Molly Clark has recently been hired as the first female director of Cal Poly Arts, succeeding Steve Lerian, and she has big plans for the 2022-2023 season.

“I’m keenly interested in attracting a diverse demographic into our audience and a multi generational one,” Clark said. “We have a responsibility to react to things that are happening in our world, through the arts. I like to engage with artists and projects that have the capacity to really transform the public or get them thinking about issues in different ways.”

Prior to working at Cal Poly Arts, Clark was the artistic director for nine years at University of California San Diego’s ArtPower performing arts center.

According to Cal Poly’s Dean of the College of Liberal Arts Phillip Williams “under Molly’s curatorial leadership, ArtPower was awarded UC San Diego’s Diversity Award in 2016 in recognition of the department’s commitment to diverse programming.”

Dean Williams says Clark was their top choice for the position.

“She takes pride in connecting artists across disciplines to create meaningful experiences for the campus and community, presenting works that represent diverse cultures and identities to build empathetic audiences and elevate cross-cultural understanding,” Williams said. 

When asked about why she chose this new opportunity, Clark says she “had sort of hit my ceiling of where I could go in that position … but this opportunity came up at Cal Poly Arts. It just seemed like the perfect next step in my career to be able to really lead a program and start to envision the future of the performing arts on campus.”

Clark wears many hats as the director of Cal Poly Arts, but she is mainly responsible for presenting the performing arts season. She noted that while most events do take place at the Performing Arts Center (PAC), Cal Poly Arts sometimes hosts events outside in the community. 

One of the main focuses Clark has for the new season is to implement residency programs that engage the student population and how they interact and experience the artists “more deeply.” 

“I’m hoping to develop some residency projects, where as opposed to an artist just coming in and doing the public show and leaving, that we find opportunities to have them engage with students outside of the performance … where they’re creating a piece of art together. I think those experiences sometimes can even be more powerful than what happens on the stage,” Clark said.

The PAC is familiar with the “gap” in student traction and interest.

The challenge of engaging students in the programs of university-based performing arts centers is certainly not unique to Cal Poly,” PAC Managing Director Chris Miller said.

The PAC has done a few programs that would be categorized as a residency project previously, such as the “K-12 program,” where the PAC provides student matinees. Another example of these projects is “bringing artists into classrooms.”

In accordance with the Lula Washington Dance Theater that performed at the PAC on Oct. 22, the founder and Artistic Director of Lula Washington Dance Theater (LWDT), Lula Washington, choreographed and hosted a dance masterclass designed for dance majors. 

The student engagement projects are something Clark wants to redesign.

“I think that there’s so much opportunity to connect students who are not necessarily majoring in the arts or consider themselves artists to connect with our artists and still find inspiration for whatever they may be doing academically,” Clark said. “At the base of everything is creativity and I think that there’s value in making those maybe less obvious connections between artists and students.” 

While working at San Diego’s ArtPower, one experience she remembers fondly was the debut of “Dancing Robot: Huang Yi and KUKA.” Huang Yi, alongside his “industrial robot” KUKA, left a lasting impression on Clark. 

She mentioned having Huang Yi visit the student robotics lab on campus, which became her “favorite student engagement activities” they did at ArtPower.

“It was awesome, because he was as geeked about the conversation as the students were,” Clark said. “It allowed [students] to sort of stretch their minds a bit around where their careers could take them like that. It might not be more industrial, but they could be working in the arts.”

Clark wants to instill residency programs to entice students to “open their hearts” by exploring and connecting with the entertainment community. 

Clark has already begun work on the next season and is “excited to be able to start that visioning process.”

When it comes to curating, Clark attends live performances beforehand to gain an idea of what the upcoming season could look like.

Clark says that “in normal circumstances,” she would travel yearly to different conferences with the possibility of seeing up to thirty or forty performances a week. She said she “views those performances with a lens of what I think would be good for our audience here on campus.”

The other way Clark has tuned into the demographic is by consuming media.

“Listening to Spotify, watching YouTube [videos] of different artists that I’m interested in and consuming as much performance digitally typically is how I end up determining what artists will be coming to campus,” Clark said.

While she is going through the lengthy process, she feels strongly about implementing diversity.

“I will say my philosophies around curation revolve around representation. For one, I think it’s really important to present a diverse array of voices on our stage, whether that relates to cultural or ethnic background or just identity. I think that it creates a sense of belonging, when marginalized communities can see folks who look like them or have had experiences like them on stage,” Clark said. 

Rob Laacke, the director of marketing for the Cal Poly Arts, said that Clark has “been relentless in asking ‘What if?’ and encouraging the staff to rethink our status quo.”

Laacke feels she has made strides in the short time she has been director of Cal Poly Arts, creating a new “composition” from their previous seasons.

“I have no doubt that this new and exciting energy is going to bleed over to our audiences, new and old,” Laacke said. 

In just the five months Clark has served as director, Miller notes how she has “brought a fresh energy to the position,” and is playing around with ways to “encourage audiences, somewhat out of the habit of attending live events due to the pandemic, to return to the PAC.” 

Clark looks back on the virtual experiences of last year and how elated she is to finally bring that entertainment back to a performing arts venue. 

“There’s a different quality and energy when we can have that collective experience together and I know I’ve felt it in these first few events back. I hope that the community continues to feel more ready to return and not only to experience these events, but to support the arts,” Clark said. 

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