Cue the arrival of the new Kravis Center chief executive officer. Take two.
When the longtime head of the West Palm Beach performing arts center, Judith Mitchell, announced that she was retiring, it triggered a nationwide search for her successor. Eventually, Terrence Dwyer, a veteran southern California arts manager, was selected, but he lasted a mere five months during the time that the center was closed by COVID.
As a result, the search committee was reactivated and this time the net was cast internationally. So welcome Diane Quinn of Montreal, Canada, who has been associated with the global circus organization Cirque du Soleil for nearly 20 years, most recently as its chief creative officer.
Quinn officially began at the Kravis Center on Jan. 31, and less than two weeks on the job she sat down with Palm Beach ArtsPaper and discussed how she feels about her new position here. “I’m very happy with my decision,” she says. “I was looking out my window yesterday and I thought, ‘I’m the luckiest person in the world.’ I think for the first time in my life I feel content. And that is an extraordinary feeling.”
She calls the decision to seek a new challenge at least as much personal as it was professional. “I was on the road so much and my husband was living in another country,” says Quinn. While her base was in Montreal, her arts manager husband was working in South Florida on a new project with the original creator of Cirque du Soleil. Taking the Kravis job “was an opportunity to get back and live in the same country, under the same roof, as my spouse.”
Asked to name her initial priorities at the Kravis Center, Quinn responds, “Obviously, getting to know this community. The way that I described it at my first board meeting was that Week One is all about the staff, the people who work here. That’s one community. It’s kind of like concentric circles. Week Two, to start to know and understand the board. Week Three is to understand more of our guests, our audience. and then our donors and supporters. And then the other circles in the larger community.”
The tireless Quinn is already putting in long hours on the job. “When I’m here, which has been pretty much every night, I’m literally walking through the lobby and introducing myself to people, just to perfect strangers. It’s been delightful,” she says. “Last night I met a couple from Sweden who were here on vacation. I feel you get one really good shot at people being completely honest with you. That’s when you meet them, and they don’t know you and you don’t know them.”
As chief creative officer with Cirque du Soleil, “The main duty was mainly to build our new shows and to make sure that our existing shows were of the highest quality,” she says. “So my goal was to make great shows for Cirque,” and such acquired subsidiaries as Blue Man Group, a family entertainment company called VStar and The Works, which does primarily magic and illusion shows.
Her responsibilities were both hands-on creative and managerial. “So to take the most recent Cirque show that just opened in Orlando, ‘Drawn to Life,’ which is a partnership with Disney, it was a matter of putting the entire creative team together and then leading that creative team as we got ready to open the show.”
At the Kravis, she expects the main input she will have on the creativity onstage is by challenging the staff. “Well, we have a programming team and so I’ve been sitting with them. And I’ve been asking the question, ‘Do you feel that you have programming for every aspect of the community, yes or no?’ And if the answer is ‘Yes, but…’ then we have to dig deeper. If the answer is ‘Yes,’ then I ask them to show me. And if the answer is ‘No,’ then we have to question ourselves, why is it that we don’t have programming for everyone?”
In considering the job here, Quinn researched the Kravis’s past programming. Her reaction? “I would say that we have first-rate musical programming. We would like to continue to be known for our classical and music programming. I think the Broadway series is something that definitely has huge reach and we’ve been successful in terms of having great Broadway programming,” she says. “So now I think it’s other areas that we need to be looking at, We need to be looking at comedy. Post-COVID, comedy is going to play a huge role, because we’re going to need to laugh. So that will be something we’re going to focus on for the upcoming seasons.
“And then when we look at our PEAK series,” of provocative, contemporary performances. “I think there’s a lot of room for growth in our PEAK series, for providing cutting-edge programming, to make sure that we’re really affecting change.”
In short, Quinn says she is pleased with the programming here, but sees areas that could be improved. “Listen, everything is up for a tweak,” she says. “And I really want us to follow the changes in the community so that we’re not lagging behind, that we’re shown as a real leader.”
As part of her research on her prospective position, Quinn sought the counsel of Judith Mitchell. “I asked her for a lot of advice. I asked her how some of the internal workings of the organization have come to be. But mostly I asked her about the culture, because the culture within the organization is the one thing that is extremely important to me,” she notes. “So I wanted to know where we were, in terms of where we might want to get to in the future. She’s been very helpful in terms of talking to me about the history of the place, the pace at which we work, the length of service that a lot of these staff members have.
“I have to say that was probably the most gratifying part of coming here. Not only did she have a long tenure here, but a lot of the staff have been here a long time. And that’s a testament to the fact that the organization has been loyal to them and that they’re loyal to the organization.”
In addition to her work with Cirque du Soleil, Quinn started three resident theater companies and served as executive director of the acclaimed American Repertory Theater at Harvard University. Still, she is not sure if creating a stage company is advisable at the Kravis.
“Having a resident theater company, if that’s a place that the organization would want to go, then that would require a whole strategic initiative. We’re not there at the moment,” she says. “I’m talking about producing, not just presenting touring companies. And producing is a whole different animal. It takes a skill set or a muscle that we’d need to build. I don’t see that happening in the very near future. There are other groups in the community that are doing that.”
Quinn is already familiar with Palm Beach County, having had a home in Delray Beach for several years, which she would visit occasionally.
“My husband was here a lot and I was mostly in Montreal. I would be the weekend spouse coming down. I love Delray. It’s been such an amazing place to be able to kind of retreat to. I’ve been coming down probably for seven years. We bought about 4-1/2 years ago. There was this amazing fitness boot camp in Delray Beach. That’s how I learned about Delray Beach. I wanted to go on a vacation that required me to work out and get all my stress out. The decision was I could either lie on the beach and drink tequila or go and work out. I chose to work out.”
But now that she will be working at the Kravis, she is shopping for a house closer to the performing arts center. “My goal is to walk to work. I don’t want anything more than a 15-minute walk.”
Asked how she believes her board of directors will measure her success as CEO, Quinn says, “We’re working through all of that now. I’ve asked them what my 90-day success looks like. One of the big goals is to put together a strategic plan. We’re looking at instituting some new ticketing software. And we’re also looking at our digital footprint. But it will start with the strategic plan.”
Particularly in these days of COVID, she wants the Kravis Center to be a place where patrons can come and feel safe.
“We live such stressful lives now, I want this to be a refuge for people. I want this to be a place where you can sit in a darkened space and be transformed. What we do is we offer transformation for people,” Quinn said. “It’s magic, right? The COVID protocols are very, very strong. I think people feel comfortable and confident coming here, and I want to make sure that they continue to feel that way.”