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Thursday, June 24, 2004 02:14 pm

Mission accomplished

art1171
John Dale Kennedy

Last week, when John Dale Kennedy resigned from the top job at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center, he sent friends an e-mail peppered with adjectives hinting -- ever so artfully -- that he just might be dancing a gleeful little jig on his way out the door. The 18 months he spent getting the University of Missouri-St. Louis's new $52 million arts complex up and running were, he wrote, "stimulating" and "challenging," and a "long, eventful" journey offering an abundance of "personal growth and professional learning experiences."

But even if it's possible to read between the lines, that doesn't mean Kennedy is complaining. "People who take these jobs are either self-abusive or suicidal," he says.

The work he's referring to is ushering a brand new arts center from the final phases of construction right through to the final curtain of its premiere season. Kennedy performed a similar feat in 1980 when he got the then-new Sangamon Auditorium ready to host its first artists and audiences.

And he hopes to do it again someday. Kennedy is leaving Touhill to join his friend Sid McQueen's national consulting firm, McQueen & Associates, which specializes in helping universities launch performance facilities. Kennedy will return to Springfield July 1 to open a Midwest office for McQueen.

"Having just completed my 36th year after working at five universities, I should, by now, have a few observations about how we go about our business," Kennedy says.

That expertise was put to use when he was hired in January 2003 to get the Touhill ready for a September opening. The center had been without a director for months, and Kennedy had some catching up to do.

First, he had to purchase $1.3 million worth of unbudgeted miscellany: Utilitarian items like music stands, rehearsal pianos, mixing boards, and microphones. He had to hire staff, from custodians all the way up to technical director. He cajoled colleagues from across the nation to leave their jobs to come fill some of the top spots at Touhill.

"We'd all done our jobs before, but we'd never all done it together, and we'd never all done it in a building like this," he says.

The 128,000-square-foot complex features two venues -- the 1,600-seat Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall and the 360-seat Mary Ann and E. Desmond Lee Theater. Readying such a big project on a short schedule resulted in a bit of a culture clash.

"You have to push things faster, especially faster than universities want to be pushed," Kennedy says. "Universities like to drag their feet -- and for good reason! They're deliberative, contemplative. That's what educational institutions are all about. But I was faced with inevitabilities."

Along the way, there may have been some hurt feelings. "I'm sure there are people here ecstatic that I'm leaving," Kennedy says.

However, the center's first season of some 180 events garnered good reviews for the facility. Kennedy has already booked more than 200 events for Touhill's next season, and he plans to attend some of those himself.

In fact, he plans to keep his memberships at a variety of St. Louis cultural institutions. But he looks forward to living a more relaxed pace in Springfield, "taking longer walks and smoking better cigars," he says.

"I've been sprinting for 18 months, and I just need to take it down to a jog," Kennedy says. "I had fun doing it, there's no doubt about it that it was something I enjoyed. But really, it was pretty grueling."

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