This interview continues to celebrate and explore where the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center has come during its ten years of operation. We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary all year, and to understand MYAC’s story, I’ve been talking to key staff and supporters who’ve been here since the beginning.
Fran Richman is former Executive Director of the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra (MYSO). She led that organization for 25 years, and co-founded MYAC with Rob Goodman during her tenure.
Fran has since retired from her role as Executive Director, but remains involved with MYSO and MYAC. This is the first part of our interview.
Fran Richman: My husband and I moved to Milwaukee in 1972, and I continued working on my doctoral dissertation for a bit. I also did some teaching at UW-Milwaukee, in the sociology department. Then we had our first child, then we had our second child, and I got further and further away from the academic thing.
When our kids were 11 and 7, I went back to work. That was in the mid-eighties, and I did budgeting and finance work for the Milwaukee Jewish Federation for a couple of years. Then with my husband, who had been a long-time board member of MYSO (then Music For Youth) and board president, we accompanied the orchestra, with a number of parents and chaperones, on a three-week concert tour of Europe in 1987.
MFY/MYSO was going through some changes at that time; it was well poised for growth, but it was dealing with some organizational issues. While we were on this tour, it became pretty clear to us that this was something that might be a very interesting setting for me.
By the following year, MYSO was in a position to hire someone for a Managing Director position. They had never had someone administering the organization fulltime. And I thought, okay I can make that leap, this might be fun. I started in 1988; Steve soon resigned from the board, and ultimately both of our kids were involved in MYSO.
Then, about ten years later, we started talking internally at MYSO about the need for more space. It was in the mid- to late-90s that we started conversations about it. It was a couple of years before anything really got going, but we were already looking—that’s kind of a fun part of the story for me—both MYSO and First Stage were at different points in their history, but both very much in need of space.
They were in the basement of the Marcus Center, and we were up on the top floor of the Marcus Center. We were independently looking at various spaces around the community—sometimes they’d be going out the back door and we’d be coming in the front door. Eventually Rob and I ran into each other in the elevator at the Marcus Center and realized: Well this is kind of dumb, we really ought to be doing this together.
Kaye Herranen: Rob said that when he started talking with MYSO, the MYSO board seemed to be further along in the planning stage than First stage was. What did this initial planning look like, before First Stage came into the picture? Were you looking to build a space? Or just exploring ideas?
FR: We honestly didn’t know, so we looked at all the options. We had a board member at that time who was involved in real estate who showed us a number of properties. We knew we needed space, but we didn’t really have a firm grasp on exactly what we wanted or needed, or maybe if we should be dreaming a little bigger.
One of the things that we had going for us was that MYSO finances had always been managed extremely conservatively, so we had an endowment, we had some reserves, we had money that we could put toward this. And we had a couple of people who we were pretty sure would step up significantly to help. But I think we were a little bit clueless about what a big project would really involve.
We looked at some wildly inappropriate buildings that we could have done something with—but it wouldn’t have been anything like this.
First Stage was much younger, and had been managed very differently. They were the ones who had some young, major movers and shakers on their board and in their audiences and parent group--folks who had kids involved with First Stage. They had a much bigger audience because of the kind of performances they did, so they had a bigger pool that they could tap into.
And the beauty of having two different art forms became crystal clear to us quickly. It was obvious that we could do a lot more if we collaborated with another organization, ideally a different kind of organization, where we could tap into different segments of the community and could hopefully convince some folks that this was an exciting, necessary, viable project.
It was not easy. There were a lot of naysayers who thought this was the dumbest idea on the planet.
KH: I was going to ask about the reception—so after you had this idea of collaborating, was it well received by board and staff?
FR: It was very well received by our board because they were close enough to understand that this was a tremendous need. MYSO was in a little bit of a box. The organization had grown very gradually and well. The organization was founded in 1956. So in 2000 it was 44 years old, and we had a lot of things going for us—including very strong support in the community, but not necessarily real broad support.
We were at a point where unless we got that broader support, unless we got more space, unless we opened up some new programs, we couldn’t really grow. We couldn’t really do much that was different or new. There were a number of programs that I had wanted to start for years and years, but we had nowhere to put them. This was especially true of some diversity initiatives that we had put “on the back burner.”
Those things began to gel as we went through the process; first we made the decision that we wanted to be in the greater downtown area. Both MYSO and First Stage are organizations that are committed to the city, and we wanted to be able to show that, in part through our locations.
Again, we looked at a lot of horribly inappropriate spaces, I think at least 40 or 50 different spaces before this one. By that time we were working with people from the First Stage board, the MYSO board, and some professionals who were assisting with feasibility and design and site selection. Sometimes we would all roll our eyes at much of what we were seeing. Because of the nature of the work done by the two organizations, our facility needs were very specific and VERY extensive, and not many buildings met them.
We got to this space and walked in, and there was kind of a collective gasp, because it was the first space that we had seen that seemed like it could actually make sense. We could design it so it could house large musical ensembles and small groups; it could house theater classes, it could provide a space that would be an informal theater and quality performance space--all of those things.
So then it began to feel a little more real. Because the space was so large, much larger than anything else we had looked at, it was clear that we could start up some of the important new programming, and it became very clear that we could include a number of other organizations.
And that whole process, I feel, is a tribute to Elizabeth Meyer, who was critical to the development of the vision for this place, not just in terms of the collaboration between MYSO and First Stage, but also in recognizing the need to try to involve all genres of youth performing arts.
We wanted to include dance, we wanted to include vocal music, to try to pull in a lot of different stakeholders and organizations, and Elizabeth was also very instrumental in seeing the ultimate value of this city location, in terms of engaging under-served communities.
Those were the types of programs that I kind of had in the back of my mind that I really wanted to get going. We started up our Progressions program, which is a city-based string program for third and fourth grade students, very shortly before we moved in here, anticipating what was going to happen. We started up a jazz program, which had something of a focus on the city. And gradually we added others.
One consequence of being located here in the city was that we suddenly we had some “street cred,” that we weren’t just saying we wanted to serve diverse populations that were different from the stereotype that some folks had of MYSO, but that we really meant business.
The stereotype was something we really struggled with because we knew that MYSO was not exclusionary in any fashion; we had substantial scholarship funding and widespread recruiting. Diversity was there, but certainly not at the level that it should have been, largely due to the fact that kids from schools without strong arts programs and from backgrounds that don’t have the wherewithal to provide private music lessons are going to be at a distinct disadvantage in joining an audition-based program.
So we set about trying to change all of that, and to offer some training that would ratchet up the preparation for some promising kids without other opportunities, so they would ultimately be able to audition into MYSO. And that has absolutely happened. The numbers and the achievements of the kids are phenomenal.
Are you a student, parent, or teacher at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center? Would you like to write a guest blog post?