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VOL. 127 | NO. 23 | Friday, February 3, 2012

Renaissance 2012

Arts orgs bounce back, expect strong year

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Daily News

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It may be the start of a new year for most people, but for arts organizations in Memphis, it’s a new life altogether. Tough economic years in 2009 and 2010 led to creative collaborations in 2011, which some say will bloom into financial success in 2012.

The highly collaborative 2011 “A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Opera A Capella” by Opera Memphis, Playhouse on the Square, Delta Capella and RIVA inaugurated a year of cooperation among Memphis arts organizations looking for creative ways to survive the economic downturn. (Photo courtesy of Sean Davis and Opera Memphis)

“We’re not where we want to be yet, however the momentum indicators are quite strong,” said Ryan Fleur, president and CEO of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, referring to his organization, which faced drastic downsizing in 2009 only to bounce back a year later with a new music director and the highly successful Opus One concert series.

“We (as Memphis arts organizations) need to be investing in our artistic endeavors in order to show the community the value that we bring.”

Opus One concerts, which blend the music of local pop genre artists with classical musicians, have been selling out since the series’ inception. Fleur added that MSO’s international conducting competition also has raised interest in the symphony from outside of Memphis.

This year he plans to fill numerous seats in the orchestra intentionally left vacant after some musicians retired and others found new jobs. A search is under way for a new concertmaster, and principal seats in the violin and clarinet sections will be filled in spring.

Largely, that’s a result of changing the symphony’s new focus of community relevance, and the orchestra isn’t the only group making that a top priority.

“There are so many possibilities right now,” said Katie Smythe, CEO and artistic director of New Ballet Ensemble. “I think there’s a coming together among arts organizations that hasn’t really happened before. We’ve all been staying in our own sandboxes.

“In a lot of ways ArtsMemphis has facilitated that because they called us to the table for meetings about arts education. We’re going to have time to plan and maybe perform together in the schools. I’m really happy that that’s the focus right now.”

ArtsMemphis recently announced a $350,000 partnership with the First Tennessee Foundation called ArtsFirst, which will fund arts enrichment through area arts organizations.

Smythe said that investment in education has made the difference in her 10-year-old company’s success.

She noted the success of NBE graduates Charles “Lil Buck” Riley, who vaulted to international dance stardom performing with stars like Madonna and Yo Yo Ma. Last fall Riley returned to dance in NBE’s annual production of “Nut ReMix.” All three performances sold out.

Also last year, another graduate, Frankie Fernandes, was accepted at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, one of the top dance programs in the country, with a $50,000 yearly scholarship.

“This year the outcome has been very apparent,” Smythe said.

Ron Jewell, executive director of the Bartlett Performing Arts and Conference Center also said developing youth is an all-important factor for growth among entertainment providers.

“We are here to bring in professional entertainment, but one of the real strong callings, I feel, is not only educating the next generation of performers, but the next generation of audiences.”

Smythe added that in 2012 NBE will perform for the first time at Playhouse on the Square in collaboration with Hattiloo Theatre and the River City Concert Band, connections she made through ArtsMemphis.

“I believe that through ArtsMemphis and other initiatives by foundations we’ve all been encouraged to partner so we can expand the artistic experience and reach more people,” said Debbie Litch, executive producer of Theatre Memphis.

Last June’s TM production of “Crazy for You” brought home a list of Ostrander Awards for direction, choreography, best musical and best male in a musical for Jordan Nichols.

The show sold at 99 percent, and it preceded a rise in season membership and single-ticket sales. This year’s production of “Chicago” will do the same, she said.

“We think it’s going to be a blockbuster for us,” said Litch. “Over 80 people auditioned for the show, our presales of single tickets are up, and we’ve been able to do some creative fundraising around it, so we are anticipating that it will be a memorable show for us artistically and financially.”

Similarly, Ned Canty, general director of Opera Memphis, saw an increase in attendance at this season’s opener, “Tosca,” last fall.

“We’re making progress in getting new people to the audience,” said Canty, noting that more than 400 people who had never seen an opera before attended “Tosca,” and the recent Saturday night production of “Die Fledermaus” sold out.

Now the company has plans to stage “Thirty Days of Opera” in the fall, dates to be determined. In it, opera-related performances will spring up somewhere in Memphis every day for a month.

Canty said the plan is to keep the surprises coming while public interest is increasing.

The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art’s collaboration with the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in “A Very Impressionistic Summer” was an example of new efforts for growth in the local arts scene in 2011. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

“We’ve stopped the (financial) bleeding and we’re trying to expand our reach,” he said. “I think we’ve all (as arts organizations) realized that if all you’re thinking about is maintenance, then you’re never going to grow. You’re going to lose that battle eventually. We need to make sure that what we have to offer is relevant to the community.”

“We’re all struggling with how do we make the arts relevant?” Jewell said. “Oftentimes we’ll only have a small percentage of the population that’s truly interested in the arts, but I’ve begun to realize that creative expression is so ingrained in who we are. Today our challenge is to find ways to engage more people so that it’s not just a night out for entertainment.”

Cameron Kitchin, director of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, said the museum is doing that by originating many of its own exhibitions rather than bringing in touring exhibitions. Last year’s “Picturing America” was one such exhibition, meant to showcase the museum’s own scholarship as well as the art.

This summer, the museum will show “The Soul of the City,” an exhibition of art by 20th century African-American artists from private collections in Memphis.

“‘The Soul of the City’ will be a success because it’s something that exists but isn’t known in our community,” Kitchin said. “We’re mining our own community. I’m seeing that as a common thread among arts institutions, and it’s exciting to see when it happens organically.”

Last summer’s collaboration with the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, “A Very Impressionistic Summer,” in which single tickets gained admission to both museums, proved to be a goldmine for both institutions.

That new spirit of partnership, Fleur said, will help rise the tide for all artistic boats.

“We’ve shown that we can survive,” he said.

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