Paul Schofer is now at the helm of KC’s major creative place, Kauffman Center

07/11/2014 5:05 PM

07/11/2014 5:34 PM

Summer might feel like down time at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The three resident companies — the Symphony, Lyric Opera and Ballet — are between seasons. And many patrons have fled for summer travels or family time with out-of-school kids.

But there is music to be heard: This week brought the culminating concert of the Grammy Museum’s Music Revolution Project, a Kauffman collaboration that brings students together with professional musicians. Michael Feinstein was scheduled to sing Gershwin songs Friday. Saturday night brings the Kauffman debut of Paquita la del Barrio, a Mexican superstar who sings a particular brand of man-bashing songs. And coming soon is a three-day run of the Broadway show “Big River” and the annual TEDxKC talkfest.

Such a basket of diversity helps define the central, catalyzing role that the Kauffman Center performs in the shaping of Kansas City’s self-defined identity as a “creative crossroads.”

For Paul Schofer, all of the above means it’s full steam ahead in the hilltop complex he now directs as CEO and president. In June, Schofer stepped up from his role as chief financial officer to replace Jane Chu, the founding administrator of the complex, who is now running the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C.

More than 417,000 people walked through the doors of the Kauffman Center in the fiscal year that ended on June 30. Schofer notes, though final figures were not yet available, “we fully anticipate operating in the black” for the third straight year.

The Kauffman Center has a reputation for running lean. It has a staff of fewer than 30 people and a force of more than 1,000 volunteers. That operational conservatism likely contributes to its relative success when arts organizations and some peer complexes across the country are hurting.

Though some in the community expected a national hiring search, Schofer’s appointment makes sense on several counts. He started work for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in the early 1990s and left in 2007 for a sports marketing firm in Jefferson City. He returned to Kansas City and joined the Kauffman Center in early 2012, about six months after it had opened and at a time when a stabilizing influence was welcome.

The city’s transformation in those five years was palpable. “Literally, visibly the landscape had changed,” Schofer said. “The energy surrounding the arts in this community has expanded exponentially.”

Schofer freely admits he grew up in Jefferson City with no real exposure to the arts. No doubt he gets schooled in the need-to-know cultural bits in his frequent meetings with Jeff Bentley (of the Ballet), Frank Byrne (Symphony) and Deborah Sandler (Lyric Opera).

But his passion seems to be where it’s most needed — in keeping the ship upright, moving forward and reaching out to the community. A recent Sunday afternoon family event, the Future Stages Festival, was a peak experience, he said. Child performers dominated, 6,000 people attended at no charge and dozens of parents told him how moved they were by having their children involved. All of it was music to Schofer’s ears.

Schofer’s high-priority relationships with the Symphony, Ballet and Lyric Opera involve a delicate dance around their symbiotic nature. “Collectively,” he said, “I think we’re all of the same mind — we’re woven together.”

Schofer also must maintain alignments with presenters (Harriman-Jewell, Theater League, Friends of Chamber Music), provide opportunities for smaller arts groups and advance Kauffman’s own mission to fill in scheduling gaps with its own programs.

One outside observer aptly compared Schofer’s job to running the United Nations.

If only it were so easy.

To reach Steve Paul, call 816-234-4762 or send email to paul@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at sbpaul.

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