Within sight and earshot of the bustling Confluence Arts Center construction site next to the Chippewa River in downtown Eau Claire, Kevin Miller was announced as the forthcoming facility’s executive director Thursday afternoon.
Miller, a UW-Eau Claire theater alumnus who is now executive director of the Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts in Fond du Lac, will officially take the helm of the Confluence Arts Center on July 17.
While the $45 million shared university-community arts center won’t open until September 2018, Miller told a crowd gathered for a press conference on the Haymarket Landing’s rooftop terrace that he is eager to get to work.
“As we can see behind us, there’s nothing more exciting than a construction project, and what that can do for the arts,” he said. “I think the big story … is what you have done to knit up all segments of the community so this is a community project.” He praised local public and private sector leaders for collaborating on an initiative that he predicted will boost the region both artistically and economically.
“We know what the arts can do for our lives from a cultural standpoint, just to have stuff to do,” Miller said. “But listen to that noise behind us: That’s the sound of progress, that’s the sound of a place that people want to live. That’s the sound of jobs.” Miller compared Fond du Lac to Eau Claire: Both are traditionally blue-collar industrial towns that have increasingly seen the value of investing in the arts, particularly as a way to lure and retain young, skilled workers who are looking for culturally vibrant places to live in addition to steady paychecks.
Vicki Hoehn, president of the board for the Confluence Council, the entity that will operate the arts center, said Miller’s experience in Fond du Lac helped him rise to the top among the 90 applicants for the executive director position. Miller raised more than $12 million for the Thelma Sadoff Center, including $8 million to renovate the former Masonic temple into a multi-function art center.
“Kevin Miller brings a demonstrated track record for strong relationship building and fundraising, along with local roots and statewide connections, to the position,” Hoehn said. “He has a strong working knowledge of the industry and a vision for artistic excellence, job creation, and educational opportunities.”
Miller studied theater at UW-Eau Claire in the 1980s (his on-stage roles included Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire) before receiving a master’s degree from UW-Milwaukee in 1992. Later, he worked as a professional actor, then founded a theater company in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. Since 2007, Miller has been executive director of the Thelma Sadoff Center. He has served on the Wisconsin Arts Board since 2013 and currently is chairman of the board. His wife, Ann, is a native of Chippewa Falls, and she and the couple’s youngest son have already relocated to the Chippewa Valley.
Miller promised that, once it opens, the Confluence Arts Center will provide “outstanding arts experiences” including “more theater, more visual arts, more dance, (and) more music in all its forms.” The arts center will strive to promote local arts as well as to attract national and international touring performances, he said.
“September 2018 is not that far away,” Miller said. “ We want to make this project successful for our city, our region, our state, but there’s a national piece to this, too.” Considering the success of Bon Iver, the area’s numerous music festivals, and the Confluence Project itself, he said, “People are talking about Eau Claire.”
Now that an executive director is in place, Hoehn – the Confluence Council board president – said that the next priorities will be filling several other top jobs. A director of production and operations, who will technically be a contracted employee through UWEC, will be hired, as will a director of programming and education. The Confluence will also need help in promotion and marketing, some of which will be provided by the Eau Claire Regional Arts Council, the organization that will merge with the Confluence Council once the new arts center opens.
Miller said his initial priorities include getting to know the project’s partners better, raising funds, building a program calendar, and hiring staff. “We’re a team of one right now,” he quipped.
“It’s so exciting to be here in Eau Claire, because it’s not a plan on the chalkboard anymore, right?” he said as construction crane towered above and sparks streamed down from steel girders. “This isn’t a PowerPoint. You are living this.”