Spokane's only contemporary chamber music organization, Zephyr, recently announced that next year will bring concerts focusing on the erhu (an ancient Chinese instrument), tangos and madness. It's a characteristically diverse and challenging lineup from the institution that routinely sets up innovative and provocative concerts with great success. But next year's series will also be accompanied by an even bigger hurdle for the organization: Artistic Director Kendall Feeney has announced that after next year's concert series, she will be leaving the position.
"There are a lot of answers," Feeney says in explanation of her decision. "And I guess that some of them would be that I've done what I wanted to do with Zephyr. And I want more time to do other things. I want more time to make music. And that may sound like a contradiction, but for anyone who has ever been an art director of an institution like Zephyr, it will make sense. Because I was so wanting Zephyr to be of a piece -- the design of the program, what people wore on stage, the program notes -- I sort of created my own problems in that way."
But for Spokane's musical audiences, it was precisely these challenges, and the success with which Feeney met them, that made Zephyr a success. During the past decade, Zephyr has emerged as one of the few arts institutions on the regular cultural scene that continued to offer difficulties coupled with confident presentation. It became something to look forward to, not merely something to take advantage of. And it's because of Zephyr's established cultural role that Feeney had the confidence to initiate the transition of the organization to a new form of leadership.
"I realized that there was a loyal Zephyr audience," she says. "And I want to leave before I start worrying about pleasing that audience instead of challenging them. Because I've always been such a cheerleader for classical music, and 20th-century classical music, and why I think it's important and how fun and rewarding and how it can bring you things that other things can't. I don't know what I'll do, but I'll find a way. And hopefully it will be in my community. But I'll take a break first."
Nevertheless, there is an element of regret about what Feeney sees as her decision's inevitability. "I don't know how much I'll miss it until it's over. And regrets will be there. But organizations need to change. And in 12 years, that seems to me to be enough time for that process to start."
But change is something that can seem impossible in Spokane's artistic climate. In a community where it can often be overwhelmingly difficult simply to initiate something new, change can seem impossible. But for Feeney, it's a necessary growing pain that Zephyr needs to feel. It's almost as though through her resignation, Feeney is taking Zephyr to the next level of becoming a thriving institution.
"As I resigned, I made it clear to the board how much I want new music to happen," she explains. "And that I'm committed to helping make that happen with Zephyr if I can. But all organizations need to change, and I knew that I was leaving something that the members of the community have come to look forward to."
Currently, the Zephyr Board of Directors is exploring the possibility of continuing the concert series under new direction, and is soliciting ideas and suggestions from Spokane's musical community. Feeney is assisting in the process. "I don't have a sense of guilt," she explains. "I do have a sense of responsibility to my community. To help keep new music and new endeavors alive. And I'm hoping that will be with me in some capacity in the future. But more immediately, it's important that I can help with some transition with Zephyr."
Robin Stanton, the artistic director of Interplayers, who is just completing her first season in the position vacated by the organization's founders, Bob and Joan Welch, echoes Feeney's sense of responsibility to the community. During the past year, she has watched as the theater took its first independent steps from the creative willpower that had driven it for years. And with subscriptions up 13 percent and single ticket sales increasing, she has a sense of what made Interplayers' transition possible.
"I think that the most important thing is that the organization that you are running grows into an institution," Stanton says about the process of transition between leaders. "That means that it's our responsibility to create ownership of the institution by as many visionary community members as possible. If there isn't a strong feeling of inclusion in the community, then when leadership retires, for whatever reason, you have endangered the organization. And the most important thing for people like Bob and Joan, who birth these cultural gems, is that they ensure their own legacy. You must ensure the institution's legacy, and thus continue the growth of it."
Achieving this is not an easy process; for many arts organizations in Spokane it can -- and has -- proved fatal. But while much of the attention on Interplayers' transition has focused on Stanton, she observes that its success has more to do with the effort that was made before she was hired. "I think that the hard work went on between the founders -- Bob and Joan -- who did such an exhaustive search for a new director. I think it's much easier for me -- the candidate walking in -- than it is for the institution to prepare."
It's a method that has worked for successful arts institutions in the past. Organizations like the Civic Theatre and the Spokane Symphony base their operations on the principle that change must happen at some point. Rather than meet that challenge anew each time it arises, procedures are established early on that not only make the transition possible, but also make avoiding transition impossible. When artistic directors leave -- as will happen with the Symphony's Fabio Mechetti after next year -- the institutions have already prepared for the process of change. It will subtract from them something distinct and valuable, but transitions will bring with them something different, and -- one hopes -- of comparable value.
But for smaller, private organizations, which constitute the bulk of Spokane's cultural scene, there is the risk that something crucial will be lost in the transition. The individuality and character that an organization possesses is often linked directly to its founders. Once those founders have gone, the source of what makes the institution unique must be found within the institution itself.
"Once the transition has happened, it becomes a matter of patience," Robin Stanton says. "And sometime in that first year -- in my position -- you understand that you don't understand. You have to be patient, and the personality of the institution will reveal itself to you.
"My next difficult challenge lies in the second year, because now I have some idea of what the institution is. And I look around me to the strengths and weaknesses and successes for direction on where to go."
Nevertheless, arriving at that point, where a new director has emerged and can begin working with a newly autonomous organization, can be frightening. "Change scares some people," Stanton says, simply. "And it excites and exhilarates other people." The key, it seems, is not to shy away from the difficulties, but to embrace them. "I think that here," Stanton observes, "we're excited."
The same could be said of Zephyr. Because while Kendall Feeney has made it clear that she will not be artistic director after next year, a few minutes of discussion reveal that she has a new source of leadership in mind -- one that has worked for organizations like Interplayers.
"I'm hoping that the community that believes in new endeavors comes forward to support Zephyr in a new configuration," she says. "I hope that the members of the community rally for this -- not for me, or my Zephyr, but for Zephyr. I hope they don't let the momentum for what Zephyr was trying to accomplish die."