Encouraging Excellence

Several years before James A. “Jim” Pokorski helped establish Young Texas Artists, he volunteered to line up professional entertainment for the newly refurbished Crighton Theatre in downtown Conroe. But not everyone was excited when he booked a performance of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”

“People said you can’t do opera in Conroe; no one will like it,”  Pokorski said. He disagreed.

Pokorski had lined up three young vocalists from Texas Opera Theatre (TOT), Houston Grand Opera’s program for emerging young artists at the time. In the weeks leading up to their performance, Pokorski had them sing at events throughout Conroe, including Rotary and Lions club meetings attended by community leaders. Over and over, the young artists impressed their audiences with their talent. And when the curtains raised for their debut at Crighton Theatre, each of the venue’s 535 seats was filled.

“These fellas came to the opera wearing their cowboy boots,” Pokorski said. “Their wives were impressed with the opera, and the guys were excited.”

For the next several years after that 1979 performance, Pokorski continued to bring classical performers to Conroe, and people continued to fill Crighton Theatre’s seats to hear them. Those performances inspired the Young Texas Artists Music Competition and its annual Finalists’ Concert & Awards program.

Today, Pokorski is still driving the fine arts forward, not only for Conroe but also for Texas, through his ongoing guidance and support for YTA. His latest strategy was to offer a $25,000 grant in support of YTA’s 2022 Annual Fund.

Throughout the Annual Fund, Pokorski matched every donation YTA received, dollar for dollar, up to $25,000, to help YTA meet its $50,000 goal.

The idea, Pokorski said, was to help YTA grow to the next level.

The Path to YTA

The man who helped launch YTA grew up in the Midwest. He saved up for his college tuition by working as a draftsman at what is now The NASA Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field in Cleveland. In fact, YTA has a NASA colleague to thank for sparking Pokorski’s passion for classical music.

“A co-worker indicated that one of the best things I could do is to learn a little bit about good music,” Pokorski said. “He talked me into getting a 331/3 RPM record album of ‘Eroica’ by Beethoven. So I listened to it, was interested, and I listened to it again. The more I listened to it, the more I got hooked on classical music.”

It was another job that eventually brought Pokorski to Texas. Once he started attending Franklin University in Columbus, where he earned a degree in Industrial Management, Pokorski got a part-time position at Stitt Spark Plug Company. Pokorski liked the work, and when Stitt moved to Texas in 1971, he joined them at their new Conroe location.

Pokorski later shifted to the life insurance industry, but Conroe had become home. Before long, intrigued by the history of the 1935, long-shuttered Crighton Theatre building, Pokorski joined the newly formed Montgomery County Performing Arts Society. The nonprofit’s plan was to refurbish the theatre, re-open it, and bring performances there. And that’s how Pokorski found himself lining up opera singers for Conroe.

Growing Demand

After the success of the 1979 opera performance at Crighton Theatre, Pokorski joined TOT’s board of directors. As he observed Houston’s strong interest in and support for TOT’s emerging opera performers, Pokorski became convinced that he could achieve the same results in Conroe.

In 1983, Pokorski organized the Young Texas Artist Premiere with the help of Conroe residents Gary and Linda Foster, Linda Ricketts, and Marion Gerhart. The idea was to select one outstanding classical artist to make their stage debut in Conroe. The young artist had to be at least 18 years old and from Texas.

That event was a hit, and over time, Conroe residents expressed interest in seeing more than one artist perform. At that point, the Young Texas Artist Premiere organizers were holding a competition of sorts to select a performer each year. Why not make the competition aspect their focus and invite community members to see the contestants on stage? That would help more young artists and help satisfy Conroe’s growing appetite for quality classical music performances.

The result was the Young Texas Artists Music Competition. The competition featured two divisions always including piano, with alternating years of voice and miscellaneous instruments. Eventually, YTA grew to four divisions and started offering its Audience Choice award. Pokorski’s wife, Susie Moore Pokorski, has been overseeing YTA since 1998 as president/CEO, and Jim Pokorski has remained a guiding force.

High Standards, Big Goals

Fast forward to 2022: YTA has helped launch the careers of nearly 3,000 classical musicians. Alumni include a Grammy winner and two Grammy nominees, leading singers at the Metropolitan Opera, a 2017 silver medalist in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and many others who perform or teach with major performing arts organizations and institutions. YTA also offers a career development program for emerging artists in all disciplines, and the organization continues to deliver outstanding classical music performances.

Jim Pokorski wants to keep that momentum moving.

Last year, YTA launched an annual fund program to help “keep the lights on” during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. That initial effort was so successful that it allowed YTA to double its total cash prizes from $20,000 to $40,000.

This year, the Annual Fund’s goals were to keep cash prizes at $40,000 – and expand the YTA Career Development Program by adding high-level workshops in financial management, auditions and bookings, artist branding, and more.

This is where Jim Pokorski’s $25,000 matching grant challenge came into the picture.

“I want to help YTA grow to the next level, to kick it up a notch, and our career development program will be an important part of that,” he said as the Annual Fund got underway. “With the community’s support, we can maintain our high standards of excellence, continue bringing outstanding talent to our audiences, and offer even more meaningful opportunities to young artists.”

His matching grant challenge was a success: YTA surpassed its fundraising goal by more than 50%. Annual Fund donors contributed $39,495. Inspired by this response, Jim Pokorski extended his $25,000 matching grant challenge to match all contributions beyond $25,000. The result: YTA received a grand total of $78,990.

The success of the annual fund will help ensure important performance prizes at the 2023 Young Texas Artists Music Competition, along with additional jobs-related career development opportunities for the finalists, YTA alumni, and other deserving young Texas artists.

Just as Jim Pokorski wanted, YTA is advancing to the next level.

(Updated July 19, 2022)

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