Less than a week before heading to China for a tour sponsored by the New Orleans-based public radio show “American Routes,” the Chinese government clamped down on all outdoor festivals. Club appearances with audiences greater than 600 people were canceled too.
With three ensembles — Treme Brass Band, Los Tex Maniacs and Wylie and the Wild West — set to depart for the April 27 through May 3 tour, Josh Kohn worked his Beijing contacts and managed to book venues on the fly.
The 34-year-old’s exuberance, network and ability to work in a fast-paced environment are among the reasons he was appointed as the performance director for the Creative Alliance this past fall, taking the reins from Megan Hamilton, who departed for her next adventure with the Peace Corps.
“It was really interesting to be in a city having its issues while things were going on in Baltimore,” said Kohn. “I think about things artistically [about the comparatively] loose nature of American artistic expression.”
Walking through the Creative Alliance space at The Patterson Theater in Highlandtown, Kohn contends that “every art space has its own energy” and at the Creative Alliance that means the “weird, eccentric is embraced,” as evidenced by the Monday morning remnants of the Mad Max themed Marquee Ball from the weekend before the initial interview.
Using his “encyclopedic knowledge” of music, Kohn is responsible for booking 110 shows a year in the first-floor versatile black box theater performance space. He’s brought in polka music, Egyptian artists to perform music from their country’s golden age, Pakistani spoken word performers and experimental jazz musicians.
If there doesn’t seem to be an obvious thread linking the performers Kohn books, it’s because he’s not stuck to a niche.
“I bounce around with my knowledge obsession,” he admits. “I live vicariously through the great art I help facilitate.”
Moving across the street to a quirky, independent coffee shop, Kohn continues to espouse his vision for the future.
The Creative Alliance will continue to “tap into community-based expression” through partnerships with local schools, the Hispanic community, the Baltimore Resettlement Center and others. Mainstays such as burlesque performances and intimate jazz performances aren’t going away, but the focus on hyper-local artists is going to be expanded upon.
Kohn envisions bringing in more nationally known performers, both to expand the audience’s exposure to other performers and to connect local artists with those on the national stage. He’s talking to agents about promoting local talent, so those artists in residence at the Patterson or living locally can earn a living that affords them to keep on creating.
He also wants to foster a more robust Jewish artistic presence. The national trend for Jewish artistic expression, he said, “has devolved into a cappella puns” which are “shlocky.”
“It disappoints me where we are,” he said. “I want to support good [Jewish] artistic expression,” pointing to successes like puppeteer Anna Fitzgerald of Red Ball Theatre’s retelling of the Purim story at the Wild Purim Rumpus hosted by Charm City Tribe at the Creative Alliance.
Prior to joining the Creative Alliance, Kohn spent 11 years as the Programming Manager with the National Council for the Traditional Arts in Silver Spring and served as Program Officer, Jazz and Traditional Arts at Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation. The Bucks County, Pa., native, who graduated from the George Washington University with a degree in American Studies, also completed a competitive fellowship with Devos Institute of Arts Management, now housed at the University of Maryland.
Knowing what the organization, which will celebrate its 21st birthday in style next year, means to the Baltimore arts scene, Kohn is working to strike the right balance.
“I look at my position as both curating really interesting, powerful, transformative events here at Creative Alliance and also be a conduit for the community. I try to keep the lines of communication open for what the Creative Alliance should be,” said Kohn.
This month is another busy one for Kohn and Creative Alliance. Tonight marks the release party for the Bumper Jacksons — whom Kohn describes as “one part old mountain music, three parts New Orleans jazz” — and the Maryland Traditions Folklife Festival and The Big Show Dance Party with Bachata Plus will take place in late June.