In Conversation: Derek Kwan, Executive Director, Lied Center

May 16, 2018 Christine Payne


Derek Kwan made a big move for his new job. He also has some big ideas about the future of his new organization and the live entertainment industry as a whole.


I am the Executive Director of the Lied Center at the University of Kansas. Before starting here earlier this year, I was VP of Concerts and Touring at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. It was my second stint there and I absolutely loved my job both times. It was so fulfilling on a number of different levels — being able to support America’s original art form and being able to work with so many different kinds of artists and collaborations. The first time I worked for Jazz at Lincoln Center I didn’t have any kids. The second time we’d had two kids, so we made a choice to relocate so we could have a more balanced life. Plus, my wife and I love college towns and Lawrence is one of the best, if not the best college town in the country in my opinion.

My first goal for the Lied Center is strengthening existing relationships with various constituents and establishing new ones. Secondly, redefining relevance in programming. We need to bring in artists who will inspire significant contributed income and also be able to fill a house, while at the same time bringing in artists who are challenging and adventurous. It’s a delicate balance there. Third, we’re making a considerable investment in video technology.

First and foremost, we are reinvigorating our partnerships and also creating new partnerships on campus and in the community. One of the new partnerships we have is with Student Union Activities on campus. We are helping to advise on different entertainment opportunities and learning about what is relevant to students in this day and age, so it’s a really mutually beneficial relationship. We’re also reigniting a relationship with one of the institutions on campus called the Osher Institute for Lifelong Learning. It’s for retirees who participate in special programs that are associated with all different kinds of events in Lawrence. We are going to have a few special events associated with the Osher Institute this coming fall, surrounding appearances by the Vienna Boys Choir and the University Symphony Orchestra with the cellist Joshua Roman.

Being able to document and share stories with our constituents using video is something we feel is very effective. We are also going to install webcasting infrastructure so that we can serve as a positive resource for the university arts groups. So for instance, once the webcasting infrastructure is installed, and our timeline is by the end of the summer, we will be able to start webcasting student performances. This will help in a multitude of ways. We will be able to reach the entire world with the great performances from our students, which will also help in the recruiting process. As well, we will reach donors and family members of students who wouldn’t necessarily be able to come here to see these performances. We think this will help the university brand as a whole by getting us out there more. We are going to create mini-documentaries highlighting our education and engagement activities at the Lied Center, as there is so much more that happens beyond the stage. Our patrons know that we do engagement activities, but it is somewhat abstract since they rarely have a chance to observe them. Video documentation will provide an insider’s look into the amazingly positive effect these activities can have on both students and artists. [View mini-documentary from Derek’s time at Interlochen]

When I was at Jazz at Lincoln Center, we started webcasting every single one of our professional performances. When people heard about our plans to do this they thought we were crazy. They said, “Oh no, artists will never let you do that, it’s going to cost you too much.” But that started in the fall of 2012 and artists bought into it. They said, “You’re telling me that you’re going to webcast this to the world essentially and create a platform for me to promote myself and my own projects?” We said, “Yes, absolutely.” So building upon that webcasting idea we started to create a lot of human interest videos advocating for jazz music. What I would like to do at the Lied Center is advocate for arts education through videos. We aren’t going to webcast the professional performances because doing it on behalf of a genre is different than doing it on behalf of individual artists in many different genres, but we are going to start by showing what impact the arts can have on a student’s development. That student can be three years old in preschool or, like I was saying with the Osher Institute, it can be someone well into their retirement.


Derek Kwan believes in personal, face-to-face relationships

AudienceView plays a huge role in terms of providing us with the tools to be able to research our patrons, learn more about them and convert a single ticket buyer into a subscriber, donor, lifelong supporter and friend. I think the technology is absolutely crucial for the success of the institution. It allows us to find the people we would like to meet face-to-face and have a deeper discussion with them. It gives us the ability to identify folks’ history with us, as well as provides a good sense of where their interests may lie and what opportunities there might be to engage more deeply. At the end of the day, I think [patron engagement] really comes down to personal relationships.

I like the fact that donors are much more engaged these days in how their gifts are spent. I actually think that’s a very healthy development within the fundraising world because it calls for accountability and the only way an organization can move forward in a positive way is to have the checks and balances there to make sure that all the right questions are being asked and answered in the right manner. I really like the fact that donors are much more engaged whereas two decades ago it was just writing a check and saying okay do what you want with it. Going back to the use of video technology, if a donor isn’t here for a specific engagement or educational event and that’s what they support we are still able to show them.

In general, my personal philosophy is that the arts spur creativity and creativity, in turn, spurs innovation. And innovation, in whatever field you’re in — be it science, medicine, journalism — is what moves society forward in a positive way. I see the arts being basically the breeding ground for that.

Jazz icon Wynton Marsalis

Jazz icon Wynton Marsalis

There are so many different ways in which sports and the arts could learn from each other in terms of collaborations, in terms of teamwork, in terms of preparation, focus, rehearsals, practice prior to a performance or prior to a game, even how one mentally prepares and gets into the zone. I think there are many parallels. In fact, when I was at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Wynton Marsalis, who is the managing artistic director there, did a CBS segment with Tom Brady, the quarterback of the New England Patriots, and Alan Gilbert, conductor of the New York Philharmonic, about drawing parallels between being an NFL quarterback and being a conductor of a major symphony.

The non-profit performing arts world can learn a lot from professional sports teams in terms of how to create a fan or patron experience on site. That could definitely lead to revenue generation for non- profit arts organizations. Another thing we did at Jazz at Lincoln Center…we were simply following the model of sports stadiums and what Broadway had already adopted — allowing drinks into the theater. That’s something that was considered sacrilegious in some circles but it enhanced the patron experience and it brought in revenue we wouldn’t have had otherwise.

[Even with a wide-ranging demographic,] social media is integral to our outreach strategy going forward. It’s certainly changing every day, but at the same time there are a few platforms that have stood the test of time. Right now we primarily use Facebook and Twitter for our clientele. We have also invested more in targeted advertising — in certain instances for certain artists, Facebook advertising is much more effective than a traditional print ad. I think the trends are showing that there’s a more mature demographic that has adopted Facebook as a viable platform while younger demographics are using Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, etc. For different shows where we feel we will have an older demographic or a younger demographic, we just adjust the advertising accordingly.

The challenge [with smartphone use during a performance and the in-venue experience] is not alienating your core audience while trying to gain a new audience. In terms of audience development, the delicate balance is making changes or having initiatives that will attract folks who are heavy users of technology, but, at the same time, there are some very strong ideals from a core demographic from a lot of non-profit arts organizations where that is something that is considered sacrilegious. I think [it has to be considered on] a case-by-case basis and that’s why having personal relationships and trust is so important. You can have conversations with folks about this if you have the right kind of relationship with them.

Derek speaks at the 2014-2015 season announcement party

Derek speaks at the 2014-2015 season announcement party

We have a season announcement party every end of April and [for the first time] we live Tweeted it. Next to [the screen showing our video about the next season], we had a screen just as big that had captured all the hashtag #LiedKS Tweets. All of our board members and other constituents who were there were Tweeting the whole time. It was a small step towards acceptance because there were folks Tweeting who thought they would never Tweet. I think that was a first step of showing how it can create excitement and broader awareness, but it was in a safe setting in the sense that there wasn’t a formal performance going on but it was related to what we do here. In select cases, I think it could definitely work [in our venue]. For instance, there are some artists who actually encourage it. Look at pop artists, for example. While I was [Executive Director] at Interlochen we had Jason Mraz there and he said, “Everybody get your phones out, make sure you Tweet and post on Facebook.”

For non-profit organizations, I think the largest challenge is dealing with “D-I-Y,” the do-it-yourself kind of philosophy that is taking over everything, really. We’re here as an arts organization curating programming that is presented to patrons while a lot of people in this day and age just want to do things on their own and create themselves. That’s something that we, as an industry, need to figure out — a way to incorporate our patrons’ desires and artistic affinities into what we do here. I like that some bands such as Steely Dan would do an audience choice for some of their concerts. If they do a long run or a three-night run at a venue, the first night they may play one or two albums from beginning to end, the second night another album, and then the third night they do audience choice. Through voting online or through their phones, [the audience gets a say] on what the set list [should be and] what they want to hear. We need to figure out a way to make that more effective for our patrons to feel like they have more skin in the game. I remember at the Museum of Modern Art, folks were uploading podcasts with their own curatorial commentary. Obviously the museum has their own tapes where you walk around, they tell you where to go, what to do and what to look at. These podcasts became a really cool development because folks didn’t have to follow what the so-called authority wanted them to see or hear or look at. It was their peers doing it themselves and they could hear from them too. It’s like crowd sourcing in a way…and as an industry [we need to] have that balance between a curatorial experience and also incorporate crowd sourcing.

I think some symphonies have tried this as well in terms of having an audience curated night, but I am thinking from a broader standpoint too. Who do you even bring for your season? For the last 15 years I’ve always tried to say, “Let me know what artists interest you or what genres interest you or what do you think would be a cool collaboration?” I’m always having that open dialogue with folks and seeking the feedback rather than shying away from it. Whenever I go places or meet new people or have a chance to speak at a function, I always ask for their opinion. I always give out my phone number and email address. It helps too, in terms of building relationships and trust.

Thanks, Derek! We like to give out our contact details too. You can reach the AudienceView marketing and editorial team via We always welcome your questions and comments.


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