An interview with … Marius Gaina, Executive Director, Cayman Arts Festival

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For the past 5 years, Marius Gaina has helped guide Cayman Arts Festival on a path of growth and expansion, particularly in terms of the nonprofit’s educational programmes.

The organisation was established by internationally acclaimed piano duo Jennifer Micallef and Glen Inanga following their first performance in the Cayman Islands. The first Cayman Arts Festival was held in 2004. Now, the organisation hosts an annual 10-day signature event, and throughout the year operates after-school music education programmes, offers student scholarships, holds regular performances and has initiatives such as the new ‘Piano in the Classroom’ programme.

Cayman Arts Festival has about 150-200 students involved in its programmes, with a variety of instruments including piano, violin, cello, etc.

In this interview, Gaina talks about Cayman Arts Festival, its emphasis on education, the organisation’s response to COVID-19 and its plans for the future.

Marius Gaina, Executive Director, Cayman Arts Festival

Bio: Originally from Romania, Gaina has a background in law and first arrived in Cayman in 2006 to work in financial services. He joined Cayman Arts Festival as Executive Director in October 2015.

— Please talk about Cayman Arts Festival and the organisation’s growth since it was established.

Cayman Arts Festival started as an entertainment programme. I think the founders’ thought at all times was to add to the educational side of things. Our goal is to educate, to entertain and to inspire. Those are the 3 words we focus on.

Initially it was just entertainment, but in the first 10 years the founders were able to make people start knowing about it, and to see what was going on, and what they were doing. They were bringing in overseas performers to hold masterclasses for students here in schools, and they were having events.

Initially the organisation was just about entertainment, and in the first 10 years the founders, Glen Inanga and Jennifer Micallef were able to significantly raise the profile. They brought in overseas performers to hold masterclasses for students here in our schools, and they held many events.
CAF grew a lot over the years in response to the high demand for these types of events. Slowly, we started to add to the educational side of it.

In my opinion, today at the end of 2020, the educational side is now overshadowing the entertainment part. Our focus is now very heavily on the educational aspects. We still have many events, but now we try to tailor them so that they have a large educational component.

I’ll give you an example. In the past, we would have highlighted that ‘X’ or ‘Y’ or ‘Z’ is coming here to have a concert and a masterclass. Now, we are more likely to announce that ‘X’, ‘Y’ or ‘Z’ is coming here for a week of masterclasses with students, and at the end of that week, they will have a concert, where they will also involve the students that they have worked with over the week.

It’s a different approach with more involvement on the educational side. We have also found that sponsors react better to this arrangement, and we are able to seek funding for both education and arts.

In terms of how we are coping with the COVID-19 situation, we had funds for our educational programmes already in our account when the lockdown came, and we were able to adapt our programmes to be able to continue.

Cayman Arts Festival over the years has adapted to changing circumstances on both the educational and entertainment side to ensure survival. For example, we adjusted the length of our festival because we saw that when we were holding a large 2-week festival, at least 1 event was not well attended, so that meant that a lot of the funds that we were putting into the festival were not being used effectively. Now, we just have 3 major events instead of 4 or 5 concerts like before.

This has been a bit better for us. Adapting allowed us to still be on the market, and allowed us to increase the presence of our educational programme.

Now, from a sponsorship perspective, I like to describe our afterschool programme as a pizza with a lot of slices. Initially we had 1 major sponsor that helped us to begin this programme. We realised that having just 1 sponsor for the entire programme was risky. Again, adapting, we decided to spread the programme into small slices and to find a sponsor for each of those programmes.

Now we have a sponsor for the choir programme, we have a sponsor for the string programme, and even within the string programme, we have a different sponsor for the cello programme. Everywhere we can, we break it down smaller and smaller because it’s easier to go to a sponsor and ask for a smaller amount, than to go ask for a huge one.

We have a brass programme, a piano programme, and a drama programme. We are also now trying to launch a literacy programme.

— How did the COVID-19 lockdown affect your programmes?

COVID lockdowns and social distancing requirements meant that we had to stop the physical lessons, but we moved immediately online when we had the chance.

We weren’t at full capacity at that point. It was impossible to do that, so we focussed on the advanced students, and we continued on with them during the lockdown.

Immediately after lockdown ended, in order to make up for those months, we held intensive camps for our major programmes: piano, cello, violin. Again, we focussed on the advanced students, hoping that the beginners and intermediate students would be able to continue when school started.

One good thing that came out of the lockdown is that we started sharing our documentary far and wide. Some music teachers saw the documentary and were interested in helping, and now we have advanced students taking lessons with a music teacher based in Jerusalem, doing online lessons.

She specialised in online lessons long before COVID. We were able in this way to offer some lessons at a very high standard. Soon, we will have another group of students doing online music lessons with a university violin professor.

In the past, we sent students every year, with support from the community and sponsors, to a famous camp called the Luzerne Music Center, close to Lake Luzerne and the forest in New York. We sent them there for a month. The most students that we have ever sent in 1 year was 6 students. It takes a lot of funds, but we have seen that it helps them a lot.

At this moment that’s not possible. In order to continue to offer a programme like this to advanced students, we are offering them online lessons with top professors from all over the world. This is a change. This is a way that we adapted immediately.

— Are you going to continue to offer online lessons even after COVID restrictions end?

Yes, it is a nice approach that we will continue going forward.

— After COVID, do you intend also to restart programmes where you send students away to advanced music camps?

Yes. What we have here at the moment is fine. We are privileged to have these types of lessons. But we have already begun to restart everything. The kids have started coming again to the lessons during the week and on weekends.

Someday we will be sending students to the US. At the moment, as much as we might want to send them, I’m not sure if they would want to go, or if their parents would allow them to go. At the moment we are doing as much as we can here and online.

To pay for one student to go to Luzerne the cost is US$5,000. Now, all of the students can have online lessons for 1 year, and we spend US$5,000 for all of them.

— Will you be hosting the Cayman Arts Festival in 2021?

Yes, the festival in 2021 will focus on local performers. We have already planned everything in detail. It will be over 10 days, from 4-13 February.

We strongly believe that the audience will not feel any difference from the previous festivals because of the performers we have here. The people we have spoken with are also international performers, but they are based in Cayman. And we will also have our students performing.

From a financial perspective, there will be a difference because we will not have to spend as much. We do not need to have flights, accommodations, those kinds of things. That will help us.

— Can you discuss the educational focus of the organisation?

We have an educational component that will continue to grow. We have no excuses to stop it, to shrink it, to reduce it. We have funds for a piano programme; this is the 2nd year where the piano programme is in place. We have 10 students in the class. We used to have 1 or 2; now we have 10 students that have lessons every week.

We have the string programme. The sponsor, who wants to remain anonymous, has funded it for about 5 years. We started it last year, we have the funds, so there’s no reason to not increase the programme.
The cello programme is going well, too. We will, I hope, soon receive enough funds for the brass programme.

We also have our own orchestra, and we had a few practices before the lockdown, however we had to stop that programme. There are a few other youth orchestras on island, but ours is a very small group, with around 30-40 students. We call it ‘CAF Youth Camerata’. It is the pinnacle of our programmes. The young musicians come together as one group to perform.

I love a certain programme that people still don’t know too much about. We call it ‘Piano in the Classroom’. I think we could do an interview only on this topic, but I will try to cover it in a few sentences.

In talking about what our impact is on education — we look at where a child feels most comfortable? We think that is in his classroom. That’s his place. When you take him out of the classroom, it’s like a trip for him, but he will feel right at home in the classroom. With donated funds, we purchased an upright piano that we can travel with, to take to every school on the island.

We bring the piano into a classroom and hold a live concert. It could be a Kindergarten classroom, preschool classroom, high school classroom, or a university classroom.

We have already held some events where we brought along the piano to play for the students. In some cases, if they had a piano, we tuned their piano and used that. Sometimes the schools are happier about us tuning their piano since they may not have funds for that, than they are about us bringing in our piano. “You came and did a performance in front of 80 students, and they left happy, and now my piano is also tuned.”

We try to initially present the piano instrument to students. Moving forward, we can bring other instruments, too; it doesn’t have to be a piano.

After that, we try to promote the instrument among the children, some who may already be taking lessons, and others that might be inspired to start taking piano lessons. We select the most advanced students for piano-intensive camps, so this is a different level of the pyramid.

Last year we were able to find 10 students to attend a camp here with Matei Varga, who is a concert pianist and piano professor based in New York.

We then selected 1 student and sent him to New York for another camp that was even more advanced, with teachers and students coming from all over the world. Last year we sent Jonathan Bedasse to that camp.

He was there for a week of intensive classes, he saw concerts with other students performing, and had access to professors you usually can only read about.

Another thing we’ve done with this programme was to bring one of the finalists of the BBC Young Musician of the Year to Cayman, Adam Heron for a concert. So we try to cover many things with this programme.

Everyone gets to see a piano concert. They have access to piano lessons in their class. The advanced students have an intensive camp. The best one goes to another camp overseas, and we also bring in a top young performer for students and others to see.

We call it ‘Piano in the Classroom’. Maybe next year we’ll change it to ‘Violin in the Classroom’. We can play with it as we go along. We are building up a programme that I’m so happy about, I’m so proud of it.

It’s working so far. We’ve been to UCCI to have a concert. We’ve been to Cayman Prep. We went to some Kindergartens too back when it was possible. We brought the piano there and the kids got to interact with the piano.

We have also had music lessons at the library. That piano has to be used as much as possible, so we invited Kindergartners there for a half hour/ 45 minutes music lesson. For them it’s the best trip. I still have parents who say, “My child is still talking about that trip.” They get to go on the bus. They go into a different venue. They see instruments. They sing there. They play there. It’s amazing. It’s also free of charge.

All we need is a message from the Kindergarten or from the school, saying, “We would love to have this here, and we are available this day.” From that moment we start working and planning for it. We are able to do about 10 events each year. It could be more but that’s the aim, to have at least 10 ‘Piano in the Classroom’ events.

— What do you have planned for next year and beyond?

I think the number of students we cater to will remain the same, or maybe increase slightly.

We try to work with what we have, and to adapt. We also know that the tutors have their own jobs. It can be overwhelming for them. We try not to add too much for them. Instead we try to consolidate what we have.

One addition we might try, is to launch a guitar programme. We don’t have that currently. We have students who are interested.
The way that our programmes grow is when our very talented students push us, and make us create things that we may not have had in our minds.

It’s the 21st century, and we’re looking at things we’ve never done. We have regular things like violin, cello, but now there are things like music producing, with computers, with apps, with things that none of us were thinking of doing a few years ago. But we started seeing our students do that, so why not offer them something? Think about how can we help them?

They inspire us to do things. For example, usually in December there are so many events on island that we were not planning to do any events. But the students said, “We need to have a concert.” So we had a Christmas concert for the choir, one for the strings, and one for the jazz group. It’s a nice feeling when they challenge you.

To answer another of your questions on how do you improve education here, this is the way. It’s one hand washing the other. We offer them something, and they don’t disappoint us. They come back and hit the ball back to us. It’s like a tennis game; this is how I see it.

— How does Cayman Arts Festival support education generally, beyond music education?

That’s a question more for a teacher. Not being a teacher, I will just say generally, that our kids tend to excel in school. None of our students have bad grades.

Among the students we have head boys and girls. I see them in our classes all the time. They’re already examples in their schools.

These are good students, and not only in music. As an example, one of our students, is now at Columbia University, studying economics and doing a minor in music. We can see that musical education helps general education.

I think it makes you more disciplined. It teaches you to work in a team. That’s something I haven’t mentioned previously. We don’t have too many individual lessons. Our lessons are in groups.

It’s a melting pot of students from different schools. Originally they came from the public school system, but now we’ve expanded to students from various schools.

Even when the students have exams, they still want to come to practice. Nobody has to force them.

— Are there any misconceptions about your organisation that you’d like to correct or clarify?

When I try to find sponsors, or to work with some vendors, I don’t know why, but I get the feeling that many people think “This entity has funds.” So they treat us as a business partner, not as a charity, and it is hard for us to negotiate discounts.

This is an issue that I have felt over the years. I tell a lot of people that sometimes we hardly make the funds to put a concert in place. We work so hard to find funds for the afterschool programmes. We don’t take anything for granted. It’s continuous work.

Every time someone pays to attend a concert, they should be thinking that they have contributed to our students in some way or other, that when they buy a ticket they are actually supporting our afterschool programme. Unfortunately we are not standing on a gold mine.

That’s something I try to make clear, and I think it’s the same for all charities. It’s a struggle, especially these days.

We have been wonderfully supported by sponsors, but there are also a lot of no’s.
Even if you cannot attend a concert, it’s good to support us by sharing our flyers. That will help us to cut down on advertisements costs. Spread the word of what we do here. Invite people to come to concerts.

If you buy tickets to come to our concerts, with those funds we are able to continue our programmes. The festival is our major financial engine to help us continue the programmes for the entire year, or until the next festival.

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