Painting the Towns

ACANSA Arts Festival Executive Director Renay Dean takes us inside the inaugural event set to unfold this month

06_renaydeanA year and a half ago, the diminutive Room 209 of the Prospect Building on North University was empty. And then, gradually, it wasn’t. Five black rolling chairs and a broad table donated from the Junior League of Little Rock were introduced to the space. Bookcases and black metal filing cabinets and other stray fixtures of office miscellany gradually filtered in through the door, carted in from the homes and offices of the ACANSA Arts Festival volunteers, eventually making the space feel much smaller than it actually is (which seems not too altogether different in size than a college dorm room). But even as the small space has become increasingly cramped in the intervening months, as it is on this July afternoon as ACANSA’s executive director Renay Dean tells the story of the space, there are suggestions of something larger at work.

First, there are the posters. Big, beautiful prints, two of them, tacked side by side on the wall, heralding Spoleto Festival USA, a sprawling, 30-year-old Charleston arts festival that ACANSA founder Charlotte Gadberry attended for the first time back in 2012—and which inspired her to reach out to local arts organizations and the mayors of Little Rock and North Little Rock upon her return to see if it would be possible to do something comparable here. There’s the list of this year’s donors, a five-page print out that Dean leafs through as she sits at the table and fields calls from potential sponsors. There’s the calendar just inside the door, outlining events for 20 venues on both sides of the Arkansas River with 26 performers, including everyone from a world-renowned organist to the guy who did the marionettes for Being John Malkovich.

Collectively, these elements tell the story of how this purely grassroots, all-volunteer organization has managed to orchestrate what is essentially for central Arkansas an unprecedented partnership of local arts organizations and artists from across the state, the region and the country. Although it’s not been without its challenges and hiccups, as the opening day of the festival approaches later this month, there’s little doubting that big things are in store.

07_renaydeanHow did that partnership come about? Was it just a matter of getting people in the same room?
I wish! My job would be a lot simpler with raising money if that were the case. Well, it was fairly overnight as far as our established arts groups go. When Charlotte came back to Little Rock and had this idea, the first place she went was to our established arts groups—the Arkansas Arts Center, The Rep, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra—those people who we are just so proud to have in our community. [She] went to them and was like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve never heard of this Spoleto. I just stumbled into it. Do you all know about it?” Well, of course they did. She said, “I want to try to do that in Little Rock.” So from the very beginning, we have had this strong unwavering support of our established arts groups because what we want to do with this—we don’t want to take away from any of them. What we want to do is further our arts groups that are already established.

But really, from the very beginning, the arts organizations and groups have been involved. As a matter of fact, our advisory council is made up of the leadership of those groups, as well as some other folks. And they are the ones who decide what talent we’re going to use locally, what talent we’re going to bring in from out of state, what kinds of artists we are going to use. They are the ones that do the programming. So, we’re very excited to have their input and their expertise. Trust me, I could not do that process—wouldn’t know what I was looking at. And so it’s very, very fortunate to have their input and their help in that way. And they’re a very strong group. They’ve already set up a meeting in August. I believe we’re going to begin planning for 2015.

You’ve got a fairly extensive background heading local benefits and charities, ranging from Riverfest to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. How did you find yourself as ACANSA’s executive director?
My friend Cindy Pugh called me one day and said, “We’re looking for somebody to volunteer as an executive director. Would you be interested?” I said, “Well, let me talk to Charlotte.” I really didn’t know Charlotte. And I came and talked with her, and hearing what she had to say, and her vision, and what she’s trying to do—oh my gosh. And there’s a lot of folks involved with this that I’ve worked with over the past 30 years. They would not like for me to say it that way, but … it’s been fun being able to work with them again. It’s also been fun getting to know all these new people. I’m not well versed in the arts, but I’m learning an awful lot. And so that’s exciting. Very exciting. And truly, we’ve been making this stuff up. You know? We’re just doing the best we can. And the support we’ve had? Oh my gosh.

ACANSA will be hosted everywhere from the Arkansas Arts Center and the Argenta Community Theater to the Scottish Rite Temple and Laman Library. Why is it important to have such diversity?
What we’re beginning to understand with all this is we’re not only showcasing our local artists and art groups; we’re also showcasing our venues and what central Arkansas has to offer. We’re going to all those different places, and I think that if folks go and attend a few events, I hope that they get to go somewhere that they’ve not been before, even though they’ve lived here for 30 years. There are just so many venues that I think we tend to take for granted that folks will go to them and go, “Oh my gosh,” and begin to use these venues themselves.

You’ve assembled such an incredible range of talents. What does it mean for so many callings to be given space at an event like this?
I think what it represents is that we appreciate and want to promote the arts of all kinds. The more I find out and learn about it, the more I’m just surprised—in a good way—about the talent that we have in this state alone. And then we start bringing folks from outside the state to add to that. I think it’s going to be an amazing experience. You know, life contains a lot of art. And some of us are more connected to the art communities than others. But I think all of us are connected in some way. And we’re hopeful that this is going to further that connection and further that interest, so that folks go, “Oh my goodness. I never realized about this marionette. This is very interesting.” And hopefully, they’ll want to be more involved, and this thing will grow and grow.

You know, I thought it was interesting how you guys decided on ACANSA, the Siouan word for “southern place”—a word that’s very tied to heritage and place—to describe this arts festival that’s very much forward-looking—that is, appreciating the past, looking to the future.
Well, I think you’re exactly right. We always need to look back to our past and to those who came before us and have laid so many foundations—layers of our foundation—to make us what we are and who we are today. And obviously, those people were here in this area long before a lot of other folks were. And they are very much a part of our heritage. They are very much a part of who and what we are today. And I always enjoy looking at the history, but also looking at the opportunities and the “what-ifs” of the future. I think we all do. I was not in the naming of this—that was done before I got involved—and I believe that the folks who sat down and made this decision put a great deal of thought into it. And I think it is a great name.

Where do you see ACANSA going next year and the following one?
We will hopefully be able to raise even more money so we can bring in more artists and different artists. Again, we are only raising money to support this festival. We’re not trying to make any money off this or anything like that. With the first festival, it’s been challenging because we didn’t know … we guesstimated as best we could. I see us growing, however, in this next year with support, which means that we can grow with artists and talent and performances and events. We will probably stay a five-day festival for another year or two, and then I see us growing that week to extend it further. And I do see us also partnering with neighboring cities.

There’s a promotional video in which Bob Hupp says “The arts community is coming together in ways that I’ve never experienced before.” What sort of lasting effect can that sort of partnership have on the community?
I think the lasting effect is going to be profound. As I’ve said, the arts groups that are local—the symphony, The Rep, the Arts Center and others, many others, have been working together on this for some time now. And to see them come together and brainstorm—you’ve got somebody over here whose strength is dance, and you’ve got somebody over here whose strength is music and someone else over here whose strength is acting—it is fascinating to watch. But then we also see the city of Little Rock and the city of North Little Rock coming together. If you look at the venues, you’ll see that there are a number of events and performances on both sides of the river. And I think that’s extremely important. We’ve already had some interest come in for next year—2015—from places like Conway and Pine Bluff and Hot Springs. And so what we want to eventually do is grow this as big as it can go, and because there are just so many beautiful places in our state. There are so many talented people. And I just see it as bringing folks together.

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