It takes a particularly unique mind to conceive a festival from scratch. Every event is a puzzle piece – part of an artistic endgame that has little room for error. Beyond being blessed with a ripe imagination, keen musical sensibility and sharp logistical mind, one must have world-class collaborative chops. Like David Spelman. The originator and artistic director of the New York Guitar Festival, he has made a career of developing unique events that captivate, serving as the creative brain for leading international arts festivals. Spelman currently consults for the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and TEDXNaveskink. He talked with Eric Edberg, co-writer of a book the two are working on about how collaboration is integral to good festival development.
David, as a festival curator, your work is all about collaboration. What drives you to spend so much time bringing people together?
I recently attended TEDxNavesink, where the conference theme was “Accelerators.” In her talk, the journalist, forward-thinking investor and philanthropist Esther Dyson quoted the African proverb, “To go fast, go alone; to go far, go together.” I thought, “Yes! That’s it!” It sums up one of the key truths of life: We accomplish so much more when we work with others than when we try to do everything on our own.
What a beautiful saying. As we are exploring the question of what it means to be a musician in the 21st century, we talk a lot about entrepreneurship, which young people sometimes think means doing everything on your own. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
Oh, absolutely. I don’t think collaboration gets discussed nearly enough. It’s true that the idea for a project often starts with one person. But then it is getting other people involved and inviting partners that allows something really great to happen.
When I graduated from the New England Conservatory, instead of focusing on playing solo guitar concerts (which I love to listen to, of course), I found myself working in the artist management and public relations fields, working on projects with some amazing artists and ensembles including Vladimir Ashkenazy, the New York Philharmonic, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Very soon it became clear to me that it takes a team working together – even to make a career for a solo musician.
The best soloists didn’t get there all on their own. There were teachers, mentors, coaches and family members supporting them in developing their skills and honing their vision. Then in professional life, even the most seemingly solitary solo guitarist has a manager, booking agent and a publicist working with her. Making a recording? You’re working with a recording engineer, a producer and often the staff of a label.
Even solo careers are actually collaborations.
So how has collaboration played out in your life as a concert presenter and festival curator? Let’s take the New York Guitar Festival as an example?
There are some great stories. The idea came to me to have a small festival of guitar music in New York City. Originally, we wanted to raise money to fund an educational project. The more I thought and talked about it, the more excited I got. I think you could say it went from being an idea to being a dream (albeit a hazy dream at first). And I knew that to make it happen I was going to have to work with others.
Sure, I could have rented a church basement and found a few friends to play, but my dream was to make a louder noise, to have a bigger impact and to perhaps leave some footprints in the sand.
I found myself at a cocktail party with Vicki Margulies, then the director of Merkin Concert Hall. I told her my idea, and…
Wait a second. Not all of us are friends with directors of important venues like Merkin Concert Hall, one of the main venues for solo and chamber recitals in New York City.
No, I wasn’t friends with her! We actually had never met. Somehow I’d been invited to the same party. A voice inside me said, “Wouldn’t it be great to have this festival at Merkin?” After another sip of wine, I gathered up my courage and introduced myself. I told her my dream – and she saw the potential. What a surprise and relief!
So is there a lesson here for the rest of us?
Yes! If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to have courage and share your dream.
The next example of that was meeting John Schaefer of radio station WNYC in New York. He was (and still is) the producer and host of the program New Sounds. One more time, I screwed up my courage, maybe emboldened a bit by having a high-profile venue, and told John about the project. He thought it sounded great and came on board as the co-founder and co-curator
That must have provided a lot of advantages.
Absolutely. Vicki was already a great source of ideas and had provided us with a fantastic space and an infrastructure for selling tickets. John brought a wealth of creativity and a network of connections that complemented mine. As he was the host of a very popular radio show, we received a ton of free publicity that was much more helpful than whatever advertising we might have been able to afford on our own. We got a lot of attention with no advertising!
And the rest, as they say, is history! Any other lessons you draw from that initial experience?
First, have a dream and dream big. Second, be able to tell it to others: Have your “elevator pitch” ready. And be brave and bold. Look for potential partners, and share your dream with them.
When you find the right partners, amazing things happen. I love the word “synergy,” that magic that happens when you work with the right collaborators.
There was obviously a lot of synergy as you put that first New York Guitar Festival together.
When it’s a good idea that excites others and you get the right people working with you, you can go both far and fast.
That initial collaboration led to some others as well, didn’t it?
Yes. Once the New York Guitar Festival began to find its wings and attract some recognition, the idea of a guitar festival was picked up by others. Other venues started to ask me to collaborate with them. Some business and political leaders in South Australia heard about it, and I found myself working with them to organize the Adelaide International Guitar Festival. The first installment of that festival attracted something like 30,000 people, a much larger audience than we had in New York. The Concertgebow in Amsterdam and Toronto’s Luminato Festival invited me to work as a guest curator, and for more than a decade I’ve served as the curator for what is now known as the Ellnora Guitar Festival (originally the Wall To Wall Guitar Festival) at the University of Illinois’ Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
What an amazing career you’ve had! As we close out this conversation, what observations do you have about the power of collaboration in the artistic process itself?
Music and art history are full of examples of collaborative partnerships where the synergy of the whole was so much more potent than the sum of the parts. Just in the 20th century, the names that come to mind are Lerner and Loewe, Elton John and Bernie Taupin, John Cage and Merce Cunningham, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman. Or look further to the past, and the extraordinary collaboration between Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte: The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni were the result of the synergy between a genius composer and a great writer.
In today’s music world, one of my favorite collaborations is the one between Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy. No record label marketing executive wrote a memo to their boss saying, “Hey, wouldn’t it be smart to bring together a 75-year-old gospel singer and civil rights activist with Wilco’s front man?” But these two brilliant Chicago souls somehow found one another, and the music they create together has been so incredibly vibrant and inspiring.
There’s a magic that happens when two or more people have chemistry, bring out the best in each other and create something far beyond what any of them could have done on their own. When I look at my professional accomplishments, it’s clear that each were group efforts that I had the good fortune to lead and facilitate.