WESTY 2019 Honoree: WESTY Honoree: “All in” at Symphony Space
Kathy Landau creates a sense of community at the UWS cultural center that attracts audiences from around the world
“I get to say I love what I do, because I'm learning all the time.”
Kathy Landau, executive director, Symphony Space
Kathy Landau is coming home.
Landau, the executive director of Symphony Space, was born on the Upper West Side, and grew up in New York and in Los Angeles. She and husband Michael Kantor, an executive producer of the “American Masters” series on PBS moved to Westchester County 12 years ago so that their three children could have a shared experience in the same schools.
“We moved for the children and it was wonderful,” she says, recounting how the family held movie parties on the lawn for neighbors.
But things change. The kids are 23, 21 and 18 now. “Our children are not coming back to live in the suburbs,” she says. So she and Kantor have just put the Edgemont house up for sale. A new life in the city awaits.
She certainly already has a job here. Landau, 54, has been at Symphony Space for two and a half years. She sits in her upstairs office, the old vintage numbers that used to be on the outside of the theater decorating the wall to her left. To her right, there's a container full of Tab, the beverage she fell in love with in high school.
“I'm not a throwback. I'm a loyalist,” she says. “There's a difference. When I believe in something, I'm all in.”
She sounds like she's all in at Symphony Space, where 160,000 people come through the doors each year. The largest portion of the cultural center's audience comes from the Upper West Side, but visitors arrive from around the globe, too. “What's amazing is that we have audience members from all 50 states and 45 countries,” she says.“Assume Best Intentions Always”
In its 41st year, Symphony Space presents literature, film, theater and an ahead-of-its-time educational program, which back in the 1980s underscored that multiple histories should be told. The curriculum hits on Africa, Asia, Latin America and Native America. Landau recounts how the multidisciplinary and multi-venue platform began when Symphony Space threw open the doors of an abandoned theater and invited the community in. “And that sense of community is our DNA,” she says, giving credit to founders Allan Miller and Isaiah Sheffer, the longtime artistic director who died in 2012.
For her part, Landau is proud of her role in bringing together “the staff, board and key stakeholders to define who we are, clarify the mission and set a path to the future.” She and her team decided against replacing the last artistic director, Andrew Byrne, who returned about a year ago to Australia. “We decided we were going to build strength within the genres themselves instead of expecting one person to have strength in all of them,” she says, explaining how many organizations are single-art-form endeavors, concentrating in theater, dance or opera.
Are there fights over programming, like when the desires of longstanding patrons come up against initiatives for new audiences?
“We don't fight. We have healthy discourse,” she says, laughing. Then she gets serious. Her two management tips: “Assume best intentions always” and “Be kinder than you have to be.” An artistic family
There are challenges, and the old subscription model is “waning — and that's putting it mildly.” She doesn't like having to say no to coworkers or artists with good ideas that just don't fit the current plan. But she maintains she has the best job in the world.
“I am around smart, creative, interesting, passionate people doing smart, creative, passionate work all the time ... Not everyone gets to say they love what they do. And I get to say I love what I do, because I'm learning all the time.”
The Brown graduate grew up in an artistic family. Her parents were film producers. Her sister Tina Landau is a famous playwright; brother Jon Landau produced “Titanic,” among other films.
“I'm the black sheep of the family,” she says. “Every artist needs an audience. I am behind the scenes—head cheerleader and advocate.”
Clearly she advocates for Symphony Space. The organization hosts “Selected Shorts,” readings of short stories by famous actors, and the series plays on 150 public radio stations across the nation. The show travels too.
Landau says, “I have three people on an airplane right now going to L.A. because this weekend we have three shows at the Getty Museum.”
In a digital age, customers in search of culture can find options on their phones. But Landau believes deeply in live performance, and she stresses that Symphony Space productions give artists time and space to do things they do not do anywhere else.
“We are not another stop on the tour,” she says. “Pretty much everything we produce is one-night-only and only at Symphony Space.”
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