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IOWA CITY — The first thing Andre Perry is going to do in his new role as Hancher’s executive director is listen.
“Over these next few months, there will be so much listening that I'm involved in,” said Perry, 44, of Iowa City, who steps into his new role May 16. “It’s just understanding what people's histories are, what their hopes and dreams are for the space, what their concerns are for the space — whether they're donors, staff, faculty and staff, and students or just community members at large. That’s my job — to listen.”
Listening been paramount in his previous positions as the national talent buyer for The Mill, the executive director of the Englert Theatre from summer 2010 to September 2021, after which he became the University of Iowa’s director of arts, engagement and inclusion, and senior adviser to the executive officer of diversity, equity and inclusion. He will be paid $210,000 in his new Hancher position.
And he will be listening to Chuck Swanson, 68, Hancher’s executive director since 2002, who is retiring but staying through July 8 to wrap up some projects. In honor of Swanson’s legacy, Perry’s new title is the “Chuck Swanson Hancher Executive Director.”
“(Listening) is going to be my journey, I think, for the first hundred days. … Where are we at, where do you think we’re at?” Perry said. “Then I need to process all that so we get that collective vision — clarity to the staff and beyond — to move forward.”
Perry will be shepherding Hancher through a new business model as the university continues to phase out $1.5 million in annual support that covered the wages for full-time, part-time and student workers at the performing arts center. Its history of serving students across academic disciplines led former UI President Willard “Sandy” Boyd to once call Hancher the university’s largest classroom.
The budget cutbacks, announced in June 2020, call for Hancher to be self-sustaining by its 2023-24 season. The UI withheld $200,000 of its usual $1.5 million in salary support for the 2020-21 season and $500,000 for the 2021-22 season. The final step is cutting back $800,000 in 2022-23 — Hancher’s 50th anniversary season — and the full $1.5 million thereafter.
That will be one of the hurdles Perry will have to jump, but he’s confident he can bring his lessons from the past into the present and future.
“After working at the Englert, working (in the) downtown arts community, the financial challenges are real, but you really get hardened and your skin gets pretty thick for financial challenge. We've seen some things over our time,” he said.
“It's not to say that I disregard it, it’s just to say, catch my breath and let's get clarity on exactly what that means to the institution; communicate that to the staff so that we know what are the goals we think we need to hit in order to be a sustainable organization; communicate it to our leadership at the University of Iowa so they know if we have less, this is what that means.
“And that's OK. We are resourceful people. We will do amazing things with the resources we have, but just make sure there's a clarity there. And so it might mean that we have to focus more in certain areas. I don't know what those areas are.
“I need to spend time getting into the machine. I need to spend time listening to everyone — the staff here, the community here, the supporters — over time. And once we have that financial clarity of this is what we want to do, this is the gap, how much of that gap do we feel we can meet?
“Maybe we can't meet at all, and we have to make some choices in terms of where we put our energy and time. We'll make those choices,” he said. “Bottom line, it's all going to be driven by that.
“How do we continue to make it easier for people to see and achieve their dreams? We're not going to stop doing that, no matter what.”
He believes Hancher’s transformation model — being an institution that transforms lives can coincide with a transactional model that will bring in the funds necessary.
Perry has seen it work before, in forging collaborations that brought pianist and Oscar-nominated composer Philip Glass to the Englert for the 2014 Mission Creek Festival, a program Perry co-founded in downtown Iowa City.
Fostering relationships with the students and with the artists is the first step in figuring out how to afford creating transformational experiences.
“You get creative,” Perry said. “It comes down to the staff, in how you treat artists overall and how you consider the artists’ experience. If you are really sensitive to that, it gives you entree and it gives you opportunities to come to your door, because people want to work with you. On the community side, it's not always about the big show, but it's about the work in between the big show.”
It’s the time put into fostering relationships that pays the dividends, he said.
“It wasn't like we just called up and said, ‘Hey, can Philip Glass come here?’ It was a conversation with his management team. They understood the care of what we were trying to build, and eventually we ended up co-booking this three-day tour where Philip Glass came to Iowa” at a rate the presenting venues could afford and a fee that made sense for the artist.
Immersed in the arts
Perry, a native of Washington, D.C., grew up immersed in the arts and after college, worked and taught in San Francisco before coming to Iowa City in 2005. He earned an MFA from the Nonfiction Writing Program in 2008, stepped into various roles at The Mill, launched Mission Creek to bring world-class musicians and writers to the area, and along the way, found his place as a community organizer around arts and culture.
He sits on the boards of the Iowa Arts Council and Arts Midwest, as well as being named to the National Independent Venue Association.
“That sort of service is really important to me, to make sure that I'm seeing the field from a few different perspectives,” he said, noting that his colleagues on the national board "text and email and talk all day, every day because we are unique, but some of our challenges are not unique to us, right? So I talk to my national counterparts all the time.”
With that kind of presence, he chose to stay in Iowa City, marry his wife, Amanda Crosby Perry, in 2015 and raise their children here — a daughter, 6, and a son, almost 2.
He distinctly remembers his first Hancher experience, seeing a concert of Mahler works in his first year at the UI, in the former Hancher Auditorium that was later inundated in the 2008 flood.
“I knew it logically, but I sensed on a spiritual level that this was an important piece of our community overall,” he said, “and really one of the main conductors of arts and culture in our region.”
After the historic flood ruined that building, he began working with Swanson to provide a venue for numerous Hancher presentations at the Englert Theatre.
“It was a process,” Perry said, while the recovery began. “Chuck was doing all that work to make sure that we would have a rebuilt Hancher, which was endless and took years.
“I learned a lot from Chuck during that period, and I also learned a lot from Jacob Yarrow, who was the programming director during that time, because we ended up collaborating. … I think (Yarrow) really affirmed for me this philosophy of putting the right art in the right place. Hancher at that time was kind of forced to do it because they didn't have a home.”
Seeing jazz saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenon at The Mill in February 2013 really drove home the point that a room that “wasn’t fancy but had a lot of soul” could be the right space for connecting artist and audience.
“There's a certain vibe or certain energy that they start to play off, that leads to performances that can change our lives,” he said, as well as the lives of the artists who end up having a great experience, too, in Iowa City.
Perry is grateful not only for working with Swanson then, but now, as they make the leadership transition.
“I'm super lucky that Chuck is here. I mean, Chuck knows maybe more than anyone else. He’s wonderful. He’s always been a really kind supporter of me.
“I’ve told this to so many people, and I will always talk about this: When he was working through the rebuilding of Hancher and in the weeds of like dealing with (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and architects and just very difficult work in the midst of a catastrophe, I was always inspired by his ability to stay positive during it, because that stuff that will get you down, hearing a ‘No, you can’t do it this way’ (or) ‘We can’t give you the funding.’ He just pushed forward.”
That resolve helped buoy Perry when he was at the forefront of the Strengthen Grow Evolve campaign that raised more than $5 million between 2019 and 2020 to continue historic preservation work at the Englert and the original FilmScene site on the Ped Mall, as well as help FilmScene expand into The Chauncey building.
“There were up days and there were some serious down days,” Perry said, when he wondered if the fundraising campaign was going to work.
“And I just kept coming back to that work, along with all my amazing co-workers. So having (Swanson) here is one of the luckiest things. It's a treasure that's been afforded to me,” Perry said.
“I spoke with him recently. We're going to overlap for a month, a month and a half. So it's just me learning from him, and us helping to ensure that the foundations and the legacy is honored in here — and helping our staff and our community also push forward into the next chapter.”
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