How are cultural leaders and practitioners addressing artistic and organizational challenges today? And how do they make room for creative and institutional growth, while facing shifting audience expectations and consumer behaviors? In this series of interviews with Center grantees, we offer a look inside the organizational and artistic practices of many of Philadelphia’s leading cultural institutions and practicing artists, their distinct characters, aspirations, and more.
Here, we speak to Nick Stuccio, president and producing director at FringeArts, as he approaches the organization’s 19th Fringe Festival, running September 3–19. Stuccio talks with us about his organization’s growth from a once-a-year festival to a year-round presenter, the evolution of FringeArts’ audiences, and risk-taking as a contemporary performing arts presenter.
At the Fringe Festival this September, with Center support, FringeArts will present a reconceived production of Available Light—a seminal, multidisciplinary work by choreographer Lucinda Childs, architect Frank Gehry, and composer John Adams; the US premiere of After the Rehearsal/Persona by director Ivo van Hove and his Dutch theater company, Toneelgroep Amsterdam; and Philadelphia theater artist Thaddeus Phillips’ take on the Colombian telenovela with Alias Ellis MacKenzie.
Tell us about a unique quality that distinguishes FringeArts from any other organization.
One of the founding principles for the vision of our organization is to offer a social context for our work as a presenter of contemporary performance. Our new center on the Delaware River waterfront embodies that idea. The public space we use to receive and welcome audiences is entirely intertwined with our restaurant/bar and beer garden and its various uses and activities. It’s a destination, a place to come before a show and stay after. It’s a place for artists to interact with artists, as well as a culinary space. As a presenter, we mediate the experience between the public and artists we love and their ideas. In providing a highly social and fun context—a complete ‘night out’—we believe we are doing our job and executing our mission in the best way possible.
With the opening of this center on the waterfront—your first permanent space—you began presenting year-round programming, in addition to your yearly festival in September. How have these changes affected your audiences and your thinking about audiences?
We are asking a lot of our existing audiences given our new, year-round programming. The challenge is to build new relationships, and we are working hard to do that. Working with other curators, including composer and producer King Britt, choreographer and visual artist Kate Watson-Wallace, and Ars Nova Workshop’s Mark Christman, has been a way to connect with other networks, while growing our base.
Challenges have always been and will continue to be part of the operating conditions in the cultural sector. The ways people consume culture will evolve for sure. That is a given, and that is an opportunity. We have a savvy marketing team that is on the ground figuring out the best ways to build our community. We test new tactics and course correct. We also work with a large cohort of very smart artists who reflect the changing dynamics of popular culture, and whose art ideas often dictate our methods of connecting to audiences.
FringeArts is known for presenting bold, boundary-pushing performance work from around the world. Do any projects come to mind that have been particularly influential to your way of thinking, both organizationally and artistically?
Our new facility and new programming have caused us to grow and sharpen many capacities within our organization. We also have become very efficient in our decision-making. The more you do something— in our case present a lot of contemporary performance—the better you become at it. This past year, we definitely put in our 10,000 hours.
Like many other arts organizations, we can look back at a set of works that were successful projects/presentations and see how they helped to define our organization, and helped to entrench our place in the hearts and minds of lots of people from across the region. Richard Maxwell’s Drummer Wanted, Akram Khan’s Kaash, Jérôme Bel’s The Show Must Go On, Lucinda Childs’ Dance, and Romeo Castellucci’s The Four Seasons Restaurant come to mind. These works represent turning points—a moment on a knife edge where audience response could have gone either way. These presentations, among others, were expansion points; with each presentation (and really, each performance), audiences told us they were ready for more.
We certainly built our reputation as an important presenter through our ongoing relationship with a cohort of artists based here in our city. That list includes Pig Iron Theatre Company, Headlong Dance Theater, New Paradise Laboratories, Thaddeus Phillips, and Geoff Sobelle, among many others. These artists have created a spine within our programming and built a large base of devotees
How has the proliferation of mobile technology changed the way you think about programming and audience participation, if at all?
Technology in general has changed us in many ways. The entire process from buying a ticket to sitting in a seat is governed by technology. The availability of information at our fingertips at any time has raised the bar on the sophistication and depth of context materials we need to offer. Audiences know more and seek to know more about what they want to consume or have consumed. We are trying to increase our capacity in offering more and better materials about the artists and their work. I think the paper program’s days are numbered.
What role does your board play in identifying the need for and shaping organizational change? How do they support the organization through critical moments?
They are a very, very smart bunch. They always ask the appropriate questions and certainly challenge and enrich my view on our agenda. We all share the belief that we can always get better at our work and recognize that we ought to change with the changing landscape, or we will be left in the dust. In the midst of the recession when we were facing a significant dip in foundation support, the board entirely conceived and executed a large fundraising event called Feastival. It was and continues to be a big success for the organization in many ways.
How do you think about the life-cycle of your organization? How will it evolve over the next five, or ten years?
I think it will be more mature in many ways over time. I imagine it will be larger and more stable. Achieving a threshold of scale in terms of revenue will mean that we have successfully built a far greater diversity of income sources than we have now. That will create a sturdier base from which we can have an even greater impact on our community, and can continue to take risks, and be more innovative.
At some point in the future I imagine we can support a broader array of presentations, more works of scale, and larger site-based work. As more and more neighborhoods continue their remarkable development, we plan on growing the Fringe Festival right alongside them.
The world of cultural producers and distributors we live in is becoming less codified and category-based. And just as the museum world has brilliantly adopted performance, we aspire to program non-time-based art projects and presentations. We want to take opportunities for far more partnerships with our incredible colleague institutions here in Philadelphia, like Opera Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, Philadelphia Museum of Art, among many others. There may also be opportunities for the creation of additional product lines as well as strategic programming partnerships with the set of ever-growing and dynamic academic institutions in our region, including Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of the Arts.
What benefits does the Philadelphia region provide you that another region might not? How does it contribute to and influence your organizational practice and artistic programming?
Our city has become one of the most dynamic places I know. I have lived here for many years and it seems that there has never been this degree of development and growth in many sectors, especially in culture. There is a large and growing creative class and a smart and ambitious artist community. There is also an audience base that is increasingly sophisticated, curious, and interested in new, big art ideas and about our world beyond Philadelphia. This has led us to have more confidence in presenting foreign language work and, in general, more provocative, risk-taking work.