I am not aware of any historic rivalry between Centre College and Eastern Kentucky University. But it seems like one fired up on Monday morning, when EKU announced Debra Hoskins, the former assistant director at Centre’s Norton Center for the Arts, will run the new Center for the Performing Arts at Eastern Kentucky University.
Here’s the backstory on this move: Hoskins served for nearly two decades as the program and public relations director at the Norton Center before being promoted to assistant director late in her tenure. Over those years, she worked closely with center director George Foreman to bring an astonishing list of performers to the small liberal arts college in the small Kentucky town of Danville. The guest list included the Boston Pops, Kathleen Battle, Dolly Parton and many, many more.
In 2009, Foreman accepted a position as the director of the performing arts centers at the University of Georgia. Hoskins threw her hat in the ring for the director’s job at the Norton Center, but officials chose to bring in Steven A. Hoffman, a well traveled venue director whose last gig was the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Calif.
Despite his credentials, many of Hoskins’ ardent supporters saw this as an insult to a woman who, just days before Hoffman’s appointment was announced, had announced she had booked the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Gustavo Dudamel for an unprecedented concert at the Norton Center last September.
Hoskins stayed on for a while, but departed the Norton Center in December saying it was time to move on.
Turns out, she moved about 35 miles east.
At the same time Hoskins was leaving Centre, the original director of EKU’s center, Katherine Eckstrand, announced she was leaving to tend to family medical issues in Ohio, opening the door for Hoskins to lead the new facility at what happens to be her alma mater.
Do we have to spell out the forming rivalry out anymore?
Well, at Monday morning’s announcement, some university and public officials did. Madison County judge executive Kent Clark couldn’t help but invoke the word “stupid” in describing Centre’s decision to let Hoskins go.
For her own part, Hoskins did not express any animosity toward her former employer. She did say the new EKU center will be competitive with other venues in the region. She and others also highlighted geographic and physical advantages the new venue will have over facilities such as the Lexington Opera House and the University of Kentucky’s Singletary Center for the Arts, as well as the Norton Center.
And the 2,012-seat EKU Center, which includes a 250 seat black box theater, should be competitive. The stage house is only slightly smaller than Whitney Hall at Louisville’s Kentucky Center for the Arts, and at seven blocks from Exit 89 on I-75, only the Kentucky Center is closer to the Interstate. There will also be 500 parking spaces on the center property, so this will be a highly marketable venue to artists and audiences.
And Hoskins is all about marketing. At Centre, she was the force behind audience accoutrements such as intricate, fancy season announcement packages and a valet parking service at the Norton Center, where parking is pesky. She reportedly launched a bourbon and chocolate campaign to lure the Vienna Phil to Kentucky and has a track record of creating things like gift bags and outings to make artists’ visits to the Bluegrass memorable.
But there are also challenges in the new gig. Before they knew how events would unfold, when Foreman and Hoskins were asked about the EKU Center in 2009 they discussed how new centers take time to build up audience and clientele, something they spent a couple decades building up in Danville. The Norton Center also enjoys a healthy endowment to help support its programming.
So Hoffman has that to work with, and anyone who wants to write him off should reconsider. The man has been presenting top level artists since his days as a student at the University of Illinois, so it is not as if Centre brought in a novice.
And it’s not as if they are the only players in the region. For all the coups the Norton Center has pulled off the past few years, Singletary Center director Michael Grice has violin legend Itzhak Perlman coming in to play with the UK Symphony in March. And at the Opera House, Luanne Franklin has built the Broadway Live series into a top draw with consistently high quality shows. All of this is good for arts lovers in the region, and now there’s a little new drama to the South.
Starting this fall, Hoskins will program EKU and Hoffman will program at Centre.
Only they know how much they will think about each other’s lineups, but it will be hard for area arts observers to look at their coming seasons without seeing a lot of subtext.