One of the most exciting activities on the cultural front here in Nashville these days is the "Stronger ARTS/STRONGER Cities" series presented monthly by the Vanderbilt Barnes & Noble. So far this year we have heard from Alan Valentine, CEO of The Nashville Symphony and Nashville Shakespeare Festival's Artistic Director Denice Hicks, among others, and last month we got to spend some time with the amazing Martha Rivers Ingram who, among her many contributions, was responsible for organizing the forces that gave Nashville TPAC - The Tennessee Performing Arts Center.

"It's been an honor interviewing some of Nashville's most influential people for our Stronger ARTS/STRONGER Cities program and I look forward to keeping the momentum going with this month's sit down with TPAC CEO Kathleen O'Brien," said B&N Director of Communications John Lasiter, who hosts the monthly event, and indeed we can all look forward to hearing from O'Brien, whose hard work and spirit of civic camaraderie make TPAC such a vital and vibrant force on the Nashville arts scene.

O'Brien grew up in Waterville, Maine and got her first taste of theatre when her family spent summers on East Pond in Oakland and took in shows at the Lakewood Summer Stock Theatre nearby. Musically, her mother sang in church and the church also had a yearly variety show in which her family participated. Her grandmother, too, was a great inspiration. A missionary in Japan in the 1940s, she had a "hobby room" in which she displayed artifacts from various cultures. "Cultural Anthropology," said O'Brien, "was one of my favorite courses in college." Her other grandmother taught her to sew, so she grew up doing her own fashion design and sewing.

Waterville is a small town where cultural events engage the whole community. Things were different in Miami, where O'Brien moved with her family when she was fourteen. (Her father, who was in road and building construction, "was tired of shoveling snow!") The cultural focus in Miami was not as strong, but one influential experience was a high school glee club class -- a serious class where you got graded and had to perform a solo to get that grade. Incidentally, among her glee club classmates was Harry Casey of KC and the Sunshine Band.

O'Brien began her college career at Miami Dade Community College, then married and finished her journalism degree at Virginia Intermont College in Bristol, Virginia, where she also served as the college's Director of Public Affairs, promoting the school's programs -- theatre, ballet, equine, et al. This is where she became aware of the possibilities for combining arts and education. That job also paved the way for her to come to TPAC as the Director of Pubic Affairs in 1988. In 2005 she moved into her current position as CEO.

TPAC's mission as defined in the State charter is "to operate exclusively for cultural, educational, and/or literary purposes by providing facilities, services, and programs of the highest quality for the greatest benefit of the people, institutions and communities of the State of Tennessee." TPAC is not a producer, but a presenter. We go to TPAC to see the national tours of Broadway shows and other touring companies but also for productions by the Nashville Opera, the Nashville Ballet and the Tennessee Repertory Theatre. TPAC also brings us HOT -- Humanities Outreach in Tennessee -- a curated program for young people grades K - 12 which serves all 95 Tennessee counties. Nashville and TPAC were also chosen as the first city outside of New York City to pilot the Disney Musicals in Schools program in which teaching artists go into the schools and work with teachers and students to produce a 30-minute truncated version of a Disney musical.

O'Brien and her team also routinely travel to the Big Apple to check out Broadway shows and attend conferences that pertain to bringing the national tours of Broadway shows to Music City.

TPAC is also part of a national network of organizations that invest in Broadway shows in order to make sure that the rich pipeline of Broadway shows to go out across the US is kept active and vital. A matter of pride for us all is that TPAC is an investor in the tremendously successful Kinky Boots which is Nashville bound in February 2015.

Under O'Brien's time as CEO, TPAC has embraced its role as a catalyst for developing a strong arts community and as a significant contributor to the economic, educational and creative impact to our state. That includes TPAC's efforts to nurture local organizations that create art in Nashville and its work to bring in touring shows, providing opportunities to experience art created outside of our community. Perhaps most important of all, TPAC has exposed over 1.6 million students to the arts through its educational programs in order to create future generations of artists, art lovers and audience members.

On Nashville as a theatre town, O'Brien observes that our city enjoys "many levels and styles of theatre. There are many companies in town, each of which has its own aesthetic" -- and adds "when you buy a season ticket, you go to things that become delightful surprises."

For a chance to find out more about Kathleen O'Brien and TPAC, plan to join her and host John Lasiter for the next Stronger ARTS/STRONGER Cities shindig at the Vanderbilt Barnes & Noble at 7:00 on Thursday, June 19th.

 

Photo via facebook.com/strongerarts

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