KALAMAZOO — As he focuses on preparations for the 2018 Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, director Dan Gustin has a lot on his mind.
Most notably, he needs to keep the biennial event in front of people in the off-years, as well as maintain and enhance its relevancy to attract new audiences.
“We can’t market our product like a furniture store does,” Gustin said. “We’re a nonprofit so we can’t afford to put ads out there even if we wanted to. To get the word out on what we’re doing and what we offer to motivate people to come to our events is a big new challenge right now.”
The first Keyboard Festival in 1991 featured such world-class pianists as Van Cliburn as well as a slate of highly regarded, but lesser-known musicians who performed during the nine-day program. In 2002, the festival expanded to 20 days plus offered concerts in the “off-season” years and additional educational and commissioning programs.
The organization sponsored piano labs, music camps and Master Classes in an attempt to engage area students and raise awareness with parents as a way to encourage them to bring their children to hear great music.
“The most important thing in educating kids about the arts is exposure,” Gustin said. “That’s the big challenge today, getting them to come and sit and listen. Music as an art form won’t inspire everybody but a significant number can be touched by it.
“The education programs have evolved into almost a pre-festival. These are the events in the off-years to keep it out there.”
In addition to schools, the festival also collaborates with social service agencies through its community engagement program to reach underserved audiences. Festival staff will go to organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club or the Gospel Mission to prepare these audiences for a concert experience by removing the intimidation factor.
“Some of these people may not know when to clap or how to dress,” Gustin said. “We give them a sense of welcome and what to expect.”
During the 2016 festival, the group’s education coordinator worked with an alternative high school class and gave students lessons about the composer and genre prior to a concert at Kalamazoo College.
The organization also has embraced technology and social media to engage young listeners and fans.
In February, the Gilmore live-streamed a sold-out Kalamazoo concert by 22-year-old classical pianist Seong-Jin Cho as part of its “Rising Star Series.” The live-stream reached thousands of viewers around the world, including Cho’s native South Korea. Last week, the Gilmore posted a segment of the concert on its YouTube channel to reach more young fans online.
The concert was just one of many ways the nonprofit has attempted to stay relevant and honor the legacy of its benefactor, Irving Gilmore.
Gilmore left behind a foundation valued at more than $100 million when he passed away in 1986 at the age of 85. Because he was an accomplished pianist, his foundation established the festival in his name.
“We’ve broadened our base of individual, corporate and foundation support,” said Alice Kemerling, assistant director of the festival. “We have not gone to the Gilmore Foundation because we want to grow it with other funding sources.”
During the Great Recession, Gustin said the festival “suffered some,” but support has remained fairly consistent.
Two years before the recession, the nonprofit created an endowment with a $500,000 gift, and it’s now valued at $5 million.
Sponsorships have enabled the festival to keep ticket prices significantly lower than other markets, and to offer free concerts as much as possible. Kemerling said many first-time patrons continue to attend festival concerts as a result of these initiatives.
“Our fundraising arsenal is affordable ticket pricing which is very, very important for us,” Gustin said. “It was true in the early days, but it’s even more important now.”
Despite the continued financial support, both Gustin and Kemerling said they are very concerned about the potential loss of the National Endowment for the Arts under the Trump administration. Like many arts organizations in the state of Michigan, the Keyboard Festival receives operational funding from the NEA through the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.
“For those of us who have relatively modest budgets, those funds are important,” Kemerling said.
However, the potential cuts could have implications beyond just funding, Gustin said.
“It’s like a seal of approval,” he said of the NEA funding. “It engenders confidence in donors and prospective funders.”
Concerns about the impact of the demise of the NEA are tempered with the knowledge that the festival has a world-class reputation as an event that consistently brings in the best of the best musicians.
“We’re still getting the best artists. They want to come back because of our track record,” Gustin said. “They know they will be treated well and have a good audience. We allow them to create their own programs. We would never put them in a position where they would be asked to cheapen what they do to satisfy a particular audience.”
From its inception, the festival performances have featured a mixture of classical music and jazz. The jazz events and concerts by headliners such as Tony Bennett and Pink Martini bring in a broader range of audiences, but the Rising Stars and Young Artists concerts can bring in younger audiences, according to executives.
A combination of lower ticket prices and alternative venues also has proven attractive to younger concert-goers. In 2016, the organization held two of its jazz concerts at Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo.
Kemerling said she and her staff will continue to look for opportunities to stage performances in a variety of venues that would serve as appropriate backdrops for the artists.
“We are fortunate in Kalamazoo to have a number of places like Chenery Auditorium and Stetson Chapel that have really good acoustics,” Gustin said. “Not all cities could boast that.”
In addition to creative performance spaces, the nonprofit has collaborated with local theater groups in producing works that relate to the festival. Additionally, a previous festival included a musical performance that incorporated a puppet theater.
An exhibit of paintings by one of the artists will be featured during the 2018 festival.
“We are always looking at new ways to generate excitement and appeal to a broader audience,” Gustin said. “This festival will continue to honor Irving S. Gilmore’s legacy while also paying homage to the artists who continue to dedicate themselves to their craft.”