February 10, 2003

Artistic business


By Eric Rangus erangus@emory.edu

The Schwartz Center for Performing Arts is, without a doubt, a gorgeous building. From its polished exterior to its plush concert hall, aesthetic hallways and understated theaters, classrooms and practice areas, the entire Schwartz Center is a sensual masterpiece.

Well, almost the entire Schwartz Center.

The office of Bob McKay, the center’s managing director, is, for lack of a better term, rather drab. Tucked away in the Schwartz Center’s administrative suite, McKay’s name isn’t even on his door.

Save a large blueprint on one wall, the bareness of the room emphasizes the beige-ness of its color. A four-foot-high mountain of compact discs along the opposite wall is its only decoration, and a lonely potted plant sits on the one window sill.

McKay’s desk is really nice, though. Big and spacious and relatively neat, the impressive piece of furniture is a new addition to the office.

“For the first month I was here I was using folding tables,” said McKay, who was named the center’s managing director in October 2001. Those folding tables, some boxes and the office’s ample floor space served as his work area until only recently.

“I thought it was important to be on site for the transition from a project to a building that has students, faculty and performers moving through every day,” McKay said.

Prior to coming to Emory, McKay had spent more than 20 years at the University of Florida. In 1980, he helped open Florida’s Stephen F. O’Connell Center, the university’s 11,000-seat arena, and 12 years later he helped bring Florida’s Phillips Center for the Performing Arts to life.

So, as far as ostentatious office decorations go, McKay deserves a pass. Since moving into the new digs in November, he’s been a pretty busy guy. He and his nine staff members worked feverishly to ready the Schwartz Center for its grand opening, Feb. 1. The event went off without a hitch (see story), and the celebration will continue for the rest of the semester.

In addition to managing funding from more than a dozen sources, McKay’s responsibilities, he said, have been to make sure everyone else in the center is able to do his or her job. From the staff behind the box office glass to the center’s marketing department to its stage manager, McKay’s staff is the engine that drives the programming and its presentation. If no one notices them, McKay said, the Schwartz Center team is doing its job.

Sure, the pageantry may be in full swing, but the planning is only just beginning. “Some of us are already thinking about booking and programming for the 2004–05 season,” McKay said. “The process doesn’t stop because of the opening.”

If anyone would know, it’s McKay. The Schwartz Center is the third major building on a college campus whose opening he has overseen. As business manager for the O’Connell and Phillips centers (and later as assistant director for the latter facility), it was McKay’s responsibility to manage issues such as financing, staff supervision, equipment and—in the case of the Phillips Center—talent booking.

Unlike his experience at a large state school, McKay is in closer contact with faculty at Emory. Therefore, he is able to utilize their expertise when exploring talent.

“We are in daily contact with the faculty,” McKay said. “I use them as a resource, and the fact that I have some musical scholars that I can call on the phone, that I see on a regular basis, that I can ask about a particular performer or project that’s going on, is an amazing resource. I love the culture of an academic environment—it’s like being part of a big family.”

Unlike the majority of the members of Emory’s arts committees, McKay does not have an artistic background (The Arts Center Project Team and the Steering Committee for the Arts are just two of committees on which McKay sits). A native of Washington, he graduated from his hometown American University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

While McKay understands the mind of an artist, he also has the skill to translate an artist’s vision into reality—something many artists might not necessarily like admitting.

“As much as you want artistic freedom to accomplish your goals or make your performance terrific, a lot of times unfortunately it comes down to money and how it is handled,” McKay said. “I think what I bring to the picture is fiscal responsibility so we can accomplish our goals.

“I love being around creative people; there is never a dull moment,” McKay continued. His wife, Margery, director of major gifts for corporations and foundations in health sciences development, has a degree in sculpture, so the artistic mind is hardly foreign to him. “There is always something dynamic going on. Ideas are always sprouting up all over the place. This is a very charged environment, and I get a real kick out of being a part of it.”

McKay actually has his wife to thank, in a roundabout way, for his arrival at Emory. “I was a trailing spouse,” he said. In 2000, Margery had begun her job in health sciences development, and Bob did some business consulting for about a year while he looked for the right kind of position with a performing arts center. After learning about the Schwartz Center, McKay made some inquiries on campus, met some of the driving forces behind the center’s construction (like Emory College Senior Associate Dean Rosemary Magee) and eventually was offered the position of managing director.

“I think we have a great opportunity to increase the focus on the arts at Emory,” McKay said about where he sees the future of the center. “I’d like to diversify the programming. Since it isn’t critical that we sell out every performance, we can do a little experimentation.”

A good deal of the arts programming that will come to the Schwartz Center is funded by an endowment created by Flora Glenn Candler. The situation at Emory, McKay said, is a good deal different than his experience at the University of Florida, where arts programming had to fund itself.

“We can bring in performances that may not sell out,” McKay continued, “but may be a new experience for an audience member.”






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