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Sunday, December 4, 2022

Hancher Auditorium welcomes new programming and engagement director – Iowa City Press-Citizen

Aaron Greenwald has been busy thinking about how Hancher Auditorium can better take advantage of its Midwestern location.
Greenwald started Monday as the programming and engagement director for the Iowa City venue amid its grand 50th anniversary season. He brings more than two decades of experience, most recently as managing director of the Big Ears Festival in Tennessee and previously as executive director at Duke Performances at the North Carolina university.
Over the course of his programmatic experience, which also includes working at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and The New Yorker Festival, each took place in a certain milieu, he said.
For example, when Greenwald arrived at Duke, a selling point there was the state and the city of Durham. There, he took an interest in the “artistic and cultural assets” of the southeast.
Now working in Iowa City, Greenwald carries that interest forward.
“Iowa and Iowa City occupies a really exciting place geographically when we talk about the cultural and artistic life of the Midwest,” he said. “I think it can really be a kind of center of gravity for that conversation, which to me is really exciting.
“You never want to be parochial, but if you can center the work in a place you live and still have it be world-class, I think that enlivens the work for your community and broadens its reach.”
Greenwald spoke to the Press-Citizen in early October about his vision of what the Hancher Auditorium can be through embracing collaboration and asking insightful questions about the region and resources available to it.
Greenwald was familiar with the Hancher as one of the major university presenters in the Midwest, but when the position become available, he learned complimentary things about it, Iowa City and its new leader, Andre Perry.
Perry’s vision and leadership — one of transparency and collaboration — especially drew Greenwald.
“If you’re in a role like mine where you’re being asked to make artistic decisions, and you are working under somebody who also has an artistic mind and has spent a lot of their life making artistic decisions, it’s useful if the two people are at least participating in the same conversation,” Greenwald said.
More than that, Greenwald said, their vision is in “concert.”
“Iowa is at a really interesting inflection point,” he said. “I think Iowa has all the ingredients of being a world-class arts institution — and maybe it already is — but some of that connective tissue, that conversation, the generative energy that happens when collaboration is a goal, I think that’s what we’re going to bring to the conversation at Iowa.”
Hancher is under the umbrella of the Office of Performing Arts and Engagement at UI, whose creation was announced earlier this year.
Hancher and this newly created office, working “closely” with partners in the College of Liberal Arts and Science, are “reimagining the ways in which the entire performing arts community on the UI campus can collaborate, innovate and serve the community now and for decades to come,” according to a news release on Greenwald’s hire.
“With our new focus on performing arts at Iowa as a whole, we have an amazing opportunity to reshape our leadership with a balance of substantial institutional knowledge and new voices who bring fresh perspective to our mission-based work,” Perry said in the release. “With the addition of Aaron, our team is one step closer to building the cohort that will steward the future of our work under the banner of Performing Arts at Iowa.”
Building a Hancher season under Perry’s leadership, as Greenwald has already observed, is one where people “know where it’s going every step of the way.”
“In the past, it was like, you pull off the curtain and there’s all the amazing performances that are happening. And I think that’s not quite how the world works anymore,” Greenwald said. “There’s some value to an exciting reveal, but I think people find it more valuable to be involved in the conversation and to understand how things are being put together. So I’m excited to plug into that conversation.”
Greenwald’s interest in exploring what it means to be a performing arts presenter in the Midwest means being familiar with people local and in the regional metros, such as Detroit, St. Louis, Minneapolis and Chicago; to understand what the creative work in dance, theater, music and literature looks like coming from these places; and determine if there are connections between the artists.
Something else to consider is how to draw on the cultural resources in the area, Greenwald said.
For example, the long, celebrated history of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.
How can the Hancher and the Office of Performing Arts and Engagement draw on the history of writers here? Is there work that can be done around some of the important musicians based in Iowa City?
These are some of the questions Greenwald has.
Throughout this, Greenwald will be learning more about Iowa, such as what faculty at the university are studying and producing.
Greenwald will also be connecting with the local performing arts community and in the region, with hopes to visit with artists and companies.
Greenwald sees his job as to program a series of performances. But beyond that, interactions.
“So, engagement with campus and community beyond those performances that enlivens the conversation on the campus and in the community,” he said.
The auditorium must determine what will fill its hall, with some regularity, Greenwald said, but added that performances aren’t programmed because “they’re big names.”
At the same time, there is an interest in presenting programming in the community, something the auditorium did out of necessity after the 2008 flood. The benefit to this is that performances, of different sizes, can find a more appropriate fit than the auditorium.
After all, the Hancher Auditorium is not an explicitly commercial presenter, Greenwald said, meaning the goals look different from that of a presenter solely seeking to fill a room to make money.
“How do we advance the conversation? How do we convey a kind of intelligence and context behind the programming? How do we reflect the region that we’re in and the campus that we’re on? How do we serve our campus? How do we serve our students and faculty and staff in ways that are that are meaningful and enlivening?” Greenwald said.
“I think that’s kind of my job.”
Paris Barraza covers entertainment, lifestyle and arts at the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Reach her at PBarraza@press-citizen.com or (319) 519-9731. Follow her on Twitter @ParisBarraza.

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