Collins Center director looks back on 20 years of music, theater, community

By Emily Burnham, BDN Staff
Posted Sept. 14, 2012, at 4:07 p.m.

When Collins Center for the Arts Executive Director John Patches arrived in Orono 20 years ago, he didn’t expect to stick around for long. After all, he was only serving as interim director of the Maine Center for the Arts, as it was known then. A year, perhaps, and then Patches would return to his beloved New York City.

“I thought I’d just be filling in for a little while,” said Patches, who came to Maine with his wife, Elizabeth, a professor of vocal music at Colby College. “Little did I know how my life would change.”

Maine and all its charms grew on Patches, now 69 years old, and within a year he’d accepted a permanent position at the center. As is his nature, Patches also quickly made friends in the surrounding community, from patrons and donors to restaurant owners and folks on the street. Anyone who has worked with him closely knows that John Patches is definitely a people person.

“He definitely creates a lighthearted atmosphere here,” said Brett Ziegler, CCA manager of special projects, who has known Patches since 2002, when he was a student at UMaine working backstage for the tech crew. “We work in the arts and entertainment business, which is a fun business to be in, and John certainly lives that. He’s got a great sense of humor. He’s probably one of the most social people I’ve ever met. He can’t go to lunch anywhere without running into four or five people he knows.”

As with each of the previous seasons Patches has crafted, the upcoming 2012-2013 CCA season — which starts this Sunday, Sept. 16, with a concert by the Afiara String Quartet, and kicks off officially on Sept. 29 with a gala performance from Ben Vereen — boasts a diverse lineup, featuring a Nov. 7 concert with Dr. John and the Blind Boys of Alabama, and big-name Broadway shows such as “Hair” and “A Chorus Line.”

“I think John is steadfast in his commitment [to the CCA],” said David Whitehill, executive director of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra, which has made the facility its home since it opened. “If you look throughout its history, the one strain you can see is John. He brings out the best things there. It’s remarkable for one person to have remained at the head of an arts organization for that long, but if you look at all the successful places around the country, they all have that kind of sustained leadership. He’s certainly brought that.”

Lots of things have changed in those 20 years — including technological advances such as updated sound, lighting and computer technology throughout the center and an ever-evolving philosophy behind the programming.

“As audiences have changed, so too have we changed,” said Patches. “We are dealing with a different kind of situation now, in 2012, than we were in the early ’90s. It’s always a challenge to create programming that is of the highest quality, but also gives people what they want.”

The list of major milestones in Patches’ 20-year tenure is long. There were performances from major stars such as Dave Matthews, George Carlin, David Sedaris, Liza Minnelli, Bill Cosby and many others. This season, Garrison Keillor and the “Rock of Ages” Broadway tour are some of the big-ticket items. There was Patches’ work in cementing the long-standing relationship between the Collins Center and the Bangor Symphony Orchestra. And, perhaps the biggest and most visible milestone: the $11 million lobby and facade renovation, which was completed in early 2009 and gave the facility its current name (the MCA originally opened in 1986).

“It’s still growing and evolving,” said Whitehill. “I think that’s a tribute to his understanding of the growing needs of our community, and of the arts in general. A lot of that growth and expansion is driven by him.”

Patches professes an undying love for chamber music, which he expresses in part in the wide array of concerts by world-renowned string quartets and recitals by piano and violin virtuosos that are offered several times each season at Minsky Recital Hall, one of UMaine’s several performance facilities. But he’s also an astute observer of the national and international performing arts world — and with the economic downturn, he sees a very real crisis unfolding for musicians, dancers and other artists of all stripes.

“It is a very difficult time for the arts. What happens at the highest levels, financially, affects the artists, as funding begins to dry up,” said Patches. “That’s why we, as an organization, always have to keep evolving. It affects us just as deeply. Couple that with the increasing age of some of our patrons and it presents a true challenge.”

To that end, Patches and his staff — which includes, among others, Associate Director Adele Adkins and Technical Director Jeff Richards — are always tweaking the schedule. In the coming years, expect to see more and more rock and pop artists. Patches noted that last year’s Bret Michaels concert was a huge success.

“Now there was a crowd we hadn’t seen in the Collins Center,” he said. “It was really exciting to see all kinds of new people enjoying our facilities. And they really had a good time. The fashion choices were very interesting.”

There’s a lot of Broadway this year, which has emerged as an extremely popular offering for the CCA. The only problem with that? The CCA stage isn’t deep, wide or high enough to hold full productions of touring shows, which often have huge set pieces that simply won’t fit onstage.

“That’s the next step, of course. We need a bigger, better stage,” said Patches. “We’ve made do with what we’ve got, and we’ll continue to do so. But that’s the dream. That’s my dream, to see that.”

Though he still does a fair bit of jet setting — New York, Los Angeles, Europe — Maine has turned into a home for him. Twenty years in a community like the Bangor area that, as Patches says, is uniquely welcoming and generous, will do that to you.

“I think the best part of this area is the people,” said Patches. “The love and support we see from our patrons is outstanding. It’s what makes it very special.”

The 2012-2013 Collins Center for the Arts Schedule, at a glance

The Metropolitan Opera in HD broadcasts at the CCA

Donizetti’s “L’Elisir D’Amore,” Oct. 13; Verdi’s Otello, Oct. 27; Ades’ “The Tempest,” Nov. 10; Mozart’s “La Clemanza di Tito,” Dec. 1; Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera,” Dec. 22; Verdi’s “Aida,” Dec. 29; Berlioz’s “Les Troyens,” Jan. 5; Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda,” Jan. 19; Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” Feb. 23; Wagner’s “Parsifal,” March 9; Zandonai’s “Francesca da Ramini,” March 16; Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” April 27.

For tickets and additional show information, call 581-1755 or visit collinscenterforthearts.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/09/14/living/collins-center-director-looks-back-on-20-years-of-music-theater-community/ printed on October 25, 2014