New director of troubled EKU arts center sets fixes in motion

Herald-Leader culture columnistFebruary 16, 2014 

Joel Aalberts, 43, is the third executive director of the EKU Center for the Arts since before it opened in fall 2011. He has been on the job since last summer.

RICH COPLEY — Lexington Herald-Leader Buy Photo

  • IF YOU GO

    EKU Center for the Arts

    Here's a look at some upcoming events at the Eastern Kentucky University Center for the Arts, 1 Hall Dr., Richmond. Go to Ekucenter.com or call (859) 622-7469 for tickets and more information.

    Feb. 18: Man of La Mancha, Broadway musical. 7:30 p.m. $57-$77.

    Feb. 26: Rock of Ages, Broadway musical. 7:30 p.m. $60.50-$70.50.

    March 5: The Pink Floyd Experience, rock tribute band. 7:30 p.m. $45-$60.

    March 8: Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Broadway musical. 3 and 7:30 p.m. $35.50-$75.50.

    March 11: Celtic Woman, Irish music. 7:30 p.m. $48-$83.

    March 19: Hamlet, performed by The Acting Company, play. 7:30 p.m. $45-$50.

After nearly eight years at the Bloomington Center for the Arts in Bloomington, Ill., Joel Aalberts knew it was time for a change.

It was a great place; he had started as marketing director and moved up to executive director. But he knew he wanted to take a next step and do it before his elementary-school-age kids got too settled where they were.

He started looking around and, he says, did some interviews in places he quickly knew would not be good fits.

Then, he found himself in the running to be director at the Eastern Kentucky University Center for the Arts in Richmond, which was looking to fill the post after almost a year with an interim chief.

"There was something about it that just seemed right," Aalberts says. "From looking from the outside, the areas that needed work, I felt like I knew how to fix those. I had gone through the same process at my last center, so I feel like it's something I could get right for here.

As the interview approached, his wife, Amy, decided to accompany him to Richmond. "She had never come on an interview trip with me before," he says, because she "doesn't want to invest emotionally in these things" and "normally says, 'When they have an offer, we can start to talk about moving.'"

But like her husband, Amy Aalberts thought that Richmond could be the right move. While he spent the day interviewing with EKU personnel and city and county officials, she checked out Richmond and the area. Driving home to Illinois, the parents of Owen, 8, and Maya, 5, concluded that they had liked what they had seen.

"We feel like we can live, while doing good work, and make some of that life balance," Aalberts says. "We left feeling very positive about it, that it was a nice-sized community. ... We have access to Lexington, to the grooviness of Berea, and there's a lot to offer."

EKU officials and the center's community operations board thought Aalberts, too, had a lot to offer, and he now is in his second semester as director of the center, which has the largest performing arts theater in Central Kentucky, with 2,100 seats.

The center opened in fall 2011 but did not get off to a smooth start.

Aalberts is the center's third permanent director, succeeding Debra Hoskins. She was hired after the departure of Katherine Eckstrand, who cited personal reasons, before the center opened. Hoskins left in June 2012 amid allegations of improper personal and professional conduct. Hoskins has denied the allegations and is now director of the Grand Theatre in Lancaster.

While the situation and turnover in the director's job might have been red flags to some, Aalberts says they really didn't bother him.

"I'm not a turmoil guy," he says. "What I always say to people who are going to be my boss is, 'It's my job to never embarrass you.' I'm going to be upfront. I'm going to operate things right. I may make mistakes. We all make mistakes. But it's how you deal with it afterwards.

"It's OK. I've read the reports. I kind of know the stuff that's been out there. In some ways, the politics of it really doesn't matter to me that much. It's all done. I need to be aware of it so I can address those problems. I need to be aware of it so that if there is anyone who was pushed to the side, in all of the things that happened, if there are opportunities we missed, I need to go find those people and introduce myself and talk about what it is that we want to do.

"In some ways, it's like going back to square one. There's a bit of baggage that you need to clean up to get things going. There's a great group of people in the staff at the center."

While an English major at the University of Iowa, Aalberts, 43, was involved with the arts, singing in a show choir and directing an a cappella group called Joel and the English Majors. "I spent as much time in the school of music as I did in the English department, doing that group, singing in opera choruses and that sort of thing," Aalberts says.

When he graduated in 1992, Aalberts got a job as a marketing director for a computer systems company in Memphis. It "taught me more about what I didn't want to do than what I wanted to do." he says.

He considered it a blessing to be laid off after a year.

Aalberts went back to his alma mater as assistant marketing director for the University of Iowa's Hancher Auditorium.

"We had to go sell dance to farmers, basically, and bring the arts out into the community in a way that I think is really fun," Aalberts says. "I think the arts are life-changing. You know, coming out of the software industry, nobody at the end of their life is thinking, 'Boy, do you remember that program? It saved us so much time.' But you do remember when you went on a date or took your kids to a program. Those are the Hallmark moments."

From Iowa, he took arts marketing positions at the University of Michigan and the University of Arizona, and served a brief stint as a public affairs officer at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., before he went to the Bloomington Center for the Arts.

A big part of EKU's attraction for Aalberts was the chance to return to an educational institution.

"Of the shows I have booked for next year, we have education components or education outreach opportunities on probably 50 to 60 percent of them," Aalberts says. "So we'll have an opportunity for students and community members to interact with those performers while they're here.

"We'll be stating a pre-show discussion series with a lot of our shows where you can come 45 minutes before the show, go to this area, and there will be someone to talk for about a half-hour about what will happen on the stage so you'll have a little more information for the show."

The first time that will happen, he says, will be with the March 19 presentation of William Shakespeare's Hamlet by The Acting Company.

"If you have someone who tells you some of those 'a-ha' moments, and then you're sitting in the theater and that moment comes, you're think, 'Oh, I know something,' and it makes it so much more enjoyable because now you get it," says Aalberts, who also wants to make sure there are more seats that will fit into student budgets.

"I remember back in college, when I would eat cheap several nights in a row so I could go see this show I wanted to see," says Aalberts, who expresses an affinity for jazz numerous times during a lunch interview. "And it did not matter to me if I was in the front center. Being in the back corners when you're 18 years old is just fine. I got to see this person."

With a few exceptions, he says, EKU students should be able to get into most shows for $15.

Whether it's to students or the community, Aalberts says he understands that the EKU Center still is introducing itself to the area.

"There are a lot of people out there who still have not had their first experience coming to the EKU Center, so we are continuing to alter the program experience to provide enough new things for people," Aalberts says. "The new business side kind of appeals to me because you can kind of do anything."

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Email: rcopley@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @copiousnotes.

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