Making a Mountain Out of a Molehill

The information boom that has accompanied technological changes over the past 20 years is truly remarkable. We now have 24-hour news, 24-hour sports channels, hundreds of other television channels, an unlimited number of websites, thousands of tweets and Facebook entries, and on and on. It is not necessarily true that there is more going on than there was 20 years ago, but there certainly is far more information directed at all of us, constantly, and without pause. All of this makes it harder for arts institutions to gain recognition for the work they do. While we benefit from new technologies and information distribution systems, many of which are free to use, we must also compete with the vast amount of information every human being is receiving each day. This has serious implications for arts institutions as they plan both their programming and their supporting marketing campaigns. In particular, artistic leaders need to determine whether there are ways to make their projects larger, more ambitious, more memorable. Creating a bigger "package" around a central curatorial idea can help attract attention from the press and the public. The premise of the Sondheim Celebration, a multi-faceted festival of the works of Stephen Sondheim held at the Kennedy Center in 2002, was simple: Much of the conventional wisdom surrounding the works of this master was simply wrong. People said his musicals lacked melodies. They were unemotional. They were too similar. They would never sell well. I didn't agree with any of these sentiments and set out to prove it. The core of the project was a set of new productions of six of Sondheim's musicals performed in repertory. I wanted to mimic a museum exhibition where one can view several works of an artist next to each other. In the Sondheim celebration, one could come for a weekend and see three separate complete productions of Sondheim's works. This was ambitious enough. But I knew if I wanted to create something truly memorable, I needed to do more. So we added a production of Pacific Overtures, by a Japanese company. And we hosted one-person shows of Sondheim's music by two of his greatest interpreters: Barbara Cook and Mandy Patinkin. And we added a performance created by local middle school children of the first act of Into the Woods. And we had Frank Rich interview Mr. Sondheim on our Concert Hall stage. And we ended the project with a highlights concert at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City. No arts organization has to conceive or create these mega, transformational projects all of the time, but selecting one or two events a year that can bear a similar expansion can help penetrate today's clutter of information. This package of events created a festival that attracted visitors from all 50 states and from 38 countries. The press wrote an astonishing array of stories. Many people remember it to this day. And the Kennedy Center, which had not produced any theater of its own in the 14 years before the Celebration, was transformed.