Earlier this month, International House Philadelphia eliminated the position of Director of Arts that was held by 12 year employee Renae Dinerman. Renae recently sat down with Cinedelphia to discuss the highlights of her time as Director of Arts, the circumstances behind her dismissal, and the uncertain future of arts at the International House.
Raised in the culturally isolated environs of North Miami Beach, Renae returned to her birthplace of Philadelphia to attend Temple University’s Radio, Television, and Film program in 1984. Following graduation, she spent 10 years doing production work for the now defunct Primos, PA-based Video Production Associates. It was during this time that she served as a volunteer for the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema, eventually becoming a part-time staff member. In 2000, she assumed the position of Office Manager at the I-House where she remained for 12 years.
CINEDELPHIA: What was the state of the arts program at I-House when you started there?
RENAE DINERMAN: There was really no one doing film programming at the time, the concentration was on the film festival. The year that I started was the last year that Phyllis Kaufman was the Artistic Director, she came down from New York once a week. The film festival was in the spring that year and we really jumped into working on it, two years before was when Linda Blackaby left the International House so there was a big transition between Linda and Phyllis. The International Music Series, the Folk Life Center, and the Philadelphia Independent Film and Video Association were up and running in the Arts Center, which is what the department was called then. The year after that, the Managing Director who hired me saw that there wouldn’t be a Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema presented by International House, in 2000 it was presented by International House, it really took a lot for the House to present such a huge festival and a lot of the funding and human resources went to the film festival and took away from the residential side of things, which some may say is the key element of what happens at International House. It was a big strain so TLA Entertainment started presenting the festival. After the Managing Director left, I asked the then president of I-House, Ellen Davis, if she would give me a chance to run the Arts Center, I was still Office Manager at the time, and thankfully she did. I’m very grateful to Ellen for giving me the chance to do that. Michael Chaiken had been hired full-time to work on the film festival and we kept him to work on film programming along with Nicola Gentili who is at Penn Cinema Studies now. I think it was in 2003 when we got another president and the Arts Center closed and became the Programs Office; no more PIFVA, Folklife Center, or International Music series, it was just me and Michael Chaiken and Robert Cargni doing film along with Nicola. That’s when Jesse Pires came on as the House Manager of the theater. After a while I became Director of Programs in the Programs Office, which now included International House’s language programs. So we were all together in the Programs Office, there was no marketing office at all at the time, everything was really grassroots. I learned how to use Illustrator and Photoshop, I put all the posters and ads together, we started working on the magazine, it was really a trial by fire. And that was when International House had the largest crowds, it was a time before you could watch media on your phone, it was really the place, it still is the place, but there weren’t as many alternatives then. Thanks to Michael and Robert and, later on, Jesse Pires, it really became the hub of film culture in Philadelphia.
C: You seemed to attract accomplished or soon-to-be accomplished programmers…
RD: I think it was because we were the main outlet for film in the city, but also it showed that we as a staff cared. We always cared about presentation, the production, our audience, made sure that the 16 and 35mm prints were taken the utmost care of, the presentation always came first. And we always made sure that the artists and the directors were treated properly. It was a very friendly place for both audiences and artists.
C: When you were developing the programming post-film festival, were the aesthetics similar to what they are today?
RD: I think when Jesse Pires came on was when we started to do more modern experimental work, the repertory was sort of established and Michael and Robert really had a good grounding in that. Michael was very experimental in what he wanted to show. New artists, new media, that’s more of Jesse’s purview. There’s some overlap between Jesse and Robert now, but they both bring distinctive choices.
C: Was approving their programming ideas part of your job at that time?
RD: Yeah, it still was up to two weeks ago, approve their ideas and make them happen. They know way more than I do and I learned so much from everyone that I’ve come in contact with working there, it’s amazing how much my eyes have been opened to cinema, music, performance, new media, arts in general, by the people that I’ve worked with over the years.
C: And I’m sure your duties extended far beyond overseeing the programming…
RD: Oh, yes. I was the liaison to the board and I think about those early times when I had to go to board meetings and pick out what suit I was going to wear and being all quaffed with full makeup and high heels and all that stuff, if you know me you know that’s not really me. But there were these people that I needed to impress and show that I could do this job and that the arts programs were integral to the success of International House. International House really has two distinct experiences happening there, one is arts and the other residential. There were people on the board who could care less about having the arts programs, it’s always been that way, they just want to know that the costs are covered, they don’t come to anything ever no matter how accessible it is. That’s a term that’s used quite a lot, “accessible”, there’s a lot of debate on whether arts is an appropriate thing for International House Philadelphia to do. The board members are very long-lived, there are some that have been on there for decades, so there are still board members who were intrinsic in approving the creation of the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema. But in the beginning I felt very nervous, naïve, proud, scared to go to my first board meeting, but it becomes natural after years of doing it.
C: Differences in opinion amongst a board of directors towards any given nonprofit organization’s mission seem like a normal occurrence…
RD: I think that the board members that stay there for decades really believe in the mission of International House as a place where you learn about each other through experience, that happens in the arts and in the residential center too. I do feel that the arts part has evolved more than the residential part. In 2004, I believe, we received the first grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, it wasn’t called that then, for the Philadelphia Music Project, and that was when Michael was transitioning out to work for Maysles. Michael, Jesse, Robert, and I created a plan for the Arts Center and that’s when we started looking forward rather than back at past music trends to try to define “international” as something other than tradition.
C: Did the eventual increase in staff members indicate monetary success for your department?
RD: Well, the programmers are also the production people. So Robert is the only one on staff who knows how to work the 16 and 35mm projectors, Herb Shellenberger, the most recent addition, is learning to do the 16mm right now. So we started to do music through the grants from Philadelphia Music Project, we did five years of concerts with Mark Christman and Ars Nova Workshop, and people would want to come in and rent the theater and work with us. We started to bring in more music, working with R5 and World Café, and we realized we needed a full-time production manager and that’s where Jesse Kudler came in. We’d been hiring residents to work in the box office selling tickets and they weren’t always the most reliable, they’re in school so… So we decided we needed a full-time box office manager and that’s where Herb came in, we went from carnival tickets to actual software. Jesse Kudler was the programmer for the Sonic Arts Union series that we did this year and last year so he did an eleven-event series plus his production work. Plus the theater is rented to other nonprofits, the office does production work for the resident activities and advisories center, it’s a very busy place.
C: Would you say that the International House attracted a certain kind of person? You’ve always given the impression of being a family of sorts, especially recently during the seasonal preview events…
RD: Well, Jesse Pires says we’re a “motley crue”, but I don’t think we’re that motley. Yes, you have to have a sense of humor and a lot of patience and understanding in order to work with very smart and creative people because there can be a lot of ego involved and I really felt we were able to put that aside. And that’s really what I’m going to miss the most, not seeing the boys. I get a little upset when people say “You were their Mom.” I was not their mom, I don’t have any children let alone ones that are ten years older than me. I’m glad that impression got out because we really were a family in a way in that we always had each other’s back and supported each other. There’s a lot of affection in that office.
C: Did you ever feel like the sane one in an office of crazies?
RD: Y’know, yes, I sort of always felt that I was the sane one. I’d always say “you have to learn to figure out when to pick your battles and understand where you’re working…” I had to be the sane one because I was the director and I was the liaison between the staff and the executive leadership so there wasn’t any room for me to be anything but.
C: I can picture them pitching you impossible programming ideas…
RD: Yes, monetarily impossible…there have been really incredible programs that sell out and incredible programs that get two people. Even if it’s the most incredible thing that you’ve ever seen but there’s no way capacity-wise to get people to come, you can’t do it.
C: With 12 years of experience, how do you explain those drastic contrasts in crowds?
RD: Well, how do I explain without blaming…I think that our success in renovating the theater and having 360 seats is also a liability because there are things that we’ve done that 40 people came out to who were really engaged with those things. But we have 360 seats. So it’s sort of the reality of the venue. I changed my title from Director of Programs to Director of Arts because I really felt like people needed to know that there’s an arts program there. I think it was important for the House to have someone with that title. I think as we really got the current staff in, there wasn’t a lot of experienced marketing folks there. There’s always been a struggle of “What is International House Philadelphia?” So how do you market something like Chick Strand or Hollis Frampton? How do you let people know that this is happening at International House Philadelphia in a 13 floor building where people live? I tried for many, many years to get a marketing person for arts and I always felt that the success of arts is the success of International House Philadelphia. I never could understand why “Ibrahim Theater at International House” couldn’t be at the forefront as long as “International House” was part of that equation. When we created a new website we wanted to have a new landing page for arts, if you look at the Arts Institute of Chicago they have a school and they have a museum, you go to the website and get to choose school or museum and once you’re in one you can go back to the other. We fought for that for the new website and every marketing person that we’ve had whether they’re experienced in arts or not they’re always like “it’s International House Philadelphia and that’s it.” When we were transitioning from one marketing person to another, I said “Y’know what, let’s create a Facebook page, Ibrahim Theater at International House.” So we created this Facebook page, we got lots of friends, talked about the arts program. There was the International House page and no one was dealing with it and when they did there was never any programming information on there until last year when we got an experienced marketing person. I always wondered what the organization had to lose by putting the arts first. If nothing happens then go back to putting International House first. The Ibrahim Theater at International House received funding from the City of Philadelphia through the Cultural Quarters Project, $125,000. A former board member named S.A. Ibrahim gave $250,000 and there was an anonymous donor that gave another $50,000. In 2008 we renovated the theater, which I was Project Manager on. So we named the theater after Ibrahim and slowly the name of the theater isn’t on any pieces of paper anymore. How do you even know that there’s a theater inside that building if you don’t name the theater?
C: So where does this ongoing marketing stance come from? The board?
RD: It could be from the board, it could be the executive leadership there. It’s a struggle, it’s been a struggle between the two, programs and residents. I don’t think it’s ever been a struggle over which is more important, the residential side provides 85% of their earned revenue, there couldn’t really be arts there without that support and it’s very fortunate that there is that underlying support from earned revenue from residents. But on the flipside there’s the challenge and struggle that if the residents are supporting the program then what’s the mission of the programming? Are you programming for the public, to bring the public in, or should you be focusing on what the residents want? International House is a nonprofit so there has to be development funds coming in to support the program.
C: To look beyond marketing for a moment, could low attendance ever be attributed to the city itself? Is there a thriving film community to support your film programming?
RD: It’s hard to characterize a city…we did surveys of our audiences in 2009 and 2011. We always look at ICA openings, packed with people, and those are our people. Why aren’t they coming over to International House? Is it because they don’t know this happens in a theater? Is it because they don’t know that you don’t have to be a student at Penn? That is the biggest myth that’s out there, that International House is part of Penn. I think that one of the issues is knowing that there’s access. You don’t have to be a student, there’s a lot of things that are free that you can come to. I just think that people don’t know. That’s a marketing issue, it’s a city of Philadelphia issue. There’s an audience and an appetite for new work. I look at ICA and Vox and Space 1026 and I really don’t know why people aren’t coming.
C: Moving on to happier matters, what were some of the highlights of your tenure there, programming-wise?
RD: I’m proud of all the work we’ve done with Mark Christman and Ars Nova Workshop, that I was a part of bringing that to the city. Mark wrote me a nice e-mail about how I was instrumental to the success of Ars Nova, which was very kind of him and I’m so thankful that he feels that way. Bringing Ars Nova to International House was one of the best decisions that we ever collectively made. Getting to see Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton and John Zorn. And going back to what I said earlier about being introduced to new films, music and media, that is the thing that I’m the most grateful for. Growing up in Miami in the early ‘80s was a wasteland for music, I didn’t have an inkling as to how to discover this music. I’d heard of Miles Davis, but would really have to go out of my way to listen to him. Decades later, working with Mark and Jesse Pires and Herb and Jesse Kudler, hearing all of this incredible music, that’s the most gratifying thing I’ve taken from my experience at International House.
One of the things that Michael Chaiken brought was showing the films of Albert Maysles. We showed Gimme Shelter, and The Beatles in the USA, meeting Albert was incredible. So many musicians and directors and artists that have come through the door…something like 600 people have performed on that stage since 2003. That’s amazing. We’ve had every member of Sonic Youth except for Kim Gordon on that stage.
C: I’m sure a big part of that is the gratification that comes with an appreciative audience…
RD: Yes, and working in production, if you’re working an eight hour day, you get fed. So I always assumed that musicians get fed, they get dinner since they’re here all day working, and the funny thing is that 90% of the musicians that performed there were astonished that they got a meal and were always so grateful.
Every year they announce the Pew fellows and at least three people have somehow been presented at the I-House. We went to the Whitney Biennial this year and at least 17 of the artists that were featured had somehow either in person or through film been presented at International House. That was kind of amazing. During the centennial we commissioned a live score for the Japanese film A Page of Madness that later went to MOMA. I commissioned something that went to MOMA. That’s the most disappointing thing, that there’s not really an understanding from the organization itself of the important work that the arts program has given to the city of Philadelphia and to the organization itself. I was chosen as a Leadership Philadelphia Creative Connector this year, unless you knew how to seek that out then who knew?
C: Is the board aware of the work that International House has done for the community?
RD: I just don’t think they know. I think we’ve done a poor job doing PR to our own board, I’ve always done a poor job talking about myself, but you’ve gotta educate, you’ve gotta do PR to your own constituents, even to people in your own building. We are the home for numerous film organizations, Scribe, Reel Black, Exhumed. I remember years ago when Joseph Gervasi called me and said that someone was coming and they’d lost their venue and asked to use ours. And I said “Sure,” it was that easy. I don’t think it’s going to be that easy anymore, that’s my fear.
C: Are you able to discuss the circumstances behind your dismissal?
RD: I knew this question was gonna come up…just that the Director of Arts position has been eliminated from the roster of International House. I think that a lot of the things we’ve been talking about came to a head, doing more programming for what the residents want, thinking about what they might want to see as opposed to what the general public might want to see, the use of the theater, the collaborations and how they’ve been handled throughout the years. I guess I’ve been very stubborn in not wanting to change, but not wanting to change so that the integrity of what we’re doing remains. I really dug in my heels, maybe to my own detriment. There are no development professionals there now, the Pew grants and funding from Pennsylvania Humanities Council, that was all due to me, I made sure that these grants went though. We finally put in a grant to the National Endowment of the Arts that took me two weeks to work on and I don’t know what’s going to happen this year. It was, I guess, my unwillingness to change, but I’ve always said that it doesn’t make sense to have change for change’s sake. On one of those surveys that we did, someone wrote for “What would you do to change arts programming?” “Don’t fuck with it” and I thought that was awesome. I really was resistant to change for change’s sake and not having the monetary support was very tough.
C: Was it a sudden termination?
RD: It was sudden. The Executive Director made the decision, the board didn’t know. She decided that this was no longer the place for my position.
C: I can imagine the reaction of your office mates…
RD: They were, and I was, devastated by the news. But y’know, I told them that they’ve gotta pick their battles, if they want the arts to thrive then there has to be some compromises. The staff is a very smart, articulate, vocal group and I hope that they can continue doing the amazing work they’ve been doing. Looking back at all of the magazines we’ve put together, we’ve done some really incredible work. Every year, every week, every month I would tell them that they can do less, they don’t have to do so much, but they’re so committed to bringing work to Philadelphia that it’s not in their DNA to do less. But I think that their DNA will be recombined to do less in the future.
C: So the future of the arts department as we know it is uncertain, we can maybe expect a more widely embracing, mainstream direction…
RD: I think so. It might not be such a bad thing. The art staff, the four folks on the art staff, and the manager of the language program will be reporting to the Director of Marketing now who thankfully has arts experience.
C: Can you picture yourself ever taking those guys and starting something new somewhere?
RD: In a dream, absolutely. The family of arts at International House has created something incredible and, as a team, could do so somewhere else. I think about the sitcom The Office and how Michael Scott used to call everyone a family and how I try not to do that because it sounds so cliché and ridiculous, we’re not related, we’re not a family, but there’s so much laughter that happened in those offices and a lot of arguing and a lot of tension and some tears, like a family, and I think the team could really succeed wherever someone would have us. There is a lot of competition in music, there’s a music venue on every corner, but there are no film venues. International House Philadelphia is the one venue to show repertory and new work in the city of Philadelphia, that’s really a sad state for the city. There are so many people doing programming, but there’s no venue that’s also doing programming. There’s room in the city for us.
Cinedelphia was saddened to hear the news and we wish Renae the very best in her future endeavors.