Newspaper headlines and culture critics can worry over the state of the arts in America, but Joanne Cossa is an arts administrator undeterred by their lamentations. When she becomes the executive director of the American Music Center on March 14, she will bring not only impressive leadership and fundraising experience to the organization’s helm but also an enthusiasm undiminished by her years of experience in the performing arts.
“I wanted to do something that was exciting and to be in a field where there was real work to be done,” says Cossa of her new position at the AMC. “New music is one of the most vibrant, exciting and just plain fun areas of the cultural scene in this country today, and it deserves as wide an audience as possible.”
In her new role, Cossa is not only charged with representing the interests of the organization’s 2,500 members but also championing new American music on an international stage. Noting AMC’s history of promoting new music and supporting composers in their work and their lives, Cossa speaks excitedly of carrying forward that mission in today’s artistic environment. She points out that “younger generations of composers and audiences and artists of all kinds are not pigeonholed. New music now takes so many different forms and that’s a healthy thing….I think that the mission of this organization is to continue to break down the barriers and to let more people know what’s going on out there.”
A broad goal, but professionally Cossa is no stranger to meeting a challenge. As the executive vice president of Symphony Space between 1988 and 2003, she presided over the transformation of the cash-strapped New York City venue into a viable culture center. Her major accomplishments included a $13 million renovation and expansion of the theatre complex and a $24 million capital campaign. She also played a key role in expanding Symphony Space’s programming, presenting a broad range of artists to an even broader audience.
Cossa started out as an actress and singer in New York before the demands of marriage and family eventually led to a fulltime job in the subscription department at City Opera. A few career moves later she was asked to catalog the music library at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and it was there that she discovered her professional calling and met her mentor, the arts administrator Norman Singer. Singer, who had run the concert bureau at Hunter College, “taught me everything he knew,” says Cossa.
Ultimately, Cossa spent fifteen years with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, including seven as its executive director, but she missed having a hand in the larger sphere of performing activities. She explains, “I was too busy going to chamber music concerts to go to the ballet or to go to the theatre. I was interested in doing something that would reach a broader constituency, would be artistically diverse, and was philosophically worthy rather than just art for art’s sake. And Symphony Space wanted desperately to make the arts accessible to everybody.”
The move was a risky one. Symphony Space was having a great deal of trouble raising money. “Many of my years in the ’90s were spent trying to stave off disaster. But it also gave me opportunities,” recalls Cossa. “It was an extremely rewarding job. I was there all the time. Every night I missed everything else that was happening in town.”
Most recently Cossa served as General Director for Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, New York, where she again had remarkable success building organizational relationships. This resulted in better artistic relationships internally and it improved the financial health of the organization through effective fund raising and management.
In the course of her career, Cossa has witnessed firsthand the transformation of the performing arts industry in America from a time when “subscriptions were the lifeblood of every arts organization and the people that attended were generally middle class professionals. The husbands came from work and the wives were responsible for organizing the social schedule. They decided what they were doing on every night of the week almost a year in advance.” As such Leave it to Beaver social structures gave way, the arts had to operate more like businesses—to finance venues and create programs that serve the needs of artists while concurrently building the audiences of the future.
Cossa has dedicated her career to providing that platform. “I had a facility with numbers and for fundraising—for solicitation, for being able to communicate why somebody should be interested in giving money to an art form. So I decided that this is it for me. I don’t have the determination to be a performer; I’m going to help other people perform and make arts happen.”