GREAT BARRINGTON — Janis Martinson came to the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in 2017 as the non-profit performing arts venue's director of advancement. She brings with her a decades-long career raising money for a variety of educational and performing arts organizations, among them Miss Hall's School in Pittsfield where she spent 17 years as chief advancement officer.
Martinson has a BA in English with a minor in Theater and Dance from Princeton University and an MBA from UMass-Amherst. She became acting executive director of the Mahaiwe in January 2020 after Beryl Jolly stepped down as executive director following 15 years in the top post. While the Mahaiwe only recently announced Martinson's appointment as permanent executive director, she's had that title since Feb. 29, 2020.
"There is something centering about the performing arts, which arc back through history and transcend to the universal ... At the same time," she says in the following Take Five. "The arts celebrate difference, imagine change, and give us hope. It is forward-looking work."
1. What are the satisfactions, rewards, you find as an arts administrator, particularly now as executive director at the Mahaiwe? What frustrates you?
At the Mahaiwe, besides having been a fan of beautiful old theaters since childhood, I love that its audience reach is so comprehensive, while the programming quality remains so high. You will find ballet on the marquee alongside headliners like John Mulaney and Pink Martini, or "The Wizard of Oz" and local celebrations; everyone can find something they are excited to see.
There is a wonderful and immediate feedback loop, when you stand in the lobby after a show, and people are smiling on the way out ... or weeping, if it is the opera. You get to see community cohesion in action at every show, as people explore points of view through the art, celebrate personal milestones, or meet each other in the concessions line. I feel incredibly fortunate to be in a job that consists primarily of making people's lives richer. As human beings, we are drawn to emotion, beauty, rhythm, togetherness, great stories — all things that performing arts can provide.
Another thing about this field: This is a great time to be working with creative colleagues. We have been forced to let go of predictability, so it is inspiring to work in a community of people who thrive on invention and problem-solving. And because of the inviolable edict about shows going on, there is no time to wallow.
To me, there is something centering about the performing arts, which arc back through history and transcend to the universal, reminding us that people have always loved and struggled and felt that the world was unique and new. At the same time, the arts celebrate difference, imagine change, and give us hope. It is forward-looking work.
While I would not call it a frustration, I am saddened at the thought of all the lost art "happening" now. Because of all the shuttered performance spaces, thousands of musicians, dancers, actors, directors, designers, sound engineers, stagehands, and performing arts professionals, whose cultural skills are so critical to the health and healing of our nation, are out of work. While we are all dark, countless productions will now never happen, and ephemeral moments of experience — for artists and audiences alike — will be lost forever.
2. How do you see the Mahaiwe’s role in the community? How would you like the community to view the Mahaiwe? What does it say about the Mahaiwe that you recently received a $100,000 COVID-19 relief grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council?
Community is central to the Mahaiwe's mission. We are here because the community supported and protected our building and its programming for 115 years, and we try to return the favor. As a cornerstone of the Downtown Great Barrington Cultural District, we know that the more we open our doors, the more vital our community is economically, socially and emotionally. In addition to our own programming, dozens of local non-profit arts and social service organizations depend on our stage and production skills to mount their performances or advance their causes. And in a typical year, thousands of school children come to the Mahaiwe for performances that have them bouncing in their seats.
We also recognize that the Mahaiwe has a leadership role to play in upholding and celebrating its community. With funding through the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation and other sources, we are proud to partner with organizations like Volunteers in Medicine, Clinton Church Restoration, the town's WEB DuBois Committee, BRIDGE, and others, with events that represent or particularly welcome groups that are not always given a platform.
The Mahaiwe's community orientation, as a non-profit, is possible because of our donors. With the financial pressures of this year, the arrival of federal and state COVID-relief funding has been monumental in allowing us to continue our work — and we are deeply grateful to our local legislators, who argued for and voted in those bills. The commitment of public funds to cultural purposes affirms that theater, music and dance go beyond entertainment to make substantive societal contributions. Not only do arts and culture constitute 4.5% of GDP and more than 5 million jobs nationwide, but these are some of the most effective vehicles to remind us of what we have in common, and we need a lot more of that right now.
3. What would you say were the key challenges of 2020? What lessons did those challenges teach you?
The hardest things about 2020 were the abrupt separation from each other, never knowing what to expect, and the dramatic acceleration of change. Putting together a season of shows consists of gathering and orchestrating of people and objects on a massive scale — and all of the contracts, schedules, and detailed plans require certainty to build on. Suddenly, nothing seemed possible and the whole industry was paralyzed, but only briefly. Connection moved to socially distanced means, and became more urgent, and we never stopped finding ways to bring audiences and great performances together.
Without making any claims on enlightenment, I have been learning lessons about letting go of assumptions from the past, accepting how little we control, and being very attuned to what is happening right now. And the deep truth that none of us is making our way on our own. It has been heartening to see how quickly people across the industry and among area arts groups have acknowledged our interdependence and have begun to act more collaboratively and with greater focus on the art than on the bottom line.
Of course, we also faced very real financial challenges, with the loss of ticket income, and learned that the community wants the Mahaiwe to come back strong. Individuals, businesses and foundations have supported us with good wishes, contributions, enthusiastic response to online offerings and our 15th anniversary virtual party, and sold-out attendance for our summer drive-in movie series.
4. What are your hopes and expectations for the Mahaiwe in 2021? What’s your bucket list?
My greatest wish is to see a packed house again. There is nothing like the expectant hush of a crowd or the wild applause that earns an encore. We are assuming, however, that we will get there in phases, so we are making plans for more outdoor summer programming, putting in place added safeguards for audience health in our building, and lining up some big names for the fall. Over time, expect to see expanded work by regional cultural partners on the Mahaiwe stage, and more local residents onstage.
5. When you are not dealing with Mahaiwe business, how do you like to relax, unwind?
Taking advantage of the great performances and museums nearby. Moving through the Berkshire landscape, whether on foot, skis or bikes, with my husband, Steve, who is the designated trip leader in the family. Digging into our gardens. Or moving across an internal landscape, with a good book.