Though he kept it to himself, Daniel Williams says he knew for a long time that being the executive director of the Collins Center for the Arts was his dream job.
So when Collins Center director John Patches announced his retirement in January, Williams, 47, a patron and board member at the center for more than two decades, submitted his name for consideration, crossed his fingers and hoped for the best.
Lucky for him, he got the call at the end of February, and was offered a two-year position as interim executive director.
With the addition of several concert and performing arts venues in the area, the Collins Center is up against challenges it has never before had to deal with.
The 1,500-seat performance hall struggles to accommodate Broadway shows with huge sets that can’t fit through the loading doors and doesn’t often bring in big-name stars, but it does have a place in Maine’s art scene as a more intimate venue.
In an interview with the BDN last fall, Williams said the fact that there are more options than ever before leads him to believe there’s a larger audience than ever before.
“I think this is seen as a positive for everybody,” Williams said at the time. “It is not us against them, and it never has been. It’s not a question of people having to pick one over the other. It’s that there are more choices, and choices are good. It means the area is growing.”
And he’s ready for the challenge.
“I’m still getting used to the fact that my office is here in the Collins Center,” Williams said in a recent interview. “I’ve spent so much time in this building, but now it’s really officially my home.”
Williams is a 1985 graduate of Bangor High School and a 1991 graduate of the University of Maine; he completed a master’s in higher education there in 1994. He has spent nearly his entire professional career at the University of Maine, with the exception of a two-year term in the Maine House of Representatives from 1998-2000 and a few years in the mid-2000s as president and director of development at Eastern Maine Community College.
As an undergrad, he was at UMaine when the then-Maine Center for the Arts opened with a grand concert featuring Yo Yo Ma and Isaac Stern. By 1993, he was on the center’s advisory board, a position he has held ever since. If anyone knows and loves the Collins Center, it’s Williams.
“This place opened in 1986 and I started coming here not that long after, in 1987. As a music student at UMaine, coming to see legends like Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass, it was a formative thing for me,” Williams said. “And it has been for a whole generation of people in eastern Maine. A lot of people have had their first experiences with performing arts here.”
Williams has worked alongside former director John Patches, who officially retired on Jan. 31 after more than 20 years on the job, and considers him a mentor.
Patches “brought me on the board when I was a graduate student, and I’ve had a friendship with him and he’s been a mentor to me for all these years,” Williams said. “He has made this place what it is, and I hope to continue that tradition of excellence, and also carve out a niche for myself. What that niche is remains to be seen.”
Though his appointment is only for two years and a full national search for a permanent director will commence in the next year, Williams is excited to bring his skill set to the arts center. With his strong ties to UMaine’s School of Performing Arts — he has a bachelor’s in music, he is currently the director of the Black Bear Men’s Chorus and he is a former member of the Maine Steiners a cappella group — he hopes strengthen the bond between the school and the Collins Center.
“It combines my passion for the University of Maine, and my passion for the arts,” said Williams. “I’ve also spent the last 10 years fundraising for the university, which is critical for this organization. It’s really a perfect job for me.”
The first phase of a projected two-part renovation of the Collins Center was completed in early 2009, resulting in improvements to the auditorium itself and a major upgrade to the lobby. The second phase — estimated to cost between $9 million and $15 million to complete — hasn’t been started.
It’s too early to say how programming may or may not change for the CCA for coming seasons, but Williams plans to do some extensive outreach in the community both on and off campus to find out just what audiences want to see.
“My first objective is to listen to people; our patrons and clients,” he said. “We have a unique mission in that we serve both the university and the community. Once we better understand what those two groups want, the programming will follow.”
The biggest challenge going forward for the Collins Center may be that it must figure out what it is now. In the past five years, Waterfront Concerts, the KahBang Festival and the Cross Insurance Center have all transformed the arts and entertainment landscape in the Bangor region.
“When I grew up in Bangor there were very, very limited choices for restaurants in Bangor. Very few options,” said Williams. “Now, there are lots of options. There are much more specialized places to go. I think that’s a good analogy for how the Collins Center needs to evolve and change. It was all things to all people for a long time, but now we are one of many.”
Williams expects to have an initial schedule announcement for the 2014-2015 Collins Center season ready in the next two months.