How to Have a Successful Thirty-Five Year Career

Rob Orchard and Joe Melillo in Conversation

Rob Orchard: It’s been thirty-five years, hasn’t it, that you’ve been the executive producer at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)?

Joe Melillo: It has. I started at BAM in 1983; Harvey Lichtenstein hired me to produce the first Next Wave Festival.

Rob: When someone like you leaves—someone who has been so closely identified with an organization for so long—it’s important to take the care in finding and embracing your replacement.

Joe: Correct.

Rob: It seems it’s equally important to take care of the person leaving. What has the journey been like for you? Will you have any official role at BAM after December?

Joe: First let’s align the facts: Harvey retired in 1999, Karen Brooks Hopkins became president, and I became executive producer. The institution was held in joint tenure—in other words I didn’t work for her and she didn’t work for me; we had to figure it out together. Then Karen announced she was going to retire in 2015. The chairman of the board, Alan Fishman, came to me and said, about replacing Karen, “We now need to begin the process.” I said, “Let me be absolutely clear on this subject: your endeavor in finding the president of this institution is not to seek someone to be my partner but to be my boss.” I was not going to be giving BAM another ten years to my life. And there needed to be one person who would be responsible for the organization. That’s how the search process was conducted to seek the new president.

man speaking in front of a crowd

Joe speaking at the Opening Night Reception for the RSC. Photo by Elena Olivo.

Rob: Did you and Karen have conversations about this? Was this part of a grand plan that she would leave in 2015 and you would potentially cycle out later, or did it just happen that way?

Joe: We had conversations about if we should leave together. Because of our professional partnership, when it became clear that she would retire, I said, “I need to give the new president continuity, and so I will continue.” My full-time responsibility here as executive producer will terminate on December 31 of 2018. I am responsible, and not my successor, for all of the artistic work that I’ve programmed January to June of 2019, but I’m vacating my office on December 31. I’ve accepted a fellowship at NYU, at the Center for Ballet and the Arts, and they’re going to give me an office there, and I’m going to fulfill my terms and conditions for the fellowship while simultaneously overseeing the artistic work that I programmed.

That prevents my successor, David Binder, from being distracted from what his job is, which is to artistically program the Next Wave Festival of 2019 into BAM’s 2020 winter-spring season.

Rob: Did you play a role in the process of searching for Karen’s replacement?

Joe: Only in the sense that I was given the privilege to discuss names that the search committee was going to look at, if I knew any of them, and to meet with the incoming president, Katy Clark, during the interviewee process, but that’s it.

Rob: Is that what you did for your own replacement as well?

Joe: I played an even more active role in assembling the master list, which was somewhere between sixty and seventy names from the global community. Then the board came back to me and said, “The list is now down to twenty people,” and I knew all of those candidates. I was asked to discuss them, what I knew of them. The next thing they told me, “Here’s a list of five names.” Then it became two names, and Katy gave me the opportunity to have a very intimate conversation with her about the candidates. She made her decision to hire David Binder with the chairman of the board of directors

Rob: How this journey has been for you personally?

Joe: I’m in awe that I’ve had this journey, that I went from solely curating and producing the Next Wave Festival with Harvey and then migrating to being an executive producer of the institution with Karen and then executive producer with Katy. I’m a dinosaur. Men and women in arts and culture don’t spend thirty-five years being executive producer, which, in our terms, means artistic director of the cultural institution.

It is because of that journey, and because there are no resident companies here and that it’s a tabula rasa—it’s everything I wanted it to be. It was and still is. Every year was an enormous different challenge; artistic being the easiest one to talk about, but also to build a new theatre for BAM and then craft cultural events that were ideas-oriented or issue-oriented.

Retirement for me is stopping here and going on to a new identity that uses everything I’ve been exposed to over thirty-five years here in Brooklyn and around the globe, finding the path to where I can make another cultural contribution that has some meaning.

Rob: Right, it’s never boring. My collaboration with staff at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven and the A.R.T. in Cambridge, which lasted forty years… It’s hard to imagine that ending. But how has this decision to retire been for you? What about it has been hardest? Or was there anything about it that surprised you from your personal reflection point of view?

Joe: I have worked in the performing arts for so long—presented or produced thousands of shows here, worked with thousands of artists—that I’m so preconditioned to change it’s part of my DNA. No one asked me to leave; I knew in my heart I was coming to the evolutionary end of this journey. Retirement for me is stopping here and going on to a new identity that uses everything I’ve been exposed to over thirty-five years here in Brooklyn and around the globe, finding the path to where I can make another cultural contribution that has some meaning.

Rob: You talked about a fellowship at NYU—what other post-BAM plans do you have?

Joe: I’m working with the Aga Khan Music Initiative on the Aga Khan Music Award that will be given out in 2019 at a big ceremony in Lisbon, Portugal. Also, artists who I’ve worked with seem to want to engage me in discussions about their global identity and accessing the global community, and that’s what I plan to do at NYU—help men and women who are mid-career, emerging choreographers and theatre directors figure out how to work within the global structure of the universe.

I want to be able to take all of that knowledge and harness it towards individuals to get them thinking about the global community and not be intimidated by it.

Rob: That’s a great service. You’ve been playing that role all along it seems to me, in programming BAM. You’ve been extraordinarily loyal to so many artists across all performance disciplines, and that relationship has been key. One of my questions was, “Is it hard to step back from that role?” and I guess your answer is, “I’m not.”

Joe: It’s just a different methodology. I had to make choices at BAM, aesthetic choices, artistic decisions, around negotiations, productions, setting up opening nights, runs of shows, et cetera. Now, because it’s so much about the individual artist and what she or he wants to create and how to go about doing that, it is a developmental process of making a work of art in the performing arts.

That’s my upcoming January to June. Now, probably towards the end of this month, I’ll start thinking and engaging people in discussions around September through December of 2019. But, the fact is, I do not have an answer at this moment. I am launching conversations with colleagues all over the world to talk about what opportunities exist, to seek out making a contribution.

Rob: One of the things I’ve been doing that I find rewarding is a program funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, where a group of cities and a number of public service organizations are picked—not-for-profits in every sector, theatre being one of them, which are small, that are doing similar work. Many of them are led by genius founders but who haven’t given much thought to sustainability. There’s a planning process at Bloomberg in association with the DeVos Institute of Arts Management, at the University of Maryland. I get to have conversations with these folks every six weeks for two years as they go through this process.

I’m not grading them or anything, I’m just there as a voice at the other end. I’m enjoying enormously working with relatively younger people who have a high degree of integrity and an appetite for making sure their work continues. It’s great to be in a position, when you do retire from full-time day-to-day responsibility from an organization, to pass through that knowledge to other people.

Joe: Very much so. I have a service-oriented, ethical structure, and I find it gratifying hearing you talking about participating in this dialogue with these individuals. I get it; it clicks with me. That’s exactly what my earlier experiences working with Fred Vogel, founder and director of Foundation for the Extension and Development of the American Professional Theatre, were about; I honed my listening skills to a deep degree.

Rob: That work was primarily with United States–based organizations, right?

Joe: That is correct.

We’re primed in this country, in the city of New York, for a mega artistic initiative with a focus on various styles and interpretations of these forms.

Rob: What was the transition like to becoming someone so broadly versed in performance all over the world?

Joe: The umbilical cord can be found with accepting to be the general manager of the Next World Festival of the Arts, which was in Miami Beach, in 1982. I produced a three-week festival, which included twenty-two world premieres, and came back to New York at the time when Harvey was looking for someone to produce his idea for a performing arts festival. I got the job.

So it started with the New World Festival in terms of having a new vision. Miami, being very Latino in terms of its residents and Cuban culture, South American and Central American culture… That was reflected in many of the cultural activities. I learned a great deal and it opened my eyes to the world.

Rob: You rode that international wave from that experience in Miami—

Joe: Right into Harvey Lichtenstein. Harvey would have said “international,” and you could read into that as “European.” I knew it was larger, it was global, and that’s why, at BAM, we used global when talking about our artistic agenda, not international.

Rob: That’s interesting, you think of the word international as primarily European.

Joe: It’s just one of those figures of speech where you feel a bit more comfortable saying global rather than international.

Rob: Global is clear, that’s for sure, and it does reflect what you’ve been doing.

Because of your knowledge of the field, the work that you did in the festival in Miami and then the thirty-five years at BAM, are there key aspects to this experience you think are essential to the future health of the field? Is there anything in your experience with transition from Karen to Katy, to you and to David, that you would have done differently? Or do you think it all proceeded pretty well as planned?

Joe: There are ideas that germinate and gestate that I did not have the ability to act upon because I was coming to the closure to my artistic tenure. For example, I believe physical theatre and contemporary circus are serious art forms. We’re primed in this country, in the city of New York, for a mega artistic initiative with a focus on various styles and interpretations of these forms. Theatre as we have known it is changing. It’s a global phenomenon and a growing reality here, and a rich topic to investigate curatorially.

Rob: Absolutely.

Joe: I think a fact of our lives today is that there are diminishing resources, and that’s not just money. It’s everything: human, financial, physical, technological. Harnessing them, galvanizing them around artists in the performing arts to make work of scale—it’s very challenging to do that. The hope is that we can find answers for the diminishing resources, we can stop the decline of these resources, whether physical or financial, personnel or technological. We’re an under-resourced commodity within our society and I worry about our future if we don’t find answers to those questions.

Rob: Probably more collaborations will be necessary.

Joe: The positive side is we’re going to quickly be in the realm of strategic services—new alliances between cultural institutions, between large and small, between culturally specific arts organizations and performing arts centers. It’s necessary to figure out how to be architects of those alliances so that our artists’ voices are articulated; individuals who have never acknowledged one another will need to communicate and connect with others, and to recognize who they are in their specific community.

Rob: Agreed. Those are things you don’t really need external resources for, you just need the imagination of individuals and institutions to find that porous relationship in those collaborations, to be able to maintain work of the scale that you aspire to.

Joe: Truly. My tenure at BAM has been built on these imaginations of creative artists from all artistic disciplines. This is why BAM has sustained and grown over the years. It has been one of the great life experiences that I’ve had as a professional, to be able to say, “Yes, I have worked successfully at BAM for thirty-five years.”

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Thoughts from the curator

The US and Canada are in the middle of an unprecedented turnover of artistic leadership in the nonprofit theatre. This series aims to put a range of voices, issues, and ideas in play that can inform and reflect this historic changeover. 

The Changeover

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