An Artistic Journey


This arts-and-culture maverick is confidently leading Texas Performing Arts into the 21st century

Kathy Panoff revels in being a multitasker. She’s booking a modern dance troupe, avante garde theater group or a crowd-pleasing Broadway show. She’s in the midst of employee reviews. She’s crafting the syllabus for her arts management class. She’s meeting with faculty members to solicit their input. She’s managing three production shops. Whether onstage or off, she balances it all and never stops moving.

Panoff, director and associate dean of Texas Performing arts, is more than just a connoisseur of the arts. Energetic, passionate and a natural relationship builder, she is perfectly suited to her current role. She described her management style as direct, strategic and hands-on. She relishes the wide range of tasks and thrives on the frenetic pace of her professional life. “I love having all of those balls in the air.”

Panoff oversees all of Texas Performing arts’ programming and events; manages a staff of 65 while garnering input from countless faculty members within UT’s vast bureaucracy; runs the production shops for UT’s theater and dance departments and the Butler school of music; and forges partnerships with like-minded cultural organizations such as the long center for the Performing arts and the Fusebox Festival.

A recent whirlwind trip to New York City, where she saw seven Broadway shows in six days, including American Idiot and Million Dollar Quartet, gave Panoff the chance to scout for possible shows for the 2011-12 season. Sitting in the calm of her office just behind Bass Concert Hall and taking a rare break from the 10-to-12-hour days that have become standard since she officially assumed her post on a full-time basis in August of 2009, Panoff is excited about the upcoming season since it’s the first at Texas Performing arts that is fully hers.

One of Panoff’s goals is to better align Texas Performing Arts with the academic mission of the University of Texas. For her, that means diversifying the programming, maintaining the organization’s financial success and also growing the audience. Her other goal is to increase student involvement: Texas Performing Arts currently employs 75 students and it is launching a student subscription this year. Another big initiative is what Panoff calls cultural engagement, which simply means partnering with the long center and showing programs in conjunction with the Fusebox Festival or other big events.

“We don’t have a mission that’s separate from UT,” Panoff emphasized. “We have a moral imperative to have a business that aligns with them.”

The oldest of six children and a child of the 1960s, Panoff had music in her blood. She began playing piano when she was 8 years old and learned the flute in junior high school. Although her five brothers played musical instruments, Panoff’s mother was a chemist and her father was a nuclear engineer. However, her mother was also quite musical: she played the piano, loved to tap dance and could sing. Living inside the Beltway near Washington, D.C., her family was a two-newspaper household: education, media and the arts were held in high esteem. Panoff thrived in this enlightened community.

She attended the University of Cincinnati College of Conservatory, one of the top ten music schools, for her undergraduate degree and graduate studies. Her bachelor’s degree is in music and her master’s is in conducting. While in graduate school, Panoff also managed the Cincinnati symphony orchestra and was a conductor. After she graduated, she came to Texas to teach for two years in the Richardson school district just outside Dallas.

After returning to Cincinnati, Panoff did some contract work before she was hired to be the membership coordinator of WGUC-FM, a public classical music station in Cincinnati. She rose through the ranks to become the director of development, gaining a wealth of fund-raising experience in the process. She also worked at the Cincinnati Playhouse and with the Bank Boston celebrity series. Her parents, both of whom had been terminally ill with cancer, died within four years of each other in the late 1980s. After settling their affairs, which took about a year, she took a solo two-month trip across Europe, visiting France, Spain, Austria, Germany and Switzerland.

At the University of Richmond in Virginia, then a school of about 2,800 students with a $1.8 billion endowment, she oversaw the construction of (and served as the executive director of) the Modlin Center for the Arts. She presented more than 350 world- class touring artists in performances of classical music, jazz, modern dance, world music and theater, while also teaching in the music department and overseeing the undergraduate arts management program.

“It was the right time in my life,” Panoff said, with typical modesty. “I was there for 13 years and I did what I could do there.”

Panoff is very proud of the upcoming season of Texas Performing Arts for many reasons, not the least of which is the diverse and multidisciplinary nature of its offerings and selected partnerships with Fusebox Festival, the Austin Classical Guitar Society, L Style G Style and the Long Center for the Performing Arts

“This season is the most robust classical season in 10 years,” Panoff said. “This is the first time in history we have done a legitimate theater production, other than Broadway. I’ve developed relationships that have helped me get these attractions to all audiences in Austin, and this is a very open town.”

Reaching out across disciplines and forging new partnerships with cultural groups is one aspect of the cultural leadership that Panoff brings to the table. It’s a way to not only reach new and broader audiences but also to bring people out of their cultural comfort zone a bit. Panoff knows that she’s still building trust with Austin audiences, but she’s confident in their open-minded- ness and willingness to explore new cultural connections.

“I have always had a strong relationship with the gay community and any community I have lived in,” she said. “I am very proud to have formed these relationships. It’s about taking our resources and creating opportunities for mutual audiences.”

On this late may afternoon, Panoff is in the midst of sending out contracts for the new season for performers and student employees, putting her syllabus together for the arts management class she’s teaching, and preparing for performance evaluations for her staff. She seems to be doing a lot of things right. Between this year and last year, another 500 new subscribers have been added to their season and student attendance has grown dramatically. “I believe the right job finds you. It’s very challenging, but I think I have come to this organization at a time when my experience will be helpful.”

Her love for the arts is matched by her love of her dogs, beagle mixes named Lily and Owen. She likes walking with them around the greenbelt, taking in Austin’s natural beauty and making time to relax.

“If I’m lucky enough to spend the rest of my career here, I want to be moving,” Panoff said. “I want to leave my campsite better than how I found it. I’m making a difference in an area that I love.”