Presenting Q - Ken Coulter, Coulter Creative (formerly General Manager - Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts)

Presenting Q: Why Presenting Matters

Short Stories and Conversations with Performing Arts Leaders 

This month we had a pleasure to interview our Past President and a long-time member of the Canadian presenting community, Ken Coulter. In recognition of his contributions and achievements, Ken received the Award of Excellence at Ontario Contact 2013 and won Capacoa’s Presenter of the Year award for 2012/13.

Ken has over thirty years of experience in presenting and performing arts, specializing in municipal relations, community building and audience growth and development as well as facility construction and operations. The last 26 years saw Ken Coulter as General Manager of the Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts, one of the most successful community-based professional performing arts centres in Canada. Ken has served on the board of CCI - Ontario Presenting Network, Canadian Arts Presenting Association (CAPACOA) and is a founding member of Arts Leadership Institute of Canada. Ken has provided mentorships and consultations to dozens of arts organizations and artistic leaders and has presented as a lecturer and guest speaker at a number of arts conferences and events. 

Always recognized as an innovator in the presenting field, in 2013 Mr. Coulter founded Coulter Creative, Arts Management Consulting practice to support performing arts organizations and artists in advancing their creative missions.

Who/what inspired you to get involved in the arts?

In the early 70s, when the performing arts was still on the educational curriculum and touring to high schools, they brought touring opera to the high school I went to. The school had quite a sophisticated auditorium and, having some familiarity with stage area; I had advantage of not having to sit with everybody else and watched the show from a different vantage point. I remember being enraptured by the performances as well as the lights, the fog and all the special effects. When I think back on it now I still get chills and looking back think this was the seminal moment when I decided my future was in the arts. Prior to that, I had studied visual arts, art history and did some painting. In fact, whenever I become involved with the show back stage, my favorite part is working with lights. I see it similar to painting on canvas: stage set as a sketch to which you add the color through the lighting and use it to bring the set alive. In addition to that experience, when I was 17 years old, I discovered taste for the performing onstage.

From your experience, what do you see as your role in presenting performing arts?

It’s a delicate balance - the role is multi-dimensional. When programming the season, if presenter cares about the community, he or she should take the community’s taste into account. At the same time, however, you should go beyond what the community members want, or what would sell, but also look at the longer view of what is of service to the community – challenge them - stretch them a bit.  I believe we need to find the ways to present challenging work and not abandon these attempts if they are not immediately successful financially. We need to develop systems to make this possible. After all, our arts centres are more like libraries than book stores, we need to present a balanced program, not just what sells. A good example of such audience development is OAC’s Ontario Dances program.

What do you consider your proudest moment as a performing arts presenter?

I am most proud of the opportunity I had over the years to serve my local community by bringing shows that we were not able to present typically, either because of space or financial limitations. I often went to corporate sponsors to raise more money and make the ticket price more affordable. That way, I brought a lot of “BIG” shows to the Oakville Centre that were not made for 500 seats theatre. The show that I am most proud of bringing is the Royal Winnipeg Ballet that was not designed for the mid-size theatre. We had huge attendance because it was important for the community. I always thought about what is right for our community and tried to find the ways to make it happen. Find a way to present great shows and not be afraid to ask for a higher ticket price that reflected the value of the show offered. As a result, I was able to leave Oakville Centre with a legacy of great performances and a $300,000 presenting reserve to offset risk. An enviable position for any presenter.

What are the biggest challenges facing arts presenting in Canada?

During the time when the OAC started with Ontario Contact in the early 70s and Contact events were replicated around the country, the art of presenting was based on a very robust economy. During that time every community was provided with the access to presenting. That same system with few real changes still exists today. If, as some predict, we are looking to an extended period of less robust economic times, then the big challenge is to find the ways to adapt our processes to the current economy. How do we keep performing arts centres relevant in current economic time so that every community member can benefit? In my opinion, we have to develop new ways of doing business which reflect the continuum of presenting, starting from creation of the arts to the dissemination of the arts to the communities. We must make these adjustments so that arts remain possible and accessible to all. Having said that, we need to promote to society that the value of presenting, (while exceedingly) difficult to measure, accrues not only to individuals but is a “public benefit enterprise” - good for us all.

What are the main benefits of your work to your community?

When the Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts was just established, I remember working with the board member who said that we have to weave the theatre into the fabric of the local community. I still believe that people are attracted to communities by the “community identity” which is a promise kept by institutions and services available, whether it is sport arenas, historic sites or performing arts centers – people see their communities with  identity as inspirational, the ”place I want to live”. As we now find with the Value of Presenting study, performing arts contribute to delivering on that promise community identity, individual identity and people’s self-worth. We are in the forefront of recognizing our contributions in creating community identity and it is essential that municipalities see the arts as important part of their services.

If a sudden crisis caused your organization to disappear from your community, what would be missed?

If our arts centre was removed, it would affect what it means to live in Oakville, and Oakville would be diminished somewhat, community members would become less connected to each other and the world around them. As “Edge City” by Joel Garreau points out, communities located outside large municipalities need a place to come together, celebrate and have shared experiences. Having such a place available locally develops community’s sense of belonging and ownership. Again, this is what the Value of Presenting study identified.

Now that you are retired from the Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts and have established your own consulting practice, what is your main goal and how do you plan to contribute to the Presenting field?

My first goal is to apply my creativity and my outside-the-box thinking to move the presenting field forward. People say that I assimilate new information quickly and make good use of analogies to explain things and speak well. I have the luxury right now of taking a longer view of this thing we call “presenting”. I have over thirty years of experience in presenting the performing arts, specializing in municipal relations, community building, marketing and audience development as well as facility construction and operations. We are all one community and whether it is creation or dissemination of the arts, I believe I can be of help having thirty years of a presenter’s eyes. We are all interconnected, and I would like to move performing arts and our profession forward so together we can benefit the broader community.

How do we attract more audience? How do we engage community? How do we learn to appreciate the role of the artist? How do we ensure that the politicians appreciate the value of the arts provides to the community? Now when we have more knowledge based on the Value of Presenting Study, how do we roll it out into communities? These are some questions that I would like to explore through my work and help to establish mutual benefit between artistic community, the audience and the broader public.

If I can do some of that and have some fun (maybe even do a little acting) too, why not?