Meg Booth might not spend time on stage in front of an audience, but the new CEO of the Society for the Performing Arts shares a performer's laser focus.
Booth joined SPA from the Kennedy Center, one of the foremost performance venues in the world, after 11 years as director of dance. Her roots are in that genre, having worked for the Twyla Tharp dance company and the global performer management company IMG Artists.
Booth chatted with Houstonia about her vision for the revered 53-year-old Houston organization as it approaches the start of its 2019-2020 season, the first she has a direct hand in curating.
How has your eight months in Houston been? Your husband is from here.
It’s been great. Yes, he’s from here and went to Trinity University in San Antonio. He kind of jokes, “I knew we’d always end up back in Texas, but I didn’t think it was going to be you that brought us there.” The kids are at St. Anne’s [Catholic School, on Westheimer Road].
How did you get interested in the industry?
I grew up in New England. I remember watching the Boston Pops as a kid on television. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. My parents were always about education for education’s sake, but all I ever wanted to do was spend time in my art classes. The muscle of What are you going to do after you graduate? was never exercised. It was just What do you love doing right now?
I got a BFA in photography, I started exhibiting and selling my work. But I never really understood how I would make a living off that. The whole notion of being an artist and selling my work was something so uncomfortable for me. I wanted my work to be gifts. It was a couple of years after college that I decided I wanted to stay in the arts, but I didn’t want to be the artist.
Through networking, I got a job at North Carolina Dance Theatre, which is now Charlotte Ballet. That whole environment of making things happen and the curtain going up—hook, line, and sinker, I fell in love.
David Bowie once said that he enjoyed the process of putting a performance together more than the process of making the music. Would you say that applies to you?
It definitely would. I’ve always been drawn to creative people. Particularly being at the Kennedy Center, we were so fortunate, we had a nationally based internship program for so long. You had these kids coming from the middle of the country that maybe didn’t live in a major city and didn’t get to see the performing arts very often. Three times a year, we’d have these new crops of interns come in and be completely starstruck at the whole spectacle of the curtain going up, the backstage area that everyone else doesn’t get to see. It gave you the opportunity to take stock. They gave me the opportunity to not be jaded.
Why leave the Kennedy Center?
I had been at the Kennedy Center for 15 years, and there had been extraordinary change in the time that I was there. I had seen a major leadership change, they were building a new expansion. Within the line of programming I was in, there was really nowhere for me to go. I had done it, and I was looking for a new challenge. I heard about this job, and at first, I didn’t think I wanted to do it. But my husband told me, ‘You have to apply for this.’
I really enjoyed meeting all the board members and staff members. I think it really re-jogged all the memories I had when touring here when I was with Twyla Tharp. Prior to that, I worked with one of the largest artist management companies in New York [IMG], and we placed a lot of artists here.
If you look at the SPA mission, it’s not dissimilar to the mission of the Kennedy Center, where it is some of the strongest touring arts that are available with a really strong education component, so it really does feel like home, a good challenge, and the next step for me.
Post-Harvey, SPA had been in a bit of flux. What are some the challenges to bring some coherence to the organization?
When you think of the cultural ecosystem in Houston, I think SPA plays a critical role in that bridge to the rest of the world. That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited SPA has a commissioning fund, where we can identify artists that are creating great work that are needing presenters to augment their funding in order to create new work.
This year, we are working with Kyle Abraham, a MacArthur [Fellowship] genius choreographer who has a company in New York. He is creating a trilogy about black love in America. The first act is to music by D’Angelo. We’re thrilled to be one of those national partners that help identify touring artists that don’t necessarily exist in a home theater but travel around the world to showcase what’s being done.
Also, with our multi-disciplinary approach, there are a lot of people that want to belong to an organization that offers variety. You’re not going to see one thing when you come to SPA. We have a strong contemporary dance series, speaker series, family series, and we always have brought in music. We are also bringing in National Geographic, where 50 percent of the people who come in have never been to the theater before.
SPA is commissioning its first work in five years with A.I.M’s “An Untitled Love.” How does this fit into the broader strategy for the organization?
SPA has been around for 53 years, we have a history of supporting artists globally. We should be committed to continuation of the creation of terrific new art. What it also does is put SPA’s name on these artists who are traveling internationally, so in a way, I think of it as public relations for the city of Houston, that Houston is committed participating at a national and international scale.
What is the overall goal of the coming season?
Having come from the Kennedy Center where we went through a leadership change when I was there, I think it’s important to differentiate yourself and kind of signal that we are reinvigorated. I don’t want to say that we’re back because we never really went away, but it was really important for us as a team to put together an ambitious season.
The 2019-20 season kicks off with mercurial actor-turned-jazz pianist Jeff Goldblum and the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra on Friday, Sept. 20. More info and tickets at spahouston.org.