All Under One Roof

Meany Hall's new director, Michelle Witt, has to make sense of a hybrid institution.

Michelle Witt is walking into what she calls her "dream job," running the UW's Meany Hall, at what could be the absolute worst time ever for the institution. Between state funding cuts and the recession-caused erosion of financial support for the arts nationwide, her new gig could be an exercise in frustration. Retiring director Matt Krashan came to Meany Hall almost 30 years ago, and worked with Witt during their August transition. During those three decades, he combined a fairly disparate collection of events into a more cohesive program, made the programming more global, broadened the funding base, and rebranded this new state of affairs the UW World Series. One of his most important acts began as damage control, when he took over what is now the World Dance Series when its local presenter, Discover Dance, went bankrupt in 1984. There followed a steep learning curve with some entertaining bumps, but Krashan nurtured powerful ongoing relationships with artists—who in turn have sometimes cut their fees and brought their most intriguing works. But goodwill only goes so far. Some long-term Meany artists have moved to other, more profitable venues. The Mark Morris Dance Group, for example, shifted to Seattle Theatre Group for a series of past performances with the Seattle Symphony. (They visit the Moore Dec. 1–3.) The Merce Cunningham Dance Company followed suit—and will play the Paramount Oct. 27 and 29 during its farewell tour. The new season at Meany Hall—21 acts divided among world music, dance, piano, chamber music, and theater—was already in place before Witt took her new job. The 2012–13 season will be hers alone to plan. Ahead of her also lies the challenge of securing money from the UW, sponsors (including Microsoft and Paul Allen), ticket subscribers, and patrons. A former professional violinist, Witt is well accustomed to working with artists. Before moving here from Santa Cruz, Calif., she was running the San Francisco dance troupe Kin. She has 20 years as an arts programmer/administrator under her belt, with prior stops in Palo Alto, Calif., and Sun Valley, Idaho. Meany Hall, with an annual attendance of around 50,000, is a step up for Witt. But its annual budget of around $1.8 million is also flat. Her second big challenge is to draw new ticket buyers and subscribers. And she has to accommodate Meany's competing school concerns and schedules; every department wants to use the hall—and those are nights she can't sell tickets. In a brief chat, Witt told me her job is to "contextualize the work" and illustrate its place in society. Talking about lectures, reading groups, and other kinds of promotion, she makes her post sound like a combination of teaching and historiography, with stage performance the ultimate textbook. But Meany is very much a hybrid institution: not a commercial hall, not a nonprofit, not strictly a teaching theater. When I ask about specific artists she'd like to book, or for particulars about projects under consideration, Witt keeps mum. But she also poses some rhetorical questions of her own: Why is there nothing much scheduled over the summertime? she asks. Why do the different performing-arts groups on campus seem to promote themselves separately, rather than as a joint effort? And why are there so few co-sponsorships with other arts presenters in Seattle? When Peter Boal came to Pacific Northwest Ballet a few years ago, he brought a new perspective and some new repertory to a company that was essentially strong but had become too familiar to us. Here's hoping Witt can do something similar at Meany Hall.  

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