have two endowments set aside specifically for building maintenance. In the past years, that’s all been rolled into a lump budget and not been kept with the spirit of those endowments. So we need to get back to that, because a building like this, even though it’s been reopened 13 years ago, it’s still an old building.
The job itself has been everything I thought it would be. I love coming to work. The people I’ve met have been 100 percent friendly and warm and excited I’m here.
Q: How much of the upcoming season is your doing or is this lineup something that was mostly established before your arrival?
A: We plan way ahead – I try to plan about 18 months out. So the fall season, one reason it’s so short, it was set before I got here. The things I will book will start in January. It’s not a huge change, but there will be some differences.
Q: What kind of differences might audiences see?
A: One of my overarching visions is to serve the entire community. I see now that we’re not exactly doing that. We serve a niche in the demographic here that’s primarily white, primarily economically above a certain level, and primarily beyond a certain age. I would like to broaden that to include the rest of the community. We’re going to book some things that are attractive to people who are younger than our current audience. We’re going to try to become diverse ethnically and culturally.
Readers poll: Music
Which type of music would you most like to hear at the MSU Riley Center?
A new thing that will start in January, instead of three seating zones, there will be six. For most people, there is a price point above which the prices are too high. The way it’s zoned right now, it’s 600 or 700 seats all in one zone. So we’re really only reaching that strata of people that can afford those seats. That’s not really an effective way to do it. Now, we’re going to spread it around a little bit. We’re going to maximize the revenue from the premium seats. And some of the ticket prices are actually going to go down, so we can make it more accessible to all people. Our goal is to serve the entire community, and that’s one way we can get there.
Q: Are there challenges to bringing acts to Meridian?
A: Of course there are – 900 seats is challenge number one. Because there’s a ceiling beyond which I can’t raise the ticket prices.
But the routing (location) is actually in our favor, because we are between a lot of places. A lot of people coming from Florida going west come right by us, so that’s helpful. We’re not opposed to having shows on a weeknight. I would rather have an awesome show on a weeknight than an OK show on a weekend.
Q: The business model for artists seems to be different now and they’re seeking greater compensation. How can you line up acts that people want to see here, yet keep shows affordable?
A: The best thing is to purchase routed shows – shows that are on tour coming through Meridian. That requires cooperation with other like-minded venues a certain distance away. I’ve taken great pains to make a list of who those people might be. And I have a 20-year relationship with agents. Once they understand what we need, those relationships go a long way. That’s a big part in what value I bring as an executive director.
Q: Beyond the performances, what are the things you’re doing every day the community should know about?
A: Our conference facilities are spectacular – you get all the charm of the historic venue, but with all of the technology you could possibly need…with exceptional service.
We also try to partner with the schools in ways a lot of people may not know about. We do a lot of school programming and host events to train teachers. That’s part of our mission.
Q: What is the value of the arts to this community?
A: In times of renaissance for a community, it almost always starts with the arts. Arts organizations make it safe to be downtown – they bring people there. That makes the atmosphere conducive for other businesses to come in. The Riley Center opens, then The Max opens, then the Children’s Museum opens. Restaurants thrive, and other businesses come in. The arts is really a catalyst for growth, so it’s a highly valuable commodity.
Q: The poverty rate in the city is almost 30 percent and it’s 20 percent in the county. What efforts are being made to give children access when they may have never been to a concert before?
A: We’re fortunate here in that there are a number of programs to provide funds to get kids into our building. There is money to fund ticket prices and buses to get them here. We just need to work with the school districts to make it a consistent thing.
If students grow up exposed to the kind of performing arts we have here, it enriches their lives so much, and they’re more likely to come back when they’re an adult.
Q: With some organizations backing off funding, what is the Riley Center’s commitment to the Kennedy Center’s Any Given Child program?
A: We’ve just hired a new outreach director, Tiffany McGehee, who came to us from The Max. She has a ton of ideas. She has relationships with the city schools, county schools and the Mississippi Arts Commission.
Q: Last year we wrote about how The MAX, the Temple and the Riley Center could work together. Have you established a relationship with the other venues and have any plans ahead?
A: We have a joint event coming up on Sept. 15. The Max and the Riley Center are jointly producing a free event for the opening night of the Ken Burns documentary on country music.
I think those kind of cooperations will continue, because of the nature of the arts, it’s a highly collaborative process. We’re producing a show that will be part of the Jimmie Rodgers Festival. The Children’s Museum already does some pre-show activities for us, so we will continue to work with them. It’s a highly collaborative field, and we want to be right in the middle of that.