DANVILLE — For a few precious years at the beginning of his term as director of the Norton Center for the Arts, George Foreman got to work with the center's namesake, Louisville philanthropist Jane Morton Norton.
"If you could create the ideal patron in my mind, it would be Jane Norton," Foreman said. "She had a vision that she wanted this place to be a center of excellence. At the same time, she never tried to dictate what you did. She never said, 'You should bring this show; you should bring that show.'
"But if you went to Jane with some sort of a special project and you would outline it — this happened over and over — she would say, 'You know, we just can't afford not to do that, can we?'"
Thus the seeds were planted for Foreman's 26-year career at Danville's Norton Center. That long tenure came to a close Thursday.
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In early December, Foreman chatted in his new office in the newly renovated center on Centre College's campus. The office was never really decorated, because shortly after it was completed, he accepted an offer to become the new director of the University of Georgia Performing Arts Center in Athens.
Foreman officially went on UGA's payroll Friday, directing a 1,100-seat concert hall and 360-seat recital hall that opened in the late 1990s, as well as a few other facilities on the university's campus. He also will be working with former Centre President Michael Adams, who has been president of UGA since 1997.
"This opportunity came at kind of an odd time," Foreman said. "I just turned 64. That's a point in most people's lives when they're thinking about quitting, not starting again.
"I had envisioned working here another five or six years. This opportunity at Georgia came along, and it was like, well, you could sit right where you are and do it again five more times. I get charged up for a new series of performances every year. But I'm not sure what new ground there is to break."
Foreman leaves Danville with a lot of ground broken, having established events such as the Great American Brass Band Festival and the Chamber Music Festival of the Bluegrass at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. But it is his work making the Norton Center an unlikely cultural destination that will be his legacy.
The Norton Center is nestled on a campus of about 1,100 students in a city of 15,524, but usually presents a lineup of talent that bests similar centers in much larger cities.
"Some colleges and universities have football and basketball teams that are their public faces," said Bill Owen, president and CEO of Lexington Center Corp., which operates Rupp Arena and the Lexington Opera House. "The Norton Center is what most people in the region know Centre College for."
Indeed, Foreman said that more than half of the audience for the Norton Center drives in from outside of Boyle County.
When he arrived at the Norton Center, Foreman said he understood the goal for the venue was to be that calling card, but it wasn't quite there. The evolution of the business and some well-managed endowments, he said, played a major role in helping the Norton Center take risks and bring in high-profile talent. And bringing in those big names such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Philadelphia Orchestra, allowed Foreman and his staff to develop relationships with agencies and managers that opened the door to more major bookings.
As Foreman prepared to move to Georgia, he could pack along memories of concerts such as the Empire Brass, which he describes as a "spiritual night"; relationships with such artists as flutist James Galway; and events like the 2000 Vice Presidential Debate between Republican candidate Dick Cheney and Democrat Joe Lieberman.
Midway through a late morning chat, Foreman went through a number of highlights from the past quarter century.
Best event: The New York Philharmonic (2009). "It wasn't financially successful, because it was frightfully expensive, and it happened at a time when the economy was starting to go bad," Foreman said of the concert in March. "But what made it so special was we had enough unsold tickets that we opened it up to students, and we had more than 500 Centre students at that concert.
"That just really fulfilled the mission of this place as good as you could do it: Bring things of superior quality. Bring things most people would say, 'You can't do that. It's impossible.' And then, make it available and have students participate in it."
Best performer: Willie Nelson (2000). "He went for over three hours and never stopped. He was playing all these songs you had heard dozens of times ... and I heard different things in every one of those songs he did. So you think about someone who has probably played those songs thousands of times, but he can still communicate to the audience some sense that he's doing something different, that he's still creating something.
"Plus, he was as generous with his time afterward with people who wanted to talk to him as anyone we every had."
Worst performer: Kiri Te Kanawa (2002). "She managed to present herself as a diva and completely alienate the audience," Foreman said.
Trouble started when a cell phone went off during her first song, and she stopped. Then, when she had started again, an elderly woman on the back row in the orchestra section had to get up and leave, "and she stopped again and just glared, and then she proceeded to give the audience a lecture on how she had come here to sing, but she could not do it under these circumstances and if the audience could not comport itself appropriately, she wasn't sure if she could go on. It just ruined it."
Foreman notes that he and the Norton Center staff had lovely times with two notoriously difficult performers: dancer Rudolph Nureyev and soprano Kathleen Battle.
Most creative event: Flux. The quartet played Morton Feldman's String Quartet No. 2, which lasted six hours, 33 minutes, uninterrupted.
"I heard a story about the first performance of it in New York on NPR, and I said, well I think the second place that ought to happen is here," Foreman recalls.
It became a campus event. T-shirts were printed up that had clocks on the front and "How long can you go?" on the back. Some students plopped a couch from the drama department in front of the stage, and a drawing was held for a trip to Cancun, which students could enter once for every hour they were at the performance.
"It wouldn't have worked for a lot of things, but it was really in the spirit of how the group approached playing that work," Foreman said.
A national search to find Foreman's successor will begin in January. In the interim, longtime Centre professor and administrator Milton Reigelman will serve as temporary director. Veteran Norton staff member Debra Hoskins has been promoted to assistant director.
Foreman, who was spending December primarily working off unused vacation time, was occupied with working on projects related to brass band history, a lifelong passion that led him to launch the Brass Band Festival in 1989, and thinking of ideas for UGA.
He said he was leaving satisfied that he has put Danville on the cultural map and fulfilled Jane Norton's vision.
Foreman said of the center, "I think it's better than when I took it in all regards."