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Supermarket of the Arts or a Meat Market?

January 10, 1988|DANIEL CARIAGA

NEW YORK — Upstairs, in posh convention headquarters, the members meet. They hear national figures in the arts reiterate some of the same goals, ideals and problems that arts leaders talk about whenever national organizations meet. They attend workshops, seminars and panel discussions dealing with the pretensions of art and education and with the daily issues of their working lives--box office, subscription sales, audiences and demographics.

Downstairs in the large exhibit hall they call "the pit," some 850 members of the Assn. of College, University and Community Arts Administrators (ACUCAA) meet more informally, directing their attention to the real business of this 31st annual meeting: the exposure to managers and artists and the subsequent booking of those artists for the 1988-'89 (or 1989-'90) concert season.

"A supermarket of the arts," a publicist has called it.

"It's more like a meat market," says one of the visiting impresarios.

"This is where the real action is," boasts a veteran manager, representing--along with what looks like a dozen associates--the largest single agency, Columbia Artists Management Inc.

And so it seems. At any one moment during these 4 1/2 days last month, there are more association members on the floor of the "resource room" in the lower lobby of the Sheraton Centre (at 52nd Street at 7th Avenue) than in the second-floor meeting rooms.

The attraction is clear: More than 200 management companies are represented here by more than 1,000 sales people in booths of varying capacities and tastes. On display are posters, recordings, videotapes, banners, brochures and artists' lists, in size from the modest to the humongous.

Many of the booths have continuous video showings of taped performances by available attractions, from dance and ballet companies to theater troupes to folk singers to touring orchestras to puppeteers, mimes and recitalists.

Some of the New York-based managements offer free tickets to current Manhattan performances by their artists--on Friday night, for instance, 24 different New York City locales beckon the visiting impresarios, with entertainments as divergent as the Elisa Monte Dance Company, Chicago City Limits (a comedy theater on the Upper East Side) and the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players.

In addition to their artists lists and business cards, the managers are giving out small souvenirs. One booth offers a glass paperweight celebrating the 25th anniversary (1964-'89) of Aman, the Los Angeles-based folk company.

"It's a very large marketplace," says Wayne Shilkret, executive director of the Ambassador International Cultural Foundation, the nonprofit organization that produces more than 150 events--at Ambassador Auditorium, Pasadena Civic Theatre and other halls--annually. The Ambassador Foundation--along with the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and a handful of East Coast culture palaces--is one of the largest presenting organizations, with an annual budget of $4.2 million.

Shilkret has attended association conferences every December since 1976, when he came to the Pasadena foundation after working for the Kennedy Center and, before that, the Philadelphia Orchestra.

"The conference has grown tremendously in these years, just as the business has grown," he observes.

In 1987, the resource room at Sheraton Centre was sold out early, according to association director Gayle Stamler, keeping some managements from participating. In 1988, the conference will move to the newer Marriott convention complex in Times Square.

Some of the smaller presenters do their actual booking for the coming season at the annual association meeting. The large-scale concert bookers cannot do that.

"Because of the competitive situation in Los Angeles, we have to be locked down in our 1988-'89 season before we go to conference," says Michael Blachly, an associate of Pebbles Wadsworth, executive director of the UCLA Center for the Arts.

"But we're still shopping, and looking, for '89-'90, and for any sudden contingencies that may arise before that." Blachly, who has worked as both a presenter (in Tennessee and Hawaii) and an agent (for CAMI), says "size--the steady growth of the organization--is a drawback at this meeting, because there are now so many people here. Getting together with your counterparts from around the country, just to sit and talk, can be complicated."

Yet those interactions are, according to many of the attendees, the most rewarding part of the conference.

"The ACUCAA meeting fills a tremendous need," says Shilkret, "because in our jobs we seldom get to talk to people doing exactly what we're doing, and we have a lot to tell each other.

"Sometimes, it will just be serendipity that at one of the banquets or large meetings I sit next to someone who runs a college series of, say, four or five concerts a year, with a budget of $30,000. That person is interested in how I handle my job, the problems that arise, the dealings with managers, etc. This is a very valuable time."

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