One on One with Neil Levine
C.S. Lewis underscored the importance of the arts when he wrote, “Friendship is unnecessary, like art; it has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” Neil Levine has worked in the cultural sector all his professional life – as a musician, a recording engineer and an artist manager. But he made his mark during the 90’s in Glasgow, Scotland, which became a case study on how arts and culture could reposition and regenerate a city. For his vast body of work, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Arts and also a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute. Now, he is bringing that experience to the Space Coast as Executive Director of Brevard Cultural Alliance. He’s always loved Florida as a vacation destination; his new goal is to help make this area a cultural destination as well.
SCB: What is the mission and purpose of BCA?
NL: We’re the local arts agency – the organization that represents all cultural groups, disseminating best practices and facilitating partnerships which ensure the arts and culture thrive and benefit us all, hence the name, Brevard Cultural Alliance.
SCB: Could you give us some examples?
NL: Well, we advocate on behalf of the Birding Festival, Valiant Air Command and Brevard Zoo; so although we’re the arts agency, we have a rather broad and exciting mission, “To build and sustain a vibrant and dynamic arts and cultural sector – which is integral to Brevard County’s quality of life.” We also work to encourage all schools to consider the arts an essential part of their pupils’ learning experience, which is how we’ll engage the next generation of practitioners and attendees.
SCB: Why is cultural development crucial to a community and its quality of life?
NL: You’re right in saying, how did you put it, “crucial to communities”? But let’s first take a step back and understand the fundamentals here. Arts and culture are a significant part of what makes us human, what makes us civilized. And don’t forget that arts and culture are all around us – we take all of this for granted even though it touches us all, in a positive way, every day.
It is thought-provoking, evokes truth, beauty and depending on our need, it’ll provide inspiration or solace. All of us know a song can transport us to another time or place, a picture can ask or answer a thousand questions, and sometimes those perceptive plays reflect society and maybe allow us to say things that otherwise couldn’t be said. We’re talking about Quality of Life! But there’s something else as well, and this is terribly important … as we find ourselves moving through a period of profound austerity, the arts and cultural sector can make a real contribution to regeneration. All the available statistics show that a successful cultural destination delivers millions of dollars to the communities that have invested in this area. Focusing on audience development and raising the programming bar will allow us to build towards becoming a cultural destination, and remember, cultural tourists stay longer and spend more – and it’s “new money” rather than the same dollar being re-circulated. We don’t want to think of arts and culture in a utilitarian manner, as though it’s to be commoditized – we have to keep both aspects at the front of our minds or each is diminished.
SCB: What is the role of the business community in this cultural development process? Is it symbiotic?
NL: I’ll have to generalize a little because of how long I’ve been here. In other cities where I’ve worked we’ve developed wonderful relationships with the business community who’ve invested in arts and culture, and it’s important to stress invested not subsidized. After all, an investment sees a return and the returns can be very tangible. As an example, when I worked in Glasgow we used arts and culture as a lever in regeneration and we increased tourist trips from the rest of the UK by 88 percent and overseas tourist trips by 25 percent – and the city became the #4 tourist destination in the UK.
All of those revenues cascade down through the local economy to benefit everyone – quite apart from the improved quality of life and, importantly, the interest in the relocation of individuals and businesses. So is it symbiotic – yes, very much so. By the way, Glasgow is considered a case study in the use of arts and culture in repositioning cities.
SCB: Have you found a receptive ear among business leaders when promoting the mission of BCA?
NL: I want to build an evidence base before really engaging with many business leaders. I don’t want to ask for support if I can’t evidence the benefit. However, we do get support from quite a few businesses and corporations. A great example is Boeing; their community support approach is definitely a ‘listening, learning and supporting’ approach.
SCB: Please explain.
NL: We spoke to them about streamlining the Cultural Grants program that BCA manages on behalf of the County. We wanted to add value for our constituents by streamlining application and reports while remaining transparent and accountable. We explained this to Boeing and they understood how moving from a paper-based approach to online would benefit everyone – and they stepped up to make sure this was funded. They asked us to explain, in detail, what our aspiration was and how we’d use technology as a tool to add value to the arts and culture community then they supported us to make it happen for everyone. Fantastic!
SCB: It must take almost as much creativity to promote the arts as it does to create them. Explain the challenges BCA faces and innovations it is utilizing.
NL: Well let’s talk a little about that. Commissioner Fisher and Mayor Tulley are the architects of the Greater Titusville Renaissance [GTR] – a response to the impact of the changes in the manned space program. BCA is now one of the GTR partners and this came about because Commissioner Fisher asked me to speak to a group of interested people about the benefits of building a cultural destination, attracting visitors and encouraging inward investment.
We know that, in the day, people used to live where their job was. But since the 1990s, the Internet has had a tremendous impact, so today people can decide where they want to live and then figure out how to make a living whilst there – especially those in the creative economy. Well we live in a little piece of paradise here so we set about figuring out what we could do that would highlight this to attract those in the creative economy and also thinking about jobs for tomorrow.
BCA convened a ‘visioning day’ to explore options and we wanted it to be a little off the wall, so we asked if we could ‘borrow’ Miracle City Mall . . . and for those of you who aren’t familiar with this mall, well, I think it’s fair to say it’s seen better days. We begged, borrowed, stole (we didn’t really steal) and set out the meeting area like a conference center. When everyone turned up they found we’d washed the walls in colored theatrical lighting and multiplexed several projectors so we had film of cultural destinations, along with statistics, projected on the walls. It was a fantastic day and besides getting to an outcome, everyone learned you can take any space and create a theatre, gallery or conference center – these are called “found spaces” in the lingo!
Yes, I can see your next question is to know the outcome . . . one of the most important things we never do is compete with ourselves! We already have an arts museum and a theatre bringing in Broadway-style shows – we don’t need any more of those – so we need to identify a strand of work that’s neglected in the County and see how we can develop that. The neglected strand identified was ‘new media,’ which is arts in the digital domain, or we might think of it as arts and algorithms. This is the intersection between arts and technology; it’s really important and I’ll talk more about that shortly.
SCB: Sounds ambitious.
NL: Well, you asked, ‘What are the challenges?’ The immediate challenge is that we need to create an initiative that is compelling – oh, and by the way, there’s no budget! And it may take years to realize its full potential. Our response is to begin a yearlong capacity building exercise – delivering a series of meetings and workshops to teach local people how to create a festival that celebrates the digital arts. We also kick-started the program by calling a curator, who works with 24 countries, who’ll present an international festival of grand prix winning film shorts; we also have an exhibition of large-scale holograms which is on its way to St. Petersburg, Russia. Both will be exclusive to Brevard. We’re hoping that with those sorts of program elements the festival will grow, over the years, to attract a lot of people to the County.
SCB: You mentioned earlier about engaging students. What is BCA doing in that regard?
NL: Well, I only started last October but let me give an example of change. BCA had provided many ‘artists in residence’ programs to schools over the years which were designed and provided by BCA as an opportunity for pupils to engage with artists and learn about the arts. We’ve changed focus. We just ran a consultation program asking educators to tell us what their priorities are; what targets they’re aiming for; and what’s a neglected strand. See, there’s lots of music so we don’t want to duplicate that. We discovered that 21st century tools are a priority, so we asked the educators to work with us and we designed a program, ‘the intersect between arts and technology.’ This program takes pupils into a world of computer animation, which is really exciting. And here’s the innovative bit – whilst young people are learning how to make their stories come to life, we’re teaching them how to manage vectors and percentages which are transferable skills, career paths and 21st century tools. But it will still look cool and be exciting! Someone said to me ‘yeah, that’s like sugar on broccoli’ – I think it’s healthier but it kinda gets to the heart of it.
SCB: So, how have things changed since you arrived?
NL: We’ve changed focus because I honestly believe that at times like these we’re privileged to be working in arts and culture. If we think about how cultural destinations can make a major contribution to the local economy, we have an opportunity to give something back, besides being stimulating, educational and inspirational. We’ve also shifted focus in convening partnerships throughout the sector – we work to bring all of the arts and cultural groups together in collaboration and we’re working more closely with the Tourist Development Council, the Economic Development Commission and with the County administration. Our motto is: “Arts and Culture – we’re part of the solution!”
This county has so many wonderful attractions; what we want to do is bring everyone together so we can ‘bundle’ cultural events with sun, sea, sand, nature, history and space. Wow, what a fantastic and compelling offer! With everyone collaborating we’ll raise the bar and reap the rewards. Where are we going? We’re going to be a cultural destination. People get to choose where they want to spend their time and their money and we will work hard to make sure we’re their destination of choice. This will not only benefit visitors but it’ll clearly benefit residents as well.
SCB: How much has the economic downturn been a negative factor in your mission?
NL: All of our sector is, to a large extent, reliant on discretionary spend, philanthropy and corporate support. This means that when the economy sinks into recession and people tighten their belts arts and culture take a hit. People are more reluctant to buy a theatre ticket or attend a concert or buy a painting when there’s a concern about jobs.
Interestingly, all of the available evidence points to this sector’s recession driven decline being later than most other sectors – people may be in denial or they may need escapism but we see this sector weakening later than the impact experienced elsewhere. The associated issue is that we get to rebuild later too, because people are still making decisions based on anxiety or loss and they’ve simply fallen out of the habit of attending. The evidence points to a longer and potentially deeper recession for the arts and culture sector as philanthropy, corporate support and individual revenues decrease and attendance lags behind the curve.
A respected author and speaker, Eric Wright is the assignment editor for SpaceCoast Business magazine.