DANVILLE — Steven A. Hoffman navigates the dining hall at Centre College like a returning student, heaping some salad fixings on the plate, hitting the sandwich counter for a generous serving of sliced turkey on top, and noting to his guest about to default to Diet Coke that the soda fountain also has Diet Dr Pepper.
In his role as the new director of the Norton Center for the Arts on Centre’s campus, Hoffman doesn’t necessarily have to deal with students on a daily basis. But he wants to.
“Having been here two months before the students arrived, I was kind of waiting,” says Hoffman, who started at Centre in July. “Now that they’re here, the energy is something that I was hoping for, and it’s just great.”
Hoffman, who succeeds George Foreman as the Norton Center’s director, came to Centre from two non-collegiate posts — at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Calif., and the Washington Pavilion of Arts in Sioux Falls, S.D.
But Hoffman’s arts management roots are in academic settings.
“When I was an undergrad at the University of Illinois, I kind of put all my eggs in one basket and decided I wanted to go to U of I because they had a group called Star Course,” Hoffman says. “Star Course was the student organization that ran and presented all of the concerts on campus. I said, ‘I want to run that before I graduate.’”
Before his senior year, when he was a candidate to manage the group, Hoffman withdrew, thinking he needed to focus on his major, actuarial science. He figured out that what he really needed to do was change his major.
So he focused on business, got jobs at places like Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and Ravinia Festival, and went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in the business school’s arts administration program. There, he advised the student presenting group.
“I worked with students who were all dressed in black with black fingernail polish and jet-black hair — it was the goth time,” says Hoffman, who was at Wisconsin in the early 1990s. “I said, we have 30,000 people on campus. How do we program five nights a week for a community, and not just ourselves? It was really about the programming.”
Hoffman has since worked around the country until landing the Centre College gig. He takes over a performing arts center already known for outdoing itself: booking world-class artists from Yo-Yo Ma and the New York Philharmonic to Lyle Lovett and Tony Bennett to play a 1,200-student campus in Danville, a town of just over 15,000.
Hoffman doesn’t worry about maintaining the quality of programming. But he is looking at how to enhance it.
“Trying to learn what parts are valued most by the community and trying to boost that while also finding areas where I can put my own thumbprint and develop in new ways — that’s what I’m taking this year to look at,” Hoffman says. “I think we’ll have some fun surprises coming up. But not knowing the community right now, it would be really premature to make all these changes, because there’s nothing wrong with the Norton Center.”
In fact, in just over a week, Hoffman will oversee possibly the biggest event in the center’s history, save for the 2000 Vice-Presidential Debate between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman: a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.
The sheer scale of that event and rolling out the red carpet for the orchestra, which almost never ventures anywhere in the United States except New York, has occupied a lot of Hoffman’s early months at the Norton Center. On his post-Vienna Philharmonic schedule are tasks like analyzing ticket sales and meeting with more members of the community to figure out what they want from the Norton Center.
Hoffman’s goal, he says, is that an audience will trust his programming enough to be open to new fare he books, as well as the marquee stars.
Already, Hoffman has been talking to students, getting a sense of what excites them on the upcoming season: Blue Man Group gets them excited, he says, and the Punch Brothers takes a little explaining.
But his intentions with students are beyond getting them to come to shows.
“I feel like we’re going to train people to be great non-profit leaders and customer service experts,” he says, shortly after giving a talk to students who will work in the center as ushers, backstage hands and in other capacities. “I explained that what we really want to do is create a great experience for our patrons, for our customers. Yo-Yo Ma can have a bad day one day, and I can’t control that. But everything leading up to that — arriving, getting their programs, getting to their seats — all of that is the experience we can provide.”
It takes him back to his days at Illinois, Wisconsin and other educational stops in his growth.
“I had a lot of great mentors,” Hoffman says. “And I said, whenever I have an opportunity to give back, I want to do that.”