When Bruce W. Davis travels around the country he's often asked what he does for a living. The veteran arts administrator replies, "arts, entertainment and politics." For Davis, the term 'executive director' just doesn't encompass it all, including "the politics of supporting the arts behind the scenes. Arts and politics are inseparable to me."
On Feb. 8, Davis started in a new role as president and CEO of ArtsKC — Regional Arts Council, and he's also new to Kansas City. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he re-located from the Bay Area in California, after serving as an arts administrator, arts advocate and fundraiser there for the past three decades.
Here are highlights from an extended interview:
On embarking on a career in arts administration
"I became an accidental executive director through my singing and songwriting. I was on an artists' roster in Brooklyn, New York, where I grew up. I didn't know anything about where the money was coming from that paid me to perform in libraries, and schools, and parks. And I was performing all original songs.
When I moved to San Francisco, I looked for an artist roster for me to be part of. And there wasn't any, believe it or not. So I wound up helping start an arts organization that provided opportunities like the ones I had in New York. And then when the founder left that organization after three years, the board asked me to be executive director, and that was kind of what happened."
On the mission of ArtsKC
"When you've seen one local arts council, you've seen one local arts council; they're all different. We've got hundreds, probably thousands of donors — we have large foundations, large corporations, but thousands of individuals donating to us through workplace giving campaigns, and things like that.
And so we distribute that money to, I'm guessing, over 100 different organizations and individual artists, which I love that part.
Funding is oxygen for the arts. It's the air that it breathes. You want it, you got to support it."
On the status of ArtsKC's regional cultural plan released in 2015
"One of the most important things about cultural plans is actually the process that a community goes through. Having been through it — and I attended 95 percent of all the meetings in Silicon Valley, big and small, around the cultural plan — that conversation gets people thinking about arts and culture in the community in a different way. You start exploring the possibilities and there are endless possibilities.
Cultural plans usually have so many things in it that if there are one, two, or three major things that come out of it in a 10-year period ... we're going to tackle this web portal, figure out a way to bring it here. We're looking at different ones, not just Artsopolis [which Davis helped create]. I obviously have a bias and a favorite. Like I said, it's in 50 communities because it works. We're looking at arts education, what role we can play as a convener. It would be very difficult at this time to be a funder of anything major.
I'm not going to say people should be patient, but just to understand how cultural plans work around the country."
On adding new festivals to the landscape
"First, there are already festivals here. I'm a great believer in organic festivals, festivals that grow naturally. I hate what I call 'plop' conferences and 'plop' festivals, like they drop out of the sky. Festivals that grow organically are my favorite kind of thing.
The [San Francisco Ethnic] Dance Festival that I helped take from 400 people to 4,000 people — it's now doing 9,000 people — we toured it to the Kennedy Center. It was with local dance companies and musicians who needed a platform, whose artistic quality was just under appreciated. It was their artistic excellence [and] our ability to put this festival machinery together.
So, yeah, I believe in festivals. I think they have a life and a spirit of their own, and they really help a city figure out its identity. But I couldn't tell you what kind of festival that doesn't already exist that I would want to see here. I just don't know enough."
On the potential of another bistate sales tax
"I think the regionalization of the arts and regionalization of support for the arts is important. If elected officials and funders, if everybody is feeling a really good vibe regionally than maybe something could happen.
I'm kind of a passenger on the plane, I'm not flying the plane. I always wear my seatbelt in case any turbulence happens. But I'm sensing that people are feeling really good about the region right now. The economy is up, it's got winning sports teams, it's got great arts organizations of every size.
I have no idea whether to predict if something was put to the voters that it would pass. But I think that there's an energy, and a synergy, collaboration, partnerships, and cooperation that [it's] certainly possible."
On keeping up his musical skills
"I still write. I have lots of half-written songs. Before I moved here, in the fall I went into the studio and did three songs. I might do another CD, we'll see. I think once a songwriter, always a songwriter."
You can listen to some of Bruce Davis's music here.
ArtsKC is hosting meet and greets for their new president and CEO, including a reception on Thursday, April 7, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Black Archives of Mid-America, 1722 East 17th Terrace, Kansas City, Missouri.
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter, @lauraspencer.