After a seven-year tenure marked by numerous groundbreaking initiatives, Richard Kessler will be stepping down as executive director of the American Music Center in July 2004.
Kessler has accepted the position of executive director at the Center for Arts Education, an organization dedicated to the promotion and support of arts education in the New York City public schools. He was one of the three authors of the plan that created CAE under the auspices of the Annenberg Challenge to the Nation for Education Reform in 1996.
While Kessler was at the helm of the AMC, the organization developed internally, both in terms of staffing and financial resources, and became a focal point within the national new music community.
Probably the most public demonstration of the Center’s commitment to advocacy under Kessler’s watch was the launch of two websites dedicated to raising the profile of American music: NewMusicBox.org, currently celebrating its fifth anniversary, and NewMusicJukebox.org, an online library and listening room launched in 2002. In addition, the AMC established a nationwide professional development program in 1999 and created the American Music Center Collection of Scores and Recordings at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Grant-making programs administered by the Center awarded over $7 million to the field between 2002-04.
Kessler is widely credited within the industry for refocusing the AMC at a crucial time in its history and securing the financial foundation needed to support the organization’s mission. When he came on board in 1997, the AMC employed only three staff members and was faced with a record deficit. His first budget was approximately $1 million; this grew to almost $5 million in 2002. This year, following six straight years of surplus budgets, the Center has a staff of 14, a $300,000-plus cash reserve, and an endowment of over $3 million.
John Kennedy, chairman of the AMC’s Board of Directors, speaks highly of Kessler’s leadership abilities and his commitment to the field. “Richard has had an unfailing dedication to the AMC as the primary means to building the new music community, which has translated into the Center’s transformation from a little organization on the edge of disappearing into an admired leadership organization that others turn to. There are a litany of AMC programs and institutional accomplishments, but at the end of the day, Richard’s impact has gone beyond the AMC to help rejuvenate the status of new music.”
When Kessler accepted the executive director position at the AMC, he says he was motivated by what he saw as a “tremendous opportunity” to support and advance American music. “New music is a very complex field that cuts across disciplines and there was so much potential,” he recalls, “but I saw so much need not being addressed and a real opportunity to better position the AMC to address these needs.”
Speaking from the composer’s perspective, AMC member Harold Meltzer points to how Kessler “led the effort to transform what a music information center could do…so that the AMC became an essential part of the new music world. He has been truly passionate about new music, and composers, since his days as a performer. And this passion drove him to reconsider programs and initiatives in terms of what composers really need.”
Boosey & Hawkes President and AMC board member Jenny Bilfield echoes those sentiments, specifically mentioning the impact the web initiatives have had in connecting the national community. “Richard has led a transformation of how American composers are able to present their work to the world around them,” she notes, “…but these initiatives have come from a deeper place—Richard’s inherent respect for the craft and for the creators and for the broad definition of ‘American Music’ that he has embraced.”
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has been a significant source of support to the AMC during Kessler’s tenure. Catherine Maciariello, program officer for the performing arts at the Foundation, has observed the organization’s evolution under his stewardship. “The Center’s contributions to helping organizations understand how to engage composers productively, to exploring creative uses of technology, and to elevating the public conversation about contemporary arts are the direct results of Richard’s imagination and dedication,” she says.
The AMC board has already begun the task of seeking Kessler’s successor and expects to have a new executive director named by the time the board meets in October. Kennedy speaks confidently that the transition will be a smooth one, citing the dedication of the current staff and board: “There is great staff experience and continuity that will enable the AMC to just keep on doing what we do. Interestingly, the board is in a process of strategizing future plans and is also in an extremely engaged and healthy place. We are gratefully poised to make this a very positive transition.”
At the top of the board’s list is “a desire for someone with a passionate love for and knowledge of new music, and the ability to communicate that with zeal,” says Kennedy. “Composers and their music need all the advocacy we can get, and it seems implicit that the AMC’s chief executive should be a visible leader in this regard.”
Richard Loyd, currently the AMC’s director of development, will serve as the interim executive director until a suitable candidate is found.
For Kessler, the return to the field of arts education is something of a homecoming. “I left performing to go into arts education because I believed I could do more good,” he explains. “The benefits of a broad and deep arts education can be profound. I feel the same way today.”
He expects that his passion for his work at the AMC will be directly applicable to the role he will take on leading an organization focused on education issues. “Honoring creativity and the creativity of others through arts education programs makes the world a better place for composers, so I really see them as connected.”
Kessler admits ambivalence about his decision to leave, stressing his appreciation for the work the AMC does. Still, he says that he will depart “knowing that the AMC today is positioned better than ever to move forward to the next vital stage of service to this community, where great things will be possible.”
The board, staff, and the composing community he has dedicated his career to for the past seven years wish him well. Composer John Harbison put it most eloquently: “Richard Kessler was as bold and fearless a leader for the American Music Center as he was a trombonist in his earlier incarnation. His strong insistent voice, like a brass fanfare, summoned the organization to innovation and risk. We will miss him.”