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Exit Stage Knight

Departing United Arts President and CEO Margot Knight recounts her decade of creativity amid chaos

Photo: Chieu Nguyen, License: N/A

Chieu Nguyen

Photo: Rob Bartlett, License: N/A

Rob Bartlett

Doomed from the start?

I wouldn’t say doomed. It changed my ideas about what I’d do with that year because we knew there would be a ripple effect. Personally and professionally, we had a dip. I’d been looking at some statistics 10 years ago, and I was going to do a full report, but I’m not going to be able to do it – from recession to recession – because of how the arts have fared in the last 10 years. And we’re still not anywhere close to where we were in 2007 and 2008. We’re still significantly behind the eight ball of where we were in the good years for Orlando and for the rest of the country.

You’ve mentioned the arts are a lagging indicator, and at the same time a disproportionate indicator.

We’re leading and lagging, because participation in the arts is tied to consumer confidence. So when confidence is the lowest it’s been in 38 years, discretionary income is down, it leads to an increase in attendance in museums – the lower-cost places you can just go – but it makes it tough on the performing arts. But I look at those statistics and the performing arts groups have by and large been very smart in discounting so their attendance is starting to uptick, even though their earned income is not moving very much. But they’ve been doing what they need to do to get people in the doors. The resurgence of consumer confidence and the economy will absolutely help the local arts community and the artists employed by the local arts community.

When you first encountered the dynamics of this community, if I were to ask what was your first impression, what would it be? You had former Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty and former Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood to deal with.

And Glenda was on the search committee that hired me, as was [Orange County Commissioner] Mary Johnson. I was very impressed with the level of support. To have $1 per capita from the county, $2.50 from the city, it gave me confidence to have them on the search committee, because that suggested that they had outsourced, they had made a choice 20 years ago that they outsourced that piece of their work to a nonprofit, and that allowed the nonprofit to operate independent of politics, in terms of funding. I have never once – and I credit this to the city and the county and the other governance that has supported us – I never once had a grant question. Never has our process been in any way compromised or impugned by an official, which I think is a testament to a very independent process that relies on the metrics in terms of grant writing.

Well, there was that one time when there was a threat that the county was going to hold back on funding with respect to a public argument with WMFE 90.7. There was some dust-up over $36,000 potentially being taken from United Arts and handed to WMFE in 2008 – and the ensuing note and email exchanges – that resulted in Mayor Crotty saying ‘This offends me,’ before threatening to cut United Arts completely, right?

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