Panel 1: Finding Unity in Diversity: the Structural Issues

Friday, January 8, 2010, from 10:15 to 12:00 pm

The following notes are from Jim Hiscott — Composer • Musician • Producer • Co-Artistic Director of Groundswell (Winnipeg)


GroundSwell is an example of unity in diversity in a new music series in Winnipeg. The organization was founded in 1991 by an amalgamation of three new music series, Music Inter Alia, IZ music, and Thira, as a strategy in coping with the radically diminishing funds for new music (and other music forms) being offered by the Manitoba Arts Council. There were not enough funds for three separate series; so we combined to make one series with an artistic committee comprised of the directors o the former three organizations: Diana McIntosh, Michael Matthews, Therese Costes, William Pura and Jim Hiscott. Therese is a vocalist, the rest are composers or composer/performers.

The process of getting together took some time–three organizations which were initially in competition sharing the programming, each maintaining a strong creative position in the new amalgamation.


The plan soon evolved for each Artistic Director to take one concert in every year, and curate it relatively independently.

We have a board and an executive director, and a group of Artistic Directors (max five, min three) called the Artistic Directorate (to distinguish it from a committee of the board, which has a different relationship to the board– so pres not ex-officio, ad must exist as opposed to being discretionary, board member can’t be AD member without AD consensus, etc.). Accountability: the board must approve any new choices of artistic director, and renew the existing Artistic Directors on a three–year basis, both after advice from the Artistic Directorate (based on consensus).

The curator is responsible for, among other things, choosing the rep. and creating the program; choosing musicians and venue; communicating with the executive director re hotel and travel bookings if required; ordering performance materials; writing the outlines of promotion texts; writing a curator’s note for each program, and writing and editing the program booklet itself. Curators contribute written content, through the Artistic Coordinator, to grant applications, season marketing campaigns and season brochures.

Almost all our concerts are original curations of the Artistic Directors, conceived from beginning to end.

As the process developed, each curator went a different direction, developing different interests. Some of us are interested in various types of theatrical presentation, involving dance, acting, alternate venues, even a bus transporting the audience around to different inner city semi-industrial locations, each for one piece on the program. We have sometimes hired a stage designer to create and direct these productions from a theatrical point of view, adding a layer of theatrical oversight while keeping the musical integrity intact as in a traditional concert.

Some of us are interested in avant-garde modernism, others folk music influences, other mainstream chamber repertoire, others spoken word. We have featured local musicians throughout our series, encouraging those who love new music, and introducing others to the joys of new music. We’ve also brought a regular number of national and international performers– including Cuarteto Latinoamericano from Mexico; the Mondriaan Quartet from the Netherlands; the Hilliard Ensemble; a trio made up of Shauna Rolston, Susan Hoeppner, and Heather Schmidt, conductors like Alain Trudel leading 15-piece ensembles.


In order to promote consistency, we have introduced critiques of each concert, done by the other Artistic Directors and then by the board. At one point we tried soliciting audience feedback via evaluation forms, but this proved less detailed, informative or objective, than individual opinions garnered from musicians, specific audience members, and board & artistic colleagues.

We also tried one or two years to move from individually-curated concerts to a groupcurated series, with each curator proposing ideas for each of a series of five concerts developed by a process of consensus. This was interesting, but resulted in more homogeneity of concept from concert to concert than we wanted. We found we had lost the contrast and variety of the series as constructed in our original way.

While we have returned to single-curator events, we have planning meetings, in which each curator suggests a detailed program for his or her concert, with artists and repertoire, along with a budget and venue. The other ADs give suggestions or feedback, perhaps regarding choice of musicians, or additional repertoire which may be appropriate. they may also express concerns about budget details. The general direction or inspiration of each program is respected by the other ADs, so that the season’s programs are as diverse as the five curators’ visions.

These program discussions begin 2 or 3 years in advance of the actual productions, because funders require several years’ lead-time. This result is favourable for us because it enables us to adjust programming if desirable. (It might be that 2 ADs propose somewhat similar programs for the same season, so with a long lead-time, they can work out adjustments together, with suggestions from all ADs. Also, if for a season one AD proposes an unusually costly program, the others might need to trim their budgets. Such adjustments have been made amicably several times.)

As another way to bring consistency to the series, an Artistic Coordinator was designated early on. The AC brings together the logistics and production details, and helps the executive director as a liaison with the production and creative side of the organization– without taking any creative precedence. The AC coordinates the marketing materials and brochure as chair of the marketing committee.

So the consistent elements are:

The Executive Director, who does contracts, books facilities, etc. The board, to which the Artistic Directorate is responsible Budgetary reporting and responsibility through AC, ED and Board treasurer Consistency of presentation, programs & notes through Artistic Coordinator-proofing, etc., especially for Guest Curators.

Satellite Concerts

Because our concerts are original curations, it’s been harder for us to deal with the many new music tours that are proposed to us; so several years ago we began a satellite series, on a smaller budget, where we would present a touring ensemble as a sixth concert in our series. We have featured the Turning Point Ensemble from Vancouver, pianist Roger, the Quasar Saxophone Quartet, Ensemble Contemporaine and Veronique Lacroix with their Generation x tour, Winnipeg’s own student improv ensemble XIE (shay) led by Gordon Fitzell. This season we’re going local with this concert and incorporating it with our outreach program, presenting the Winnipeg Youth Symphony Orchestra ina program of new music with several Canadian and Manitoban works.

Musicians’ fees

As I mentioned, we often bring musicians from outside the community, with programs specially curated by GroundSwell. But most of the time we employ local musicians. We have a strong pool of musicians and singers in Winnipeg, many interested especially in new music (we’ve drawn several guest curators from this group). We have always felt that we should pay musicians well for their work. Learning and performing a variety of new pieces for the first time on a program is demanding, and the fees reflect the difficulty of the music, the number of pieces performed, and the great contribution brought by each musicians to the success of the music-making in each concert.


GroundSwell does not have a “home of its own”, but rather finds the most suitable venue for the program it is presenting, be it a regular concert hall, or a church or whatever. There are not many halls with good pianos. And renting and moving a good one is difficult because they are scarce, and expensive. Also, for our more theatrical productions, venues with proper lighting and sound systems are scarce, particularly when we also need a good piano for the program. Each of our ADs works this out for his/her own program.

This variability of venues does not seem to deter our audiences. They seem eager to explore with us, and we have had very well-attended concerts in such diverse places as our Manitoba Legislative Building, The Winnipeg Branch of The Royal Canadian Mint, The Western Canada Aviation Museum, on the streets of Winnipeg. and in an Equestrian Centre — complete with a dozen horses doing a routine to contemporary music!

Advantages of GroundSwell’s structure

1. Variety of programming for our audience

New music in the past couple of decades and likely into the foreseeable future, is perhaps more varied and non-uniform than it has ever been. Because we have a directorate of experienced ADs with different tastes and visions, as well as guest curators who bring their own interests, we can present a wide range of this music to our audience. We are the only new music series in Winnipeg, and so we owe it to our audience to present as diverse a program of styles as we can within our mandate. In one season we can present, avant-garde modernism, minimal or folk-based music, popular music fusion, electronic music, improvisation, etc. We can do a tribute to Elliott Carter, feature the Hilliard Ensemble in a concert of Canadian music, or put on an evening of theatre-and-dance collaborations. In the early years of the WSO New Music Festival we collaborated with the ground-breaking theatre company Primus one year, and in another worked with Balinese instruments and a Scottish bagpipe ensemble.

2. Continuity/succession

A major benefit of having four or five artistic directors is that we can plan for succession and smooth transition of creative contributors. Our organization is not thrown into turmoil when an AD leaves us, because we have a continuing strength in place to cover the opening, and we are not under extreme pressure to fill it. New artistic directors are chosen by consensus among the existing ADs, with the new candidates then proposed, by the Artistic Directorate, for approval by the GroundSwell board.

In 1998, when one of our founding Artistic Directors left the organization, we worked with a succession of guest curators from out of the province, in order to bring different ideas to our season. This added invaluable ideas, although it was sometimes logistically challenging, and always required a local project coordinator. A couple of years ago two of our ADs left at almost the same time, and we filled their positions with guest curators, this time all from Winnipeg. Last season we featured a tribute to Elliott Carter put together by guest curator Cheryl Pauls– a pianist rather than a composer; this season we had a concert called “Licks and Riffs” mixing popular and classical music influences, curated by percussionist Ben Reimer, who lives in both worlds. He also has a lot of students, and he helped us sell out the concert– we turned away people at the door after reaching the fire safety limit. You can hear that concert on CBC’s Concerts in Demand. Later this month, Winnipeg composer Orjan Sandred will bring composers Hans Tutschku and Jacopo Baboni-Schilingi for a concert called Live Electronic Spaces–we haven’t had a lot of live electronics in the past, and Orjan’s expertise and contacts allow us to feature some of that world’s best.

Guest-curated concerts involve more effort from the Artistic Coordinator, as new curators need to learn the operations of GroundSwell; sometimes they haven’t put on a major concert before. We have begun to think of this as a sort of mentorship for new music concert presenters, where we use our experience to help people approach a complex process with support and our knowledge of details and potential challenges given as necessary. This continues down to the concert day, where we help with any issues that arise– the complications, perhaps crises, which can arise during live productions with a large cast of musicians and other collaborators.

In terms of succession, we have just welcomed this season a new artistic directorate, composer Gordon Fitzell, who teaches at the University of Manitoba. We still have three of our original ADs; and so there is strong continuity, and none of the major rifts that can occur when there is only one Artistic Director who may suddenly leave without a successor.

3. Opportunity for curators

Another enormous advantage that our structure provides is opportunity for several people, rather than for only one person, to gain invaluable experience in Arts Administration, programming, budgeting, etc., etc. In fact, one of our ADs — a composer — was hired for a senior position with a provincial Arts Council.

4. Financial Practicality

Our structure is also practical with regards to our budget. We remunerate our artistic directors a small honorarium, and pay our Artistic Coordinator a nominal amount for administrative work throughout the year. The total amount of all these expenses is about 15,000. This isn’t a ’living wage’ by any means, but, if all the hours devoted in a year to the work, by all the ADs and the Coordinator, were totalled, they would likely exceed the 2,000 hours that a full-time position of fifty 40-hour weeks would provide in a year. In return, our ADs enjoy the benefit of having a piece performed once a year, and the benefit of being involved, and in close touch, with their peers. These additional benefits do not put bread on the table, nor would they for any full-time incumbent.

5. Summation

This structure works well in Winnipeg, since we are the only new music series and have a mandate to bring a wide variety of new music aesthetics to our audience. It also works because we have an overarching structure that brings consistency to the diversity of our individual Artistic Directors’ visions and productions.

This could work in a bigger city, with perhaps a narrower artistic focus (eg when a given new music group might be serving a niche of the new music audience, wih other groups doing different programming), as long as each AD is true to the organization’s goals & mandate. There has to be a functioning spirit of consensus among the Artistic Directors, and freedom for each to be creative. But this does give several people the opportunity to be involved creatively in the nm scene, to take agency and bring their creative ideas into the arena.