Person Of Interest: Russ Collins

by Grace Jensen

How did you get your job as the executive director of the Michigan Theater Foundation? Well, that was over 35 years ago. I had gotten a master’s degree in arts administration at the University of Michigan and not too long after graduating, this job came along and there were a whole bunch of people that applied, and I got the job, and I’ve been here ever since 1982.

How have things changed since then? The Michigan Theater had just been saved a couple of years before that, and it was really struggling as is typical of these kinds of projects. I came in at a very good time, in terms of it wasn’t the beginning and some things had been tried out so I could learn from that. I was young and super enthusiastic to make it work. So working with the volunteers and the board we came up with all kinds of different things to do. We started off really more focused particularly on the performance art kind of stuff and touring theater shows. As we got into the 1990s, the touring theater shows we handed off to the musical society, and then we focused on film. So it’s changed a lot both in terms of what the Michigan Theater’s primary art focus is, but it also is kind of the same, in that we are focused on restoring and operating historic theaters.

So you just won an award in July from the League of Historic American Theaters for Outstanding Individual Contribution. What does that mean? Well, it means two things. One is that I’ve had a really great community to work for that’s been very supportive of restoring the Michigan and the State Theaters. And it also means that the impact of these Theaters has gone well beyond the city limits of Ann Arbor. In addition to preserving and renovating and restoring the State and Michigan Theater, we’re also one of the leading specialty film exhibitors in the country. In fact, 12 years ago, we started a national organization of community-based mission-driven movie exhibitors, essentially non-profit, culturally-focused movie exhibitors called the Art House Convergence. The organization has grown excessively and has become the national voice for independent cinema exhibition in North America.

Why is historic theater preservation so important to you? It is a combination of historic preservation and then activating that those historic theaters with an art product that’s relevant for contemporary times. So it’s two things. Places of public gathering have a big place in a community’s life. Whether they’re churches or schools or theaters or sports stadiums, they really tug on the heartstrings of the community because it’s a place where people gather, a place where people see their friends and neighbors, a place where people experience important life events. And so we are blessed in Ann Arbor with many wonderful historic theaters: the Michigan Theater, the State Theater, the Hill Auditorium, the Mendelssohn Theater, Rackham Auditorium, renowned historic spaces that have created wonderful experiences for artists, for audiences, and for the community for generations.

What do you hope to see in ten years? Well, nine years from now the Michigan Theater will celebrate its 100th anniversary, so we’re definitely thinking about the centennial celebration. There will be many exciting things that the centennial campaign accomplishes. I’m imagining significant improvements to the live-on-stage functions. A nearly 100-year-old theater is always in need of improvements and renovations and addressing the antique quality of the theater, which is both charming and a little bit of a challenge to keep up and keep maintained. And we’re excited to continue improving our cinema programming and the diversity and effectiveness of what we do with that program. It’s a very exciting time as far as I’m concerned because us baby boomers are moving out of our profession, and Gen Y and Z, the millennials and post-millennials, are coming on to take over and bring new energy, a new perspective, and new cultural expressions to organizations like the Michigan Theater. So it’s great working with the spokesmen in our organization who are young and energetic and have a different point of view and I’m looking forward to fully handing over the reins of the organization to that new generation as well. It’s is going to be an exciting ten years ahead, I am absolutely sure.

Is there anything else you want to say? Just gratitude towards the community. I’ve been able to succeed and thrive because of the passions of this community. We are a community that cares. It’s been a tremendous honor and pleasure for me to be a part of it.

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