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Arts Northwest

The organization you may never have heard of


What Tony Harrison types on his computer reads like a raised voice. He doesn't shout or use excessive capitalization, but his phraseology always finds a way to exclaim, "Hey, I'm excited. And I'm not quitting until you're excited, too."

Harrison is a Nampa-based businessman, public relations gun-for-hire and artist development guru, all of which keep him plenty busy, but the newest hat he's donned is that of a board member for Arts Northwest. The group describes itself as a "non-profit membership organization facilitating professional interaction between performing arts presenters, performing artists, management and performing arts service providers throughout the Western U.S. and Canada."

The fact that the name and description don't ring a bell probably doesn't surprise Michael Faison, executive director of the Idaho Commission on the Arts whose job it is to help keep the arts alive and well in the Gem State.

"Idaho audiences probably will never know how much Arts Northwest benefits their performing arts experience," Faison says. "They'll just know that they enjoyed a great performance at a reasonable price. Both are quietly facilitated by Arts Northwest."

Turns out, plenty of artists have heard of Arts Northwest--and if Harrison gets his way, every Idahoan will be familiar with the organization when his tenure is through. "Historically, I don't think the organization has pursued many publicity opportunities, and I plan to rectify that during my tenure on the board," he said. "Arts Northwest is entering its 30th year, and what we're doing now will help ensure the organization continues to thrive for another three decades and beyond."

From the outset, Arts Northwest was built to streamline the process of connecting artists and presenters. In fact, the body's primary task is annually staging the Northwest Booking Conference, which rotates yearly among Washington (usually in the Seattle area), Oregon (often in Eugene) and Idaho (typically in Boise). The 2009 conference was held in Boise.

The conference consists of workshops, an exhibit hall (described by Arts Northwest President Brian Johnson as a "talent tradeshow") and artist showcases, among other things. Hundreds of performing artists--from classical, jazz and folk musicians to dance and theater troupes--submit online applications to take part in the annual conference. An Arts Northwest committee selects 25 of these acts to perform in juried showcases and another 25 to feature in an after-hours format.

Securing a 12-minute set in an artist showcase can run entrants several hundred dollars in entry and booth fees, and even a well-received performance doesn't lock up a schedule full of gigs. But with a quality performance and a bit of leg work afterward, a successfully executed showcase can lead to loads of exposure, especially during conference block-booking meetings in which typically non-colluding venues and artists team up to fill schedules--and lower the end prices of admission for audiences. In fact, without this block-booking, many Idaho venues would not be able to afford some of the artists Arts Northwest has sent their way.

In 2009, three local dance entities were involved with the conference in Boise: Trey McIntyre Project, Idaho Dance Theatre and Basque music and dance troupe Amuma Says No. Past Idaho artists who've participated in Arts Northwest showcases include Steve Fulton, Curtis Stigers and High Street.

Harrison thinks the election of himself and Dyno Wahl, executive director of The Festival at Sandpoint, to the Arts Northwest board--meaning Idaho residents now occupy one-third of the board seats--will only help bolster the arts scene in Idaho. Johnson says though it doesn't officially attempt to regulate where its leadership hails from, the organization strives to maintain a balance of the states from which Arts Northwest pulls its leadership. Harrison acknowledges he's never seen Idaho receive anything less than fantastic service from Arts Northwest. But given his background in public relations and years of experience with the organization, he's downright excited about the potential doors that might now be opened given the appointments of additional board members from Idaho.

"It is exciting to have them on the Arts Northwest board," Faison agrees. "This partly is because both of them are so experienced, bringing their skill to an already well-run organization to keep up that high standard. But it also benefits Idaho ... More Idaho performing artists should be Idaho touring artists." With Harrison on the prowl, rest assured, more of them will be.

The 30th Annual Northwest Booking Conference will be held in October in Bellevue, Wash., and submissions for artist showcases--which can be a bit lengthy to compile--are due by Monday, March 8.

One of Harrison's first orders of business is to launch a "PR blitzkrieg" to get Idaho artists up to speed on the value of Arts Northwest. With the ferocity he intends to devote to the process, Idaho's arts scene will have a new voice.