Then and Now: Millennial Lessons from a Performing Arts Veteran – the Smithsonian Impresario

In a recent event hosted by the Smithsonian Associates, I was given a glimpse into the changing landscape and historic events of the performing arts in DC.  It was the first day of November and I had the opportunity to hear from a veteran of the field, the acclaimed Smithsonian Impresario, Mr. James Morris – although he seemed to prefer to go by “Jim”.  The event was moderated by Dwight Bower, the curator of entertainment history at the National Museum of American History.  I was one of the few Millennials in the audience, but I was eager to learn and to get involved.  Scribbling furiously on my steno notepad, I tried to capture the evolution of topics and statements made during Mr. Morris’ discussion.  I will do my best to accurately reconstruct the memories and experiences shared at this event.

Jim began by reflecting on his life and work in the performing arts.  He highlighted some of the many roles he has had in and around the arts, ranging from politics, to theatre, music, and television.  Although he initially built his career as a performer in entertainment and the arts, after a while – and with the addition of his wife and a three-year-old child at the time – he decided to apply his creative energies to a more administrative role.  Bowers addressed this transitional stage, asking Jim to describe how he first got involved with the Smithsonian Institution.

He was referred to Secretary S. Dillon Ripley through a connection made at a trade fair.  He contacted Sec. Ripley by phone to discuss his interest in developing the performing arts at the Smithsonian and was invited for a job interview shortly after.  Jim met Sec. Ripley at the Smithsonian Castle, but much to his surprise, the interview ended up taking place in Sec. “Ripley’s automobile” — after all, Sec. Ripley was a busy man and needed to get things done.  Jim was disarmed by the conversational tone of the interview that unfolded.  In fact, it turned out that it was hardly an intense interview at all, it felt more like “chit chat.”  Not knowing what to make of his interaction with Sec. Ripley, Jim left uncertain of his chances.  Later that evening, the phone rang at his home.  It was Sec. Ripley and he was offering him the job.  Jim was hired as director of Museum Services in 1966 and appointed to director of the Smithsonian’s new Division of Performing Arts in the following year.

The decision to hire a director of Museum Services was not one that was warmly received among the other curators at the Smithsonian. Jim somewhat jokingly recalled, “I felt like a wild animal that had been set loose in their environment.”  Eventually, a member of the board stuck up for him and said, “Management hired him to enhance what we do here,” encouraging others to let him do what he was hired to do.  His impact on the Smithsonian Institution from that point forward was truly revolutionary. As the new Director of the Division of Performing Arts, he got involved in and accomplished many things at the Smithsonian. He became the founder of the highly anticipated, annual Folklife Festival, helped initiate the American College Theater Festival with Kennedy Center’s Dept of Education (with hopes of linking it to the Smithsonian), and established the Smithsonian Collection of Recordings, among other notable achievements.

He was particularly interested in regional, or state, culture.  “Bit by bit” the Folklife Festival came together, making its official debut in 1967.  The festival went for four days and drew what turned out to be the most attended event in Smithsonian history to date.  Despite the prevalence of “high art” in America, Jim took interest in “popular culture,” which was the “orphan of the cultural world” at the time.  After a while, he said, “people came to realize the importance of pop music, musical theatre, etc. in tradition.”

He vehemently pursued his interest in jazz, working to incorporate this truly American genre into the musical and educational offerings of the Smithsonian.  His desire to include a genre of music dominated by African-American artists, however, was faced with great resistance – during a time when racial tensions remained high in America – but he never backed down.  Jim eventually decided that he needed to create a product and a plan.  Jim raised money for the project himself and came to his supervisors with a plan.  The project was reluctantly approved, allowing only 500 recordings of jazz to be made.  Public response was enormous, proving to be a tremendously popular endeavor.  Jim had packaged the orders by hand at first, but the level of sophistication in operations grew to accommodate the demand for the “milestone Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz of 1973.”


Millennials are experiencing a great deal of change due to the evolution of technology and influence of a rather volatile economy.  Job seekers in the 21st century can no longer wait to be approached by someone with a job, we must show our passion, enthusiasm, and desire, just as Jim did and continued to do throughout his career.  Technology can and should be used strategically in the arts, allowing arts managers and artists to better demonstrate the value of their work, to build connections, and realize the impact of the arts on the well-being of the community.

I highlight the nature the Millennial generation in recent posts, as well as their apparent role in nonprofit fundraising for the arts. The TweetChat #MillennialDonorsAU revealed these compelling themes – Millennials are eager and underrepresented.  Millennials are having an impact and it would be unfortunate and unwise for nonprofits to ignore the creative, technological, enthusiastic energies of this empowered generation.

You may be wondering, what does the Smithsonian Impresario have to do with Millennials?

As an emerging arts leader and Millennial in DC, I am inspired by the Smithsonian Impresario’s emphasis on cultural inclusion, sense of enthusiasm, and passion for the arts. What are the barriers to Millennial involvement in the arts, not only as donors, but also as audience members and employees?  How can nonprofit organizations take advantage of this enthusiastic generation, clearly eager to get involved and make a difference in others’ lives?  Many arts organizations are faced with aging and declining audiences, affecting their ability to navigate confidently in a difficult economy (symphony orchestras appear to be ubiquitous in this respect, evidenced by the musician strikes, contract negotiations, and leadership resignations littering arts & culture headlines across the country and abroad). How can we begin to shift our mindset and adapt to the demands of society?

In order to make change in the 21st century, I think it is important that we reflect on the past to inform our futures and also work to adjust to and incorporate what is currently going on around us.  Tap into your inner impresario – be creative, be willing to adapt, and always pursue your life’s work with passion!

*You can grab a copy of his new book for all the amazing stories and wisdom of the Smithsonian Impresario.

A Memoire by James Morris


2 thoughts on “Then and Now: Millennial Lessons from a Performing Arts Veteran – the Smithsonian Impresario

  1. Pingback: Back to the Future: Future of Music Coalition E-Summit 2012 | Mezzaphonically Speaking

  2. Pingback: Terrifying Decisions and Unresolved Questions in the Performing Arts | Mezzaphonically Speaking

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