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Artistic Visionary
Episode 34

Artistic Visionary

CI to Eye with Joe Melillo

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Erik and Joe talk about how BAM attracted people to Brooklyn when it was very a different place than it is today, Joe's successful collaboration with Karen Brooks Hopkins, BAM’s President for much of his tenure, and how he worked with his team to develop one of the strongest brands in the performing arts today.

Erik Gensler: Thank you so much for being here. I’m really excited for this conversation.

Joe Melillo: I’m looking forward to your questions.

Erik Gensler: Talk to me about your early years at BAM, the ’80s when Brooklyn was very different than it is now. What were people’s thoughts on coming to Brooklyn and how did you get people to come to BAM?

Joe Melillo: People didn’t want to come to Brooklyn in 1983. When I entered BAM Harvey, Lichtenstein had the concept of wanting to give New York City a contemporary, nontraditional performing arts festival, and I had just completed, in 1982, producing the New World Festival of the Arts in Miami and Miami Beach. The first day I arrive at work I had no desk, I had no telephone and those are the days when you only used a telephone and a Selectric typewriter to because we would compose and type letters and mail them at that time. the other key factor I want to align with that is the presence of Charlie Ziff. Charlie Ziff is credited with creating the acronym B-A-M from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and he was their marketing director, There are two things you needed to hear me say is one that, Brooklyn, specifically Fort Greene at the time of 1983, was an edgy community, and what do they mean by that? Well, I had to, make the policy that no single female left the building after 6:00 at night unless she was accompanied by a male. I produced the first show so our rehearsals were 6:00 to 10:00, and so that gives you a kind of barometric reading of what was going on. Getting people to come to Brooklyn, specifically BAM, for this new entity, wisely Charlie Ziff created two specific marketing campaigns. One for those people who we would identify collectively as just in New York City that, there’s an acknowledged recognition that they understand contemporary art. In other words, garnering mailing list from galleries in SoHo primarily because that’s geographically where the galleries were situated as well as producing theater companies and dance companies, etc. So, that was the known world. And then there was the unknown world in which we were introducing what a contemporary, nontraditional performing arts festival would be, and we called these individuals next wave skeptics. And in order to reduce the skepticism, we created in that first brochure for them a glossary of terms such was, what does postmodernism mean? You know, as a term, an example, so those were two mailing campaign- direct mail campaigns that went out to identify the first audience for the Next Wave Festival. Just carrying that forward each step of the way, creating a strategy to position the festival in that marketplace. So, we would do performances in galleries because historically in this town men like Philip Glass and Steve Reich were not being presented by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and certainly not Carnegie Hall. The galleries, the art galleries were their first venues of performances, so we continued that tradition, you know, to … And starting to create the buzz for the positioning of the direct mail and of all of the editorial. Now, remember, this is medieval history in New York City that I’m sharing with you. But that’s the way it was at that time.

Erik Gensler: You were the marketing director for Philadelphia’s Walnut Theatre in the ’70s, I read.

Joe Melillo: 1976, to be specific. And what 1976? The bicentennial year in Philadelphia.

Erik Gensler: So you came there for that?

Joe Melillo: Only for that purpose.

Erik Gensler: I was intrigued to hear that you had a marketing background and not necessarily surprised once I read that. I’d love for you to talk about the relationship between programming and marketing, and as the chief programmer, how involved you did or do get in the marketing both of the individual programming and of the institution of BAM, and some of your thoughts – that relationship between marketing and programming.

Joe Melillo: I have an aesthetic degree. I have an MFA in theater. when you arrive in New York City as a young professional I knew I was always going to be a producer. You have two tracks. You’re either going to learn how to raise money or you’re going to how to communicate with audiences. But my history is about communicating with audience, so a- a colleague friend of mine asked me to be the marketing director of the Walnut Street Theatre for the bicentennial, and I grabbed it immediately because it was going to be a huge national event and I wanted to- to understand all of those ingredients that I worked with. Multiple advertising agencies, and I learned a great deal about creating and crafting an event. Leave that separate from what it is about finding an audience for an individual work of art. My opinion is that marketing is the most dangerous position within the structure of a not-for-profit arts or cultural organization, and why? It is because the individual or, individuals, who are in those seats are entrusted with crafting the messages externally to find the audience for art and artists, and unfortunately, many of the individuals who find their paths to have these jobs don’t know things like basic communication theory … that’s not what they do. They find the way to be in these positions long before the word branding surfaced in our marketing department was charged with the responsibility of crafting the visual image for the institution. Many of these young people don’t even know…and ask “How do you build an identity? What is involved? How do you find the right visual image, the right vocabulary? What are the right words to use to describe your organization or institution?” I’m completely fascinated by the history of your positions started with men and women in post-World War II. They were directors of public relations. They were advertising executives, and so we’ve evolved out of that background to what you do today, and I’m intimately involved. You look at the Next Wave Festival brochures. I work hand in glove with an art director, and there’s a rapport that goes on because I’m the only individual in my organization who knows these artists, knows the productions, and I am communicating that information to this individual. And I speak differently to this individual, this art director than I do the general staff because what I’m trying to do is ignite their imaginations and I give them the serious content that I know can do that and service them as a professional to be able to go back and meditate on what they’ve been given in order to migrate what I have just said to them about … There’s usually 25, at the minimum, to 32 individual works of art within the structure of the Next Wave Festival, and how do you take that mass and find the right presentation to the communities, plural, that we service, who we want to the brochure is both a sales document and a public relations document because I send it all over the world. To, again, today, 2018, in May, the Next Wave Festival is the only contemporary, nontraditional performing arts festival in New York City, with now the demise of the Lincoln Center Festival. Yes, we have individual institutions that are presenting contemporary work, et cetera, but again, the consolidation of what the globe, the planet, the ecology of the world, of our world in the performing arts, it’s the Next Wave Festival now in its 36 years that our colleagues understand. And so there’s a lot that goes on in order to be the architects of the right document.

Erik Gensler: When I heard you speak last month you said something that was so simple and so profound, and I haven’t forgotten it. You said, “As marketers, we have two things. We have images and words.”

Joe Melillo: Yeah, we haven’t found a third one yet. I mean, you know? – I know enough about what I’ve seen in my lifetime to know that, in the next 20 years it is going to be profoundly, radically different of how we communicate with individuals who are innately curious about coming into a darkened room and to have a dance of theater and opera experience. It’s going to be radically different.

Erik Gensler: Many performing arts centers who present works have trouble establishing a strong brand where most people are going to these theaters to see these specific works, not because of their connection to the venue necessarily. And I think it’s safe to say that BAM has one of the strongest brands in the arts. How did BAM’s identity develop over the years where people now go to BAM because it’s BAM? I think this is something that people who work in marketing and performing arts centers really struggle with.

Joe Melillo: Well, I have to say that you have to have a historic perspective that Harvey Lichtenstein put the stake in the ground, the flag in the sand in 1967, that everyone in this town used to refer to it as the outer borough, Brooklyn to do work that he was curious about, which was contemporary work, and primarily in dance because he was a former dancer. The consistency of presenting this marginalized American community of one particular art form builds up a consciousness and a recognition that if you wanted to see one of the mavericks of postmodernist dance, you would immediately think that that’s something that BAM was going to do. And so, then you take that arc of time and get to 1983, because I think that’s, an important cultural fact that the creation of the Next Wave Festival solidified BAM’s place m- more, broader in terms of- of the genres that we were going to be presenting and the magnitude. And that sent shock waves across the country, so it’s no longer New Yorkers. It’s now, we’re talking about, a national populous, and men and women in the performing arts presenting industries. So that attention went, “Oh, my God. What’s going on in Brooklyn? What is that animal that they just created that every- all of our colleagues in New York City are talking about?” That’s what happened, and the consistency of the artistic work yield the armature of brand that BAM has. And as I said earlier, making sure that BAM had a place within the international community and then as time … I would say, as I do now, the global community, and that the key players were getting the brochure. It has a two-prong strategy. One, obviously it’s a sales document, but two, it is a public relations document because-

Erik Gensler: Positioning?

Joe Melillo: Yeah. Totally about putting it in front of the, gatekeepers of major cultural institutions within the European community first, and then South America, Asia, and Africa.

Erik Gensler: So I’m hearing a couple of things. One, the consistency of the programming point of view, so really having a real clear demarcation of what your programming and having then the relationships and the track record to keep presenting that kind of work, and then, two, a close collaboration with your creative director and your marketing team, and not just sort of presenting and then passing it off to marketing, but working really closely with them on the packaging and the positioning of what’s there.

Joe Melillo: Completely. I’ve been privileged to work with a range of men and women who are … have been art directors of BAM. The same is true with communications directors or publicists in terms of the fashioning of the messages that we desired of positioning a particular work of art or an artist in print media. I mean, totally. And the need to understand the power that that has in constellating around our work using all of those, tentacles to speak to someone to peak the curiosity that people say, “Oh, I want to go to Brooklyn. I want to go to BAM to see that.”

Erik Gensler: When you see a video from BAM you immediately know it’s from BAM. When you see a brochure from BAM you immediately know it’s BAM, and I think a lot of places if you’re going to see a, you know, a dance work at a dance presenter they sort of take the video and just put it out there and don’t add their identity to it. And I think one of the things that you’ve done is really melded your identity of the institution to the works that you’re presenting in a great way, and I think the way you do that is by internally even having a creative director, having a graphics department, and having the relationships internally to set that up and set that structure up.

Joe Melillo: It’s one of largest departments in the institution is our video department because w- we self-generate, and they’re constantly looking at materials that the companies that we’re presenting have generated. And sadly, there’s a certain percentage of artists and companies that don’t pay attention to it so that you have to, get in front of it rather than just using it by making new work.

Erik Gensler: So early are you bringing that into the conversation with the companies and the artists that you’re bringing in?

Joe Melillo: Okay. So, the schedule that I work with is that by the end of January of a given year I roll out the Next Wave Festival to both the marketing and the development staffs. Put them all together. I do a presentation, and my immediate programming representatives who work with me have begun the direct communication with the companies as to what to anticipate what the marketing department’s needs will be. And the actual deadline is like the end of March everything has to be in the pipeline, and then, April’s when, all the comps are assembled. Every single person’s a proofreader at BAM. You know, your r- reading and re-reading and because we’re in the world of new work, so, you know, as we’re doing our work new information is coming in, so it’s a very proactive and a participatory endeavor. And, brochure went to print, and it’s now delivered today. It’s in the mail today.

Erik Gensler: Congratulations. Another one. (laughs)

Joe Melillo: (laughs) No, I mean it’s just-

Erik Gensler: It’s a lot of work.

Joe Melillo: It is, but it’s team BAM, what I call it. Everyone is participating, and it may be only proofreading, but someone’s doing it.

Erik Gensler: it’s not just the image and the text for the brochure. It’s then at some point you’ve created a system where the artists are getting you video or they’re getting you access, so they’re getting you the things you need to communicate in the 21st century. And I think the difference with BAM is that many places are just saying, “Oh, we’ll happily take headshot,” or, “We’ll happily just take a generic photo,” and that’s it. But you’ve really … You push them. You must.

Joe Melillo: The kind of environment that I enjoy is that … It’s an overused word, but everyone’s engaged in this pursuit. It’s not siloed out. I mean, that we’re all trying to assemble the most vibrant, animated publication that we can.

Erik Gensler: Publication, video, social post for the audience.

Joe Melillo: Absolutely. Introducing something that was really kind of in your face kind of raw, aggressive work.

Erik Gensler: There’s a smaller audience for that for sure.

Joe Melillo: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: You presented Pina Bausch after her death, and across the street from BAM Mark Morris is now creating works to present after his death, and I read this weekend that Paul Taylor announced his successor to lead his company. I’m interested to hear your thoughts about succession planning in the dance world.

Joe Melillo: It’s one of the most troubling situations that a creator, a founder has to confront in their artistic and quotidian life. I worked with Merce Cunningham. He had a very clear idea that the company was not going to survive beyond his life, they had a kind of victory tour for two years and then shut down that was right for him, and Pina, unfortunately, never left any instructions and, I mean, her death was completely unexpected, and so they have stumbled and here we have Paul Taylor now determining that this young dancer has the ability to take on what is a very complicated small businesses, and so that I hope that the younger generation is learning from these masters of more mature age who have passed and obviously going to pass, because I think it’s also the managers of those companies. There is no class that you can take in about succession. It just doesn’t happen. I mean, and yet, I think that in time there’s going to be a whole other generation of transitions, and everyone has to figured it out for themselves.

Erik Gensler: Speaking of succession planning, you’re stepping down from your role at BAM this year.

Joe Melillo: Yay! (laughs)

Erik Gensler: (laughs) Congratulations!

Joe Melillo: Yes!

Erik Gensler: Can you talk about what’s next?

Joe Melillo: First of all, I want to say that I love the cliché, there’s a time when a boxer needs to hang up his boxing gloves, and it’s just something that you know. Anyone who listens to this podcast, it’s just no one has said to me, “It’s time for you to leave.” It’s just like I know it’s time to leave, and I’ve been at BAM for 35 years, and the issue for me is trying to remember, “Oh, I did have a life before BAM.”

Erik Gensler: Right.

Joe Melillo: (laughs) “What did I do?” so I’m committing myself to a soft transition because I’m on the precipice of accepting a fellowship at NYU at Jennifer Homans’ organization. Her center for ballet and the arts, where I will have an office I have a consulting agreement with BAM for January to June of 2019 so that my successor, David Binder, does not have to be distracted from what his job is, is to craft his first Next Wave Festival into his first winter/spring artistic season for 2020, and so from that office I will do my overseeing him at BAM and for the center, I’m going to start structuring seminars because I have a lot of information, but my information is practical information about artists making work and how to distribute it not only nationally but globally. And that’s what I want to do for young and emerging and mid-career artists.

Erik Gensler: And you spent much of that 35 years traveling the world seeing art.

Erik Gensler: I’d love for you to talk about that, how you found those artists, how you planned those trips,

Joe Melillo: The mantra in real estate: location, location, location. The mantra in artistic programming: research, research, research. And so, I research all the time looking at what artists are doing in a global context. Again, because BAM is responsive to the global community. So, I’m looking at nationally as well as- as internationally, looking at Vimeo, videos, listening to music, links, and talking to colleagues all over the world about what’s going on, who’s making work, what projects, et cetera. And that leads to buying a ticket, sitting on an airplane, That is the single most important determiner of sitting in the theater and looking at the work live and determining, “Is this work appropriate for my institution?” I have three theaters to service. And another muscle you develop is- is a perceptual one of how you look at a work of art and envision it in one of those three physical environments. And determining, “Will it work in- in that environment?” Or, “I wonder if this artist could change some of this scenery so that it will fit into the Harvey Theater?” and that has happened because it’s not demanding, it’s just that it happened. It’s like, “Let me explain.” It’s an unorthodox physical environment, and I want you to think about this. You know, these things, and see if an accommodation can be made. Those are really practical conversations that happened in the past.

Erik Gensler: Love to talk about personal evolution and personal growth. What’s something that you’ve learned recently that’s been profound in how you work or how you think?

Joe Melillo: The most current lesson that I’ve learned is the change in theater and the growth of theater to these multiple genres. And what am I talking about? I’m talking about music theater, dance theater physical theater, algorithmic theater, visual theater, object theater. No one yet is putting that out front about the change that’s going on in- in the global community, USA artists, as well artists from all over the world, using those mutated forms, still theater, so we haven’t developed aesthetic language for critical judgment in any of those genres yet. That’s like going, “Oh, my God.” (laughs)

Erik Gensler: What is something you’re really good at and what is something you’re working on improving?

Joe Melillo: I’m really good at listening I’m less good at being a line producer these days because I’ve been two steps removed. I have hired general managers, line producers to do that work, so that’s not my talent today.

Erik Gensler: So we’ve come to your final question, and this is your CI to Eye moment. And the question is, if you can broadcast to the executive directors, leadership teams, staff and boards of a thousand arts organizations, what advice would you provide to them to help them improve their businesses?

Joe Melillo: I want to share with your listeners what Harvey Lichtenstein said to me, which was his final words as the outgoing both President and Executive Producer of BAM. He said, “Joe, always follow the artist.” Thank you.

Erik Gensler: Thank you very much.

Joe Melillo: You’re welcome.

About Our Guests
Joe Melillo
Joe Melillo
Executive Producer, Brooklyn Academic Music

Joe Melillo has been the Executive Producer of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) for more than three decades. Known for its strong brand and cutting-edge programming, BAM is one of the oldest continuously operating performing arts centers in the country. BAM’s success is closely tied to the renaissance of Brooklyn. Joe is a programmer with a marketing background and strong visual and artistic point of view.

Read more

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