Brian Jose: Aiming to take UF’s storied performing arts program to even greater heights
Having grown up an athlete who was on his way to a career in finance or another “left-brained” field, Brian Jose’s trajectory made a sudden shift when he heard Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik for the first time while on hold on the phone one day. In his early 20s at the time, Jose’s life took a distinct turn into the right-brained world of the arts that day, and he never looked back.
Prior to joining UF last fall as director of University of Florida Performing Arts, Jose held a range of positions in organizations including the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s in Minnesota, the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Arizona State University’s Herberger College of Fine Arts, the Phoenix Art Museum, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and others. We sat down with Jose to learn more about the journey that led him to UFPA and his vision for the future of program on the cusp of its 25th Anniversary season.
So what happened after that “lightning bolt” moment of recognition when you first heard Mozart?
I started out as a telemarketer for the Columbus Symphony, on the phone selling subscription tickets to things I had no business selling. I had no idea how to pronounce composers’ names. It was terrible. I’m embarrassed to think back on it. It was not a great job, but I did it for a couple of weeks and then a position opened in finance. They needed someone to do spreadsheets and I could do spreadsheets, so I started doing spreadsheets. Then a position opened in marketing, and I got that — $12,000 a year!
So I started in August of 1987, and by November or December, I realized I loved this. I had no idea I could be so happy. I found my calling, but I had to learn it from the ground up. One of the things that really helped me was part of my duties was to proofread program notes. So I read about every composer and it gave me a background that I wouldn’t have had.
I’ve worked for orchestras, I’ve worked for art museums, I’ve worked on the education side of higher ed and in presenting now. So I’ve had a pretty rounded background in the arts. I worked on the higher education side at Arizona State and then I moved to the presenting side at the University of Maryland, where they were building the biggest building the state had ever constructed—a gigantic performing arts center—and I was part of it from when it was a construction site through its first eight years.
And what led you to UF?
To be sure, UFPA is a storied program. I’ve known about University of Florida Performing Arts for about 15 to 16 years. Michael Blachly, my predecessor here, and I have been friends for 15 years. We have a great professional and personal relationship. So I knew plenty about UFPA coming in.
We were in Minnesota and I had a great job. The position there was wonderful. But my wife, Patty, didn’t particularly like Minnesota. I didn’t love it either, but she really wasn’t that big on it. And one day she said to me out of nowhere, “Do you know where I think I could live? Gainesville, Florida.” And I said, “Well, I know Michael and he’s not retiring for at least several more years, so choose Option B, because UF is not in the cards.”
Two or three days later, I was at an event with Michael at a national conference and he said, “I wanted to tell you, I’m going to be retiring.” I couldn’t believe it—what serendipity—so I applied when the position opened up.
That’s amazing timing. So you were familiar with UF’s program prior to coming here?
I knew the storied program and I knew I would be thrilled to be associated with it, but then we’d also just said—what a great place to live!
You say UFPA has a “storied” program? What are the kinds of things UF’s program is known for?
There are lots of places that present performing arts that are vanilla and require no effort by the audience. We can make an argument about whether it’s really performing arts or not. It’s called a “roadhouse,” and the artists are not expected to be part of the campus or community, for example to be part of a physics class or to go over to the VA or the hospital. They kind of come into town at 5:00 on a bus, they do their sound check and they drive away after the show.
And then there are a few universities that are esoteric in their approach and provide only cutting-edge arts. And what’s great about the University of Florida is that we do a combination of things—we do Broadway, orchestra, chamber, recital, world music, folk music, ethnic music. In dance, we do ballet, contemporary, folk, social. In theatre, we’re all over the place. So we’re a multidisciplinary presenter. And what I love about Florida’s program is that we present a combination of traditional and cutting-edge art forms.
Can you talk more about what differentiates UFPA from the “roadhouse” model?
I don’t know why college campuses often do this “roadhouse” model. You would not allow a chemistry class to have a bunch of students come in and a professor do a “gee whiz” experiment, put a bunch of stuff in a beaker, foam comes out and then they leave without the professor explaining the chemical reaction. You’d want the students to understand what was happening here: an exchange of electrons, Boyle’s law, all of the things that go into that experiment.
We would never have a college campus where everything was just these “gee whiz” experiments. You have to learn something with it.
I believe we have a similar opportunity and obligation in the arts to provide things that have some gravity and that have some heft. You are more than you came in with when you walk out the door at the end of the night. It doesn’t mean it has to be like medicine; it’s good for you. I mean that you are exposed to something that made you go “Wow!” or whatever that emotion may be. You are now fuller than when you came through the doors two hours earlier.
That’s what I’m committed to: Finding artists and art forms that give our students and our audiences more than they came in the door with. They are more complete people when they leave.
It sounds like you’re also interested in taking the program in some new directions. Can you talk more about what that might look like?
Puppetry, for instance, is pushing things in interesting directions. This show next year is called Ada/Ava, and it’s done by a combination of shadow puppetry and live action and live music. What you see is five artists using overhead projectors like we used to have in school to create an entire background and backdrop. And while the actors act it out, their shadows are being projected. So it’s a combination of shadow puppetry and live-action acting that creates this one sort of Alfred Hitchcock-like film that you’re seeing live. It’s just a really powerful, beautiful piece of theatre and of shadow puppetry, but I guarantee no one else has seen this. No one will come to this and say, “Well, I’ve seen that before.”
One of the things I’m also really anxious to bring to campus are site-specific art works. It’s a little different model where instead of buying a ticket on Saturday for two weeks from now, you’re just walking across campus and there are performers on bicycles and this opera in front of you. It’s unavoidable. It just happens to you.
If I could wave a magic wand, we would have a 600-seat hall. We have 1,750 seats or we have 200 seats. And so much that’s being created out there needs to be in that smaller size hall — but big enough to sell enough tickets to help pay for it. It’s not fair to do one-man “Moby Dick” in a 1,750-seat hall. Different art forms are made for different environments.
But our options now are a less-than-200 people — which at $30 a pop is not going to generate much income — or to put it in the big hall, which requires a different type of art form. I think if we could get a 600-seat hall and weave the arts into the fabric of our campus, preeminence is a given. I also believe a 600-seat hall would be of great benefit to the Florida Museum of Natural History and the College of the Arts.
So in terms of preeminence, you think we’re close?
In lots of ways we are. I tell anyone who will listen to me, Gainesville punches way above its weight culturally, and UFPA plays a huge role in that. You look at this season and you take that to anyone in any decent-sized city and they would take it in a heartbeat. You take our season offerings to Pittsburgh or Cleveland and they’d say, “We’d love to have these offerings here!”
So we’re preeminent. But I want to fight the notion that we’ve arrived. We’re arriving, but we could further grow the stature of UFPA. And if we do — if I can help us achieve these things — we could easily make the argument to anyone that we’re preeminent, we’re easily a top five then. Right now we’re a top 25 — and that’s great.
Since you joined UF last fall, have you had any experiences that stand out as particularly gratifying?
I was going out to have dinner with some donors a couple of weeks ago at Francesca’s. I got there a little before them and was sitting at a booth near a table of ten people off to my right. They were in the middle of a really lively conversation about which performances to go to, [saying things like,] “Well, there are these great musicians, but there are also comedians.” And they were going through the program and saying, “Well we should go to that,” and debating what to go to.
So I listened and after a few minutes, then I went over and said, “You’ve made my day because of the fact that you’re talking about this just like people talk about football or basketball here.” The great thing was it showed me the commitment.
I’m trying to think of someone I’ve spoken to where I’ve said, “I’m the director of UF Performing Arts,” and they’ve said, “Now what is that?” They know it. UFPA is very recognized here, and I’m really thrilled about that. That’s half the battle: We don’t have to educate people about UFPA. They know it. And they’re positively predisposed. Michael Blachly built a great program.
Our competition isn’t the Hippodrome or Dance Alive or anything like that. Our competition is the couch. It’s getting people in the building. I am a huge believer in a rising tide lifts all ships. I don’t care if someone goes to the Hippodrome instead of here. It’s a behavior. If they go there, they’ll come here. The biggest problem is people sitting at home and saying, “Nah, let’s just watch Netflix.” That’s why we have to offer art forms that have that heft that you don’t get from Netflix or cable or whatever it is.
It’s the 25th Anniversary of UFPA. What do we have to look forward to?
Yes, it’s the 25th Anniversary of the Phillips Center and UFPA as we know it—and that’s reason to celebrate. And you’ll see that in the offerings—Itzhak Perlman, Renée Fleming, Alonzo King, “RENT” — all of these shows and people have been here over the 25 years. So there’s an homage to those 25 years in the program — lots of artists that have graced these stages that have made an impact here.
I’d also like to think that some of the programs that I’ve added help to identify the direction for the next 25 years. I told those assembled when we did the season kickoff that we should be celebrating our 25th anniversary. It’s right to do so. We’ve really achieved a ton. But the real measure of our 25th anniversary will be the 50th anniversary.
If the direction we go in is successful and we grow our student engagement and we grow engagement especially of people between 25 and 64, and we start bringing in audiences that are more reflective of the population of Gainesville, there will be a very vibrant 50th anniversary. So the 25th anniversary gives us an opportunity to celebrate the great things that have happened and the vision to get here. There’s also a challenge in front of us to ensure there are audiences in the future.
I want the arts that we bring to campus to be relevant. And that’s one of the upsides about our program. It sounds too cliché to say there’s something for everyone — that’s not quite what I mean — but we’re multidisciplinary. We have so many different offerings. It’s not just for one type of audience. You can look through there and I bet you would find at least a couple of things that would be interesting to you.
One of the other things that’s important to me is to program multi-generationally. I have a 92-year-old mother and I have four kids, and I like for us to have the ability to attend something and have that common framework that we can all go to. For faculty, staff and students, I think we offer something that can cut across all of the generations. There are plenty of faculty and staff that are here with parents and who are parents. I believe that we offer something for everyone and that it should be as accessible as possible. We can’t make it free, but we can do our best to knock down any barriers so that everyone can attend. It’s important to me that we offer arts for everybody.
To learn more about UF Performing Arts’ 25th Anniversary season, please visit performingarts.ufl.edu.