The MMIAM Journey

A blog about the Master of Management
in International Arts Management program

“The arts are a huge part of how humans talk to each other globally.”

A MMIAM Journey Interview with Christopher Gruits

Christopher Gruits is the Executive and Artistic Director of Penn Live Arts at the University of Pennsylvania, one of the nation’s premier university-based arts presenters. With over 25 years of national and international experience in the arts and cultural sector, he has a passion for creating and fostering artistic excellence, audience engagement, and community partnerships. In 2021, he was recognized as a USA Eisenhower Fellow, a prestigious leadership program that supports the exchange of ideas and best practices among global leaders. He holds an MBA from the University of Edinburgh, with a focus on marketing and strategy, and a BA in Humanities from Michigan State University. Christopher is a member of the MMIAM Advisory Committee.

How did you develop an interest in the arts? Are you an artist?

I don’t consider myself an artist but a curator and manager. I do, however, think there is an art to curation and an art to management, so in that sense, sure! But no, I don’t consider myself an artist in the traditional sense. In high school, I got really involved in music and theater. I loved the environment of a theater; the backstage operations, the team coordination required to put a show together, the set design, stage management…I loved that world, and of course, the performance. My inroad was through music, in particular through film music. I would see movies as a kid and I wouldn’t always remember the story but I would remember the score and I would go out and buy the CD. Over time, I realized that these interests, in addition to other art forms, made up a distinct industry and a place where I could spend my career.

Do you have a favorite production? Can you choose just one?

Oh, that’s hard! There are so many things that I love. Music was, however, my first love. I started in the classical music industry. If I have an opportunity to see [Claudio] Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610well, that’s a pinnacle piece for me, but it’s just one example. As a curator, I have to be a generalist. I have a lot of experience with music, and dance, and theater. It would be almost impossible to name one thing.

Can you talk a bit about working in the arts within a university system?

Sure. The short answer is that it’s complex and fascinating. In the US, outside of the large performing arts centers like in New York City or Los Angeles, for example, so much of the new work in dance, music, and theater, and so much of the investment in artists is happening in university settings.

If you think about a state like Kansas for instance, Kansas has two major universities with major performing arts centers. On the one hand, they serve the public. These places are “windows” to the university for the local community and vice versa. They play an important role in inviting the city or the town onto the campus. On the other hand, they’re a really big resource for students, for faculty, and faculty scholarship in terms of research in performance and communication. Performance is one of the oldest forms of human communication, if we think about dance, music, or theater, they’re really important and fundamental methods for humans to try to address big questions with one another. At a university, there is an opportunity to go deeper with programs, so we’re not just presenting a touring Broadway show for example, which is important, but we’re trying to give an artist the opportunity to delve deep into some bigger questions and then to engage both students and the local community in discussion around those questions.

At the end of the day, we’re trying to serve both the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia area, unlike a standalone institution that can focus on the community solely.

We also try to make programs as broadly accessible as possible. Students have deeply discounted tickets, $10 at any time. We also have a program called West Philly Welcomes. So we’re centered in West Philadelphia and anyone in this part of the city, particularly in areas that have been traditionally underserved, have deeply discounted access to our programs. That’s an important program for us, we try to serve our closest neighbors and those who otherwise wouldn’t have access to our programs. We, of course, also sell subscriptions, offer veteran benefits, youth discounts, and family programs…there are a lot of different ways in.

Christopher Gruits and his wife, Meg Bragle Gruits, mezzo soprano, with John Bon Jovi
Christopher Gruits and his wife, Meg Bragle Gruits, mezzo soprano, with John Bon Jovi. Credits: personal archive.

So, the organization recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, have there been conversations about the future? Reflections on the past?

50 is a big number! When the Annenberg Center was built in 1971, Penn was a very different campus. The architecture of the day was really about turning away from the neighborhood and keeping people on campus. The neighborhood was also very different and Penn was not necessarily engaging with the local community in the way it is now. You can see this attitude in the architecture. A lot of what we’re discussing right now is how we address our physical footprint. We’re building a new theater called the Weitzman Theatre. It will be a 200-person flexible space to meet the needs of students because they don’t currently have enough performance and rehearsal space. It will also be a flexible maker space for the professional artists we present. This space will be much more open and inviting but will be connected to our current structure. This will allow people to really understand what’s going on inside our dark brutalist building. We have a broader plan for the next two phases of capital planning to open up the exterior of the building to Walnut Street, where we sit, with a new atrium and entrance for people to feel much more welcomed into our space.

On the other hand, the anniversary provided us a great opportunity to more deeply integrate ourselves at the university. We’re looking at how we support curriculum, how we support faculty and their research, and how we support students and their academic and extracurricular experience. Almost 20 percent of Penn students are involved in performance, in some way, and a real challenge for students has been around access and space for them to practice and present their productions.

Finally, we’re thinking about our public programs and our commitment to performing artists of color, international performing artists, and our role in Philadelphia in supporting Black storytelling. We’re looking at a multi-year commitment, particularly with African American artists and supporting the stories they’re telling today, in addition to commissioning and presenting artists from across the country and globe. There is a real diversity of experience, discipline, genre, and approach across these programs.

Edgar Meyer, Béla Fleck, Chritopher Gruits, Zakir Hussain and Rakesh Chaurasia
From left to right: Edgar Meyer, Béla Fleck, Chritopher Gruits, Zakir Hussain and Rakesh Chaurasia. Credit: personal archive.

Since you mentioned national and international programming, you got your MBA from the University of Edinburgh—can you talk about how studying in a different country has shaped the leader you are or the leader you’ve become?

It was a very small business school program, there were only 75 students, but it was highly international, there were something like 30 different countries represented. That was very attractive to me. I wanted to be in an international context and to understand different perspectives, and for my own sector, for arts and culture, I wanted to be in a different environment. I had been at  Carnegie Hall for a while and I loved it. In some ways, it’s the pinnacle presenter for classical music but I wanted to see what else was happening. The UK has a different funding model and they have access to a different range of artists, particularly for festivals. Edinburgh was a great choice because of the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

I had a strong interest in international opportunities already. I love the idea of bringing different cultures to an audience and giving them an opportunity to engage with, understand better, and ultimately empathize with that culture. That can take many shapes. It can be different cultures within a country who live together, something we need a lot of help with in the US, as well as internationally. That experience opened up the world for me in a lot of ways. It made me realize how the arts and culture business is an international and vitally important business.

When I think about what I mentioned earlier, about the performing arts being one of the oldest forms of human communication, there is an opportunity to engage people in a healthy open-minded space through performance. Studying abroad in Edinburgh and working with people from so many different cultures solidified that belief for me. The arts are a huge part of how humans talk to each other globally. For example, if you meet someone from a different country, one of the ways you might connect with them is through music. ‘I love this artist’…the arts provide this unique opportunity to help people understand one another.

Is there anything I didn’t ask you that I should have?

One thing that I love about our business is that it’s very old-fashioned in a way. Connecting with people is still very important. That may sound obvious as in every industry, you have to connect with people to some extent, but one thing that students don’t think about is how important networking or getting in front of people can be. In my experience, I meet a lot of younger professionals who can be hard to engage with whether because they’re so worried about or narrowly focused on doing a good job or because they’re intimidated. Don’t miss the opportunity to connect! So many opportunities in this industry come through word of mouth. Part of how we can encourage greater diversity in leadership is through supporting younger managers in their career journey and I think this is vital for the future of the field. I’d encourage all the students reading this to make those connections. So many people are willing to talk and willing to share whatever might be helpful.

 

*Christopher A. Gruits’s headshot credit: Allebach Photography.