'It's kind of the dream job': Brian Johannesen steps into programming manager role at the Englert Theatre

·7 min read

A little over a decade ago, Brian Johannesen stepped into the Englert Theatre for the first time, then a University of Iowa student who wanted to be a talent buyer.

The job, to Johannesen, was a chance to curate the kind of music a city gets exposed to.

Not long after, Andre Perry began his tenure as executive director of the theater, and opportunities would present themselves to Johannesen elsewhere.

But Johannesen returned to the theater, and in December was announced as its new senior programming manager, a role created after Perry announced his departure in August.

“It's kind of the dream job, and it’s such an awesome, versatile, historic, beautiful place,” Johannesen said. “I don't know anybody who works in the music business who wouldn't want to book things in a place like the Englert.”

Johannesen is going full time at the Englert this month after spending December learning the ropes of how the theater functions, he said to the Press-Citizen.

One thing Johannesen is looking to expand on is holding performances in different spaces. It stems from the programming the Englert and Mission Creek did during the summer, creating music and literature performances outdoors and outside of traditional venues in Iowa City.

In terms of differences in musical tastes, Johannessen said he’s more on the “Americana singer-songwriter side of things” than Perry’s “indie rock side of things.”

But nothing is changing where it counts.

“(Perry) has created, with the help of everybody who works at the Englert, the type of arts scene here that is pretty rare for college towns and towns of this size,” Johannesen said. “It's very special, and I hold that dear and I want to honor that and continue that legacy.

“Obviously we have some different tastes. We're gonna have some different styles. It's gonna be a little bit different, but the heart and soul and motivations will stay the same.”

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At the Englert, so much of the work is program-based, Perry said. So the position of a programming manager for the Englert is in direct response to its mission.

“The Englert really needs its programs in order to exist or to have its reason for being,” he said. “So that role is extremely important, I think, in terms of the direction in the future of what the organization might look like.”

Joining the Englert through Mission Creek

Johannesen first worked for the Englert in 2016. He was hired as the community programming manager for the Mission Creek Festival.

He’d just moved back from Nashville after being there for four years and knew immediately he wanted to get involved with the festival.

At that time, Johannesen recalled, Perry wanted to focus on community engagement and provide a more “focused” programming, one that would be free for the community so that anyone could engage with the festival.

“I was really excited about that. That's kind of exactly what I've always loved about Mission Creek is how it gets the community involved in the arts and everybody together, and we decided to do some bigger free programming,” Johannesen said. “And so that's where I came in.”

Brian Johannesen poses backstage at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City. The longtime resident is now responsible for booking the acts that come through the downtown venue.
Brian Johannesen poses backstage at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City. The longtime resident is now responsible for booking the acts that come through the downtown venue.

Shortly after, Johannesen was hired as a music director at Big Grove Brewery.

He called it the “perfect marriage,” utilizing Big Grove’s space to host a free music show as part of Mission Creek.

Johannesen’s job was to not only book that music, he also assisted with the other free programming part of Mission Creek, including the Iowa City Expo for Comics and Real Eclectic Media.

Over the years, Johannesen, in his position with Mission Creek, witnessed how community programming changed.

But the biggest change, and the biggest area of growth, Johannessen said, is homing in on how and where to stage free shows.

“Once we figured out how they work, investing more into it and bringing some bigger artists into the free programming and making the free programming a crucial part of Mission Creek,” he said.

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Iowa City ‘unique’ as music venues foster collaboration

Johannesen recently completed a certificate in sustainability at UI, something he decided to get during the COVID-19 pandemic. He previously attended UI for his bachelor’s and received a Master of Business Administration in music business at Belmont University in Nashville.

He is also a musician and songwriter.

Johannesen said he treats his work as a musician separate from his other roles. But he’ll never ask someone to play for free, so on the times he’s booking a show and there’s no money left, Johannesen will step in.

“I think most of the people I work with in the music business have no idea that I'm a songwriter, and I think a lot of the people I meet when I'm out touring and playing music have no idea that I do this other stuff,” he said. “And I like it that way.”

Though Johannesen keeps his work separate, his background as an artist does help.

He can understand what artists go through when it comes to booking shows. Johannesen can also think about how a venue can or can’t accommodate an artist.

Johannesen is a longtime Iowa City resident, all the way from his time at UI to his return in 2016.

It’s an asset and has cultivated a deeper understanding of the Iowa City arts and entertainment scene, integral when working for an organization as community-focused as the Englert.

One of the Englert's goals, Johannesen said, was to “get out” of the theater and present shows in other areas of the community.

“We want people to come into the Englert and everybody to feel welcome and we want that to be like a home for everybody. But we also want to meet people where they're at and we want to be able to present things that maybe wouldn't necessarily work in the theater,” he said.

Iowa City is "unique" in that the people who book for music venues aren’t competing, instead communicating and collaborating, according to Johannesen.

It’s something he hopes to expand on and continue presenting shows at venues the Englert has worked with in the past.

Not only does this collaborative spirit make Johannesen’s work easier, it unsurprisingly makes his work more fun, and makes for a better experience for artists and the community as well.

Johannesen recalled his experience booking in other towns to be “kind of cutthroat.”

“I love that all of us just want to do everything we can to build the best music culture we can here and arts culture in general outside of music and so the collaboration is amazing,” Johannesen said.

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Listening to and learning what Iowa City wants in entertainment

According to Johannesen, programming is about figuring out what the community needs, and providing that.

It’s not about booking all his favorite bands. It’s not about him.

It’s a distinction he’s learned from Perry.

But Perry, who has known Johannesen for years, sees that too about Johannesen.

“He's just really empathetic and listens to the communities that he's in,” Perry said. “And maybe I'm biased, but I think that's really the most important thing that person could do is really just to listen and to take the temperature and understand what the community needs and where it might need to go.”

Beyond that, Perry said Johannesen has been long involved in the arts. His work as a talent buyer for venues in Nashville to California, among other roles, means he’ll be bringing that technical experience to Iowa City and to the Englert.

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Another takeaway for Johannesen is that it isn’t all about money, like booking bands solely based on the tickets they’ll likely sell.

“When you're working at a place like the Englert, it's important to take into account which voices you're uplifting and which communities you are targeting and serving, and if an artist is perfect for the room. And it's going to cost maybe a little bit more money than you wanted it to, it's worth it,” he said. “It’s worth it to create these experiences for people and to create an opportunity for connection.”

Paris Barraza covers entertainment, lifestyle and arts at the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Reach her at PBarraza@press-citizen.com or (319) 519-9731. Follow her on Twitter @ParisBarraza.

This article originally appeared on Iowa City Press-Citizen: Brian Johannesen on 'dream job' programming role at Englert Theatre

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