David Dower, who emphasized themes of social justice and diversity onstage and off during eight years in top leadership positions at ArtsEmerson, will leave his post as artistic director on Jan. 1.
Dower, 63, said he is moving to San Francisco to become executive producer of the US operations of The 7 Fingers, a circus-theater troupe whose frequent performances at ArtsEmerson have been among the highlights of his tenure.
His imminent departure, officially announced Thursday by Emerson College President Lee Pelton, will bring to an end the close working partnership Dower and executive director David C. Howse have forged. The rapport between the co-leaders, colloquially referred to as “the Davids” inside ArtsEmerson, was on display during a joint interview with the Globe.
“What we’ve built together has really been the institution that we meant it to be when we came together,” said Howse, 45. “It’s in solid shape, pandemic be damned."
Dower has spoken often of the need for theaters to better reflect their communities, including immigrants and people of color. He has argued that diversity in programming, audience makeup, staffing, and leadership are vital components of that change — and he made clear it was a factor in his decision to leave ArtsEmerson.
“One of the things it’s going to take for Boston to fully transition in the way people have been speaking of in the last number of months is actually a transition in power,” said Dower. “The transition to a diverse power base in the culture sector is slow, and it’s something that David and I have been talking about for some time, and is definitely part of my personal decision to make space.
“We can’t get there if we’re all just hanging on to our chairs and make people carry us out in a box,” he added. “Power has got to be shared.”
Dower’s departure will further cement the status of Howse, who is Black, as one of Boston’s most powerful theater leaders. Dower’s replacement will not be given the title of artistic director, Howse said, but instead will serve as the director of artistic programming, reporting to him. “It will still be very much shared leadership,” he said.
Dower’s relocation to San Francisco will represent a homecoming of sorts: He previously lived there for nearly two decades, and his son’s family lives in Oakland.
After a stint as associate artistic director at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., Dower came to ArtsEmerson in 2012 as director of artistic programming. When founding artistic director Robert J. Orchard stepped down in 2015, Dower replaced him and brought aboard Howse, the former executive director of the Boston Children’s Chorus.
Since 2015, they have jointly led the producing and (mostly) presenting organization, which operates under the aegis of Emerson College’s Office of the Arts, where Howse will become vice president.
Programming several theaters inside the Paramount Center as well as the Cutler Majestic Theatre, ArtsEmerson has significantly enhanced the presence of international productions in Boston since its founding by Orchard a decade ago, with a motto that doubled as a mission statement: “The World on Stage.”
Dower oversaw the presentation of productions from such countries as South Africa, Cambodia, Lebanon, Chile, Israel, Kuwait, Australia, Russia, the UK, Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Poland, France, and the Netherlands. He also directed several notable productions, including Melinda Lopez’s semi-autobiographical “Mala,” about caring for her Cuban-born mother in the last years of her life; Daniel Beaty’s “Breath & Imagination,” about renowned tenor Roland Hayes, the first Black singer to perform at Symphony Hall in Boston; and Beaty’s “Mr. Joy,” which addressed issues like immigration, gentrification, and police brutality.
Prior to the founding of ArtsEmerson, Dower said, “Boston did not have a way to see itself as an international city. [But] it’s always been an international city. It already had 140 languages that were spoken here. But the narrative [about Boston] has been so monocultural. I saw this city that was so vibrant and so international and had such richness in its history that was really untold. If anything, we opened a window onto what was already here, the richness of the city.”