New Northrop director returns to Minneapolis with fresh ideas

Expect big changes to shake the foundations of Northrop Memorial Auditorium âÄî literally âÄî this coming school year and beyond. The changes started Aug. 11 with the appointment of a new director of concerts and lectures, Benjamin M. Johnson. A native of Winona, Minn., Johnson attended the University of Michigan and got his masterâÄôs from St. MaryâÄôs University in Minnesota. He served as director of education and audience development at the University of MichiganâÄôs University Musical Society for the past 14 years . The search for a new director at Northrop lasted more than two months and involved an exhaustive evaluation of about 40 people from across the country, Vice President of Scholarly and Cultural Affairs Steven Rosenstone said. Rosenstone, who was responsible for the hiring of the new director, said he is completely confident in his selection. âÄúWeâÄôve pulled the very best person from the very best organization,âÄù Rosenstone said. âÄúWe found the right man for the job.âÄù One of JohnsonâÄôs attributes that made him stand out to Rosenstone was his commitment at University Musical Society, a 128-year-old nonprofit performing arts organization, and his ability to build collaborative relationships within the campus. UMS president Ken Fischer worked with Johnson for 13 years and said he was deeply impressed by JohnsonâÄôs devotion to working deeply with communities of all kinds âÄî a devotion that earned the University Musical Society the first ever Arts Presenters/MetLife Foundation Award for increasing arts access in underserved communities, like inner-city neighborhoods, in 2007 . When Johnson expressed his desire last year to return home to Minnesota, Fischer said he was more than willing to support him. Although he said he was sad to see Johnson leave Michigan, heâÄôs happy for JohnsonâÄôs success. âÄúHe has the kind of knowledge of dance, music and theater that will enable him to bring in the very best in the performing arts to the University,âÄù Fischer said. âÄúIn other words, you guys have scored big on this one.âÄù Even when he lived in the Twin Cities many years ago, Johnson never thought of the University as a place where he could come to, since he wasnâÄôt a student. Johnson said he felt a disconnect between the art scenes in Minneapolis versus the University area, and wants to mend the gap as the new Northrop director. âÄúWhat weâÄôre hoping to do is really re-envision how the rest of the community comes to the campus,âÄù Johnson said. âÄúI donâÄôt think itâÄôs really understood by the broader community that the University is a real player within the arts scene in the Twin Cities.âÄù Johnson said he considers the UniversityâÄôs interaction with the rest of the Twin Cities a two-way conversation. âÄúOur goal is to do the kind of programming that allows for lots of rich connections to happen, and to make it much more relevant and fresh for the student population,âÄù Johnson said. Johnson has already been able to book big names for NorthropâÄôs upcoming season, including a stand-up performance by Robin Williams and a rare performance by internationally renowned musician Charlie Haden with his Liberation Music Orchestra . Under JohnsonâÄôs directorship, Northrop is also on schedule to be completely renovated beginning in the summer or fall of 2009. The interior will be rebuilt to include better acoustics, more comfortable seating and state-of-the-art technology . A grand reopening is planned for fall of 2011. âÄúThe inside will basically be gutted and re-envisioned to be more of a social space, a community space,âÄù Johnson said. âÄúI think itâÄôs going to just be mind-blowing for everybody.âÄù