Arts Gain Center Stage

By Daney Daniel Kepple


Lauren Kennedy ’08, who spent her junior year in Paris, at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

On an otherwise routine evening in 2004, two Texans attended a symphony concert in Dallas. As a result of their experience, the arts scene at Rhodes will never be the same.

The concert goers were Robert and Ruby Priddy whose foundation had previously provided funding for the Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies, the Rhodes St. Jude Summer Plus program and summer service fellowships. Bonner Scholarship recipients also received a generous stipend from the Priddy Foundation.

Mr. Priddy recalls that he looked around the concert hall that evening and noticed that everyone in the audience was approximately his age.

“I wondered what would become of the arts when our generation was gone,” he says.

Not one to sit idly by, Priddy contacted the institutions that had responded well to his earlier generosity and asked for proposals for programs to inspire a new generation of arts leaders. A few months later, CODA (Center for Outreach in the Development of the Arts) was born at Rhodes.

Now in its third year, the program is so vibrant, and has had such a profound impact on campus life, CODA founding director Tim Sharp has a hard time forcing himself to recall the early days.

“There were no role models,” says Sharp. “There was nothing like this anywhere else in the country. We had to make it up from scratch.”

Sharp, who came to Rhodes in 2000, has served as the Elizabeth Gay Daughdrill Chair in the Fine Arts, dean of academic affairs for fine arts and conductor of the Rhodes Singers and MasterSingers Chorale. While he may have made CODA “up from scratch,” the proof is in the pudding.

Sharp recruited John Weeden ’97 as assistant director. The two immediately got the program off the ground by choosing six CODA fellows from several applicants. Leadership Memphis, a local nonprofit, was engaged to provide leadership training, and Weeden conducted a weekly two-hour practicum. Adjunct faculty members were retained in art, music and theater. The CODA fellows traveled to New York City in January 2006 to meet with arts leaders, including Rhodes alumni/ae, and learn firsthand how things are done at the professional level in that major arts capital.

The next year the program began to grow legs. Sharp developed an interdisciplinary course, Aesthetics and the Politics of Culture, in collaboration with political science professor Dan Cullen and art historian David McCarthy, and the CODA staff issued a call for proposals to the entire faculty for ideas for new courses or enhanced current offerings. English painter George Shaw became the first CODA artist in residence. The Accademia dell’Arte Summer Fine Arts Program was established in the historic Tuscan city of Arezzo, Italy, where Rhodes students and others study art, theater, music and aesthetics. The leadership training was expanded to include listening and communication, time management, facilitation, meeting management and conflict resolution.

An arts leadership symposium brought national arts figures to campus, and CODA presented its first Award for Outstanding Service to the Arts. The CODA fellows traveled to San Francisco, where they visited the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Magic Theatre, where they were joined by actor Bill Pullman. Artistic director Chris Smith inspired the students to think strategically about communicating their passion for the arts with the broader society. Each fellow researched one of the venues, performances or exhibitions and shared with the Rhodes student body his or her analysis of significant arts issues encountered during the trip.

This year CODA took another leap toward accomplishing its mission which, Sharp says, is “to develop students dedicated to promoting and sustaining the arts because they see the arts are vital to individuals and communities. Underlying all CODA activities is the goal of helping a broad spectrum of faculty, students and community partners discover their capacity as community advocates for the arts.”

Just before the spring semester began, Sharp and Weeden escorted the CODA fellows to Chicago where they were hosted and mentored by John ’58 and Neville Frierson Bryan ’58 who are major patrons of the arts. Neville is a musician and John, the former chairman of Sara Lee Corp., was a moving force behind the creation of downtown Chicago’s 24.5-acre Millennium Park.

“Our previous two trips were focused on the production side and gave our students multiple opportunities to interact with working artists,” Weeden explains. “In Chicago we got an incredible behind-the-scenes look at public policy and patronage. Mr. Bryan opened many doors for us in addition to giving us the kind of access to his home and collection that nobody else gets. He and Mrs. Bryan could not have been more wonderful.”

Thanks to the Bryans’ good offices, the Rhodes group got a tour of the Art Institute of Chicago by its curator of education, a behind-the-scenes tour of Millennium Park and a two-hour audience with the department heads of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.

“In Chicago there is a government mandate to provide free art to the citizens of the city because it is viewed as a public good,” Weeden continues. “We got to meet with the people who make that happen.”

Weeden was not the only one who was impressed by the experience. For Charlotte Ashford ’10, a Chicago native, it was an eye-opener.

“I always knew Chicago was cool, but I think I took it for granted,” she says. “Seeing the behind-the-scenes picture and looking through the eyes of others, I was very impressed. I don’t think I realized that the city wasn’t always the way it is now. I definitely learned that it takes strong leaders and really committed people to create an asset like Millennium Park which, in the beginning, was envisioned as just a little park to cover up some railroad tracks. Thanks in part to Mr. Bryan, the city ended up with an internationally-acclaimed space, which is such a great thing for Chicago and its people. It all made me a little homesick even though I love being in Memphis.”

Katherine Gentsch ’11 terms the experience “Amazing. Entering Millennium Park was like walking into a dream. I can’t even imagine pitching such an idea, but it made me raise my sights.” Gentsch, whose ideal summer would include performing in a musical and traveling, pitched her own idea while on the trip.

“I talked to people at the Neo-Futurists theater group in Chicago about an internship and they were very receptive. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”

Luke Branim ’10 became acutely aware of his passion for the arts during the trip. When his family moved from Memphis to Laredo, TX, his sophomore year in high school, he plunged into activities such as theater, debate and public speaking as a way to make new friends.

“I didn’t think of myself as arty,” he says. “In Chicago and during our conversations afterward it began to dawn on me how much I care about the arts and how much I want to do something to help. While we were there I began to narrow the focus on what the community needs—a farmer to plant a seed that grows and spreads. Before, I thought I could just work with local artists and small-scale projects to generate interest. Now I know you have to start at the top. So now I’m thinking about what I can do after college in the political realm.”

On campus, CODA and its programs have become so entrenched, incoming students assume the program has always been part of Rhodes. And in Memphis, Weeden reports, “Rhodes is increasingly seen as a source for arts expertise. In fact, we now receive more requests for assistance than we can fill.”

It’s a nice problem to have and one that’s expected to grow. For example, the ArtsMemphis organization has appointed CODA fellows to help develop student audiences. The students are working on infusing arts into downtown Memphis storefronts and developing a major mural production on a downtown property owned by Rhodes trustee Chick Hill. They’re also renovating a local church basement into an art studio and theatrical rehearsal space along with more than a dozen other projects, including arts programs at Springdale Elementary and Cypress Middle schools.

“Having developed the model for the program, we’ve been able to train members of Tri Delta sorority to take on the program as a primary philanthropy,” Weeden says. “They have six times as many members as there are CODA fellows, which enables CODA students to move on to other efforts such as partnering with more organizations, build new project models and train other partners.”

CODA is also becoming recognized for other efforts.Last fall’s arts leadership symposium was another solid hit, and the Award for Outstanding Service to the Arts has become a coveted honor in the city’s arts circles.

CODA fellows are also making connections internationally. They are working with the prestigious Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands, developing an arts residency in Memphis that began earlier this year. Otto Berchem, a Dutch-American multimedia artist based in Amsterdam, was in town from mid-February to early April working with CODA and art department students to develop work for the “Heartland” exhibition which opens at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Netherlands in October 2008. He also did a number of guest teaching sessions with Clough-Hanson Gallery director Hamlett Dobbins’ Alternative Media and Methods art class.

Back on campus, the CODA Nights Out program, which began last year, provides $5 tickets to a variety of performances by Ballet Memphis, Opera Memphis, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and dramatic works at professional and community theaters. It continues to grow in popularity.

“As wonderful as Rhodes is, we’re in a bubble unless we go off campus. CODA is great at getting us out,” says Stephanie Cassel ’10.

JoBeth Campbell ’08, a recipient of the Mrs. Billie J. Scharding Scholarship adds, “Memphis is a great place to be a music major because there’s so much going on. I love CODA’s cheap tickets and they’re not just for arts majors. They affect everybody.”\

And everybody in the community—faculty, staff and students—takes advantage of the opportunities.

“The goal of our ticket campaign is to develop further the already rich culture of creativity at Rhodes,” Weeden says. “Attending these arts events in large groups enables students, faculty and staff to know one another through a series of common cultural experiences outside the classroom. It’s a great feeling to overhear people talking about the performances they saw together over the weekend. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.”

Another innovation is an event billed as a campus arts walk. The evenings showcase an art exhibition in the Clough-Hanson Gallery, a music concert in Hardie Auditorium or Tuthill Performance Hall and a dramatic production in McCoy Theatre. Such occasions, along with continuing artist-in-residence visits and CODA fellows’ projects in nearby schools and downtown bode well for the arts at Rhodes. 

Nothing Succeeds Like Success

Tim Sharp and John Weeden ’97 helped established CODA and put the program on a rock-solid footing. Each is now pursuing new opportunities. 

In May, Sharp became executive director of the prestigious American Choral Directors Association headquartered in Oklahoma City, and Weeden was tapped to serve as executive director of the UrbanArt Commission, a nonprofit organization formed in 1997 that facilitates public art projects in Memphis and Shelby County. Weeden and the UrbanArt Commission will be a valuable partner for the CODA program.

CODA’s Future

Fortunately, Rhodes is deep in talent and leadership in the fine arts. Beginning this summer, CODA will be guided by four outstanding faculty: longtime theater professor and 2008 Algernon Sidney Sullivan award winner Julia “Cookie” Ewing, fellow theater professor David Jilg ’79 and art professors David McCarthy and Victor Coonin.

“Throughout their careers at Rhodes, each has adhered to the highest standards of work and creativity that will enhance the CODA program,” says Russ Wigginton ’88, Rhodes vice president of College Relations.

Most recently, Ewing directed Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” at Memphis’ Hattiloo Theatre with a cast that included several Rhodes students and alumni as well as community actors. The performances played to standing-room-only audiences.

This summer, Jilg is working as a Curb faculty fellow with three Curb student fellows on the history of and costume design for ragtime composer Scott Joplin’s opera, “Treemonisha.” Their work is expected to contribute to the Opera Memphis performance of “Treemonisha” in 2009.

McCarthy has played a key role in the Rhodes partnership with Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, particularly in the research and production of the soon-to-be published catalogue of photographs from the mid-20th-century newspaper, Memphis World. Last fall, McCarthy taught a class on the topic, for which students researched and wrote essays about several of the photographs.

Coonin, who will be on sabbatical during the spring 2009 semester, has served as chair of the art department since 2002. He has worked closely to guide CODA students, helping them think about their work across disciplines.

“The collective insights, experiences and expertise of these faculty will undoubtedly help take this already excellent program to new heights by providing students with deep understanding of and meaningful experiences in the arts,” says Wigginton.

CODA Fellows Continue To Build

At this year’s commencement, the first two CODA fellows walked across the stage and through the gates—Lauren Kennedy to Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York for a M.A. in art business and Andrew Whaley to seminary to study theology. As members of the first class of CODA fellows, Kennedy and Whaley helped build the program to what it has become. Now they leave it in the good hands of a diverse and talented group of students with big plans of their own.

Life changed dramatically for Natalija Kokoreva ’10 when she was 12 years old. A native of Riga, Latvia, she grew up enjoying Europe’s great art museums.

“My mom took me everywhere,” she recalls. “Paris, every major city in Italy, Poland, Germany, Belgium, Amsterdam, Russia …. ” Her voice takes on a dreamy tone. “I loved to hear the stories behind the paintings.”

That all changed abruptly when her family moved to Memphis to join her mother’s new husband. Fluent in two languages, neither of which was English, Kokoreva spent her middle and junior high school years translating her textbooks word for word. Life became easier in high school, and got downright great when she came to Rhodes.

“CODA is just perfect for me,” she says. “I get to do service and make art matter for others.”

Kokoreva is working to define her senior CODA project and trying to decide between medical and dental school.

“I’m leaning toward dentistry because it’s more artistic,” she reports. “I would get to work with my hands on very small, detailed work, particularly in the lab which sometimes requires shaping a particular form and choosing color.”

Charlotte Ashford ’10 also has a background in European art but she acquired it a very different way.

“I interned in a gallery in Geneva because I wanted to see how the arts function abroad,” she explains. “I got to travel to arts festivals in Italy and Switzerland and practice my language skills. I love studying different cultures.”

The Chicago native also loves being involved in the arts in Memphis.

“So much is still in the growing stage here so we can have an impact,” she explains. “Chicago is so dense, everything is going to be great but it’s harder to play a part in it.”

At Rhodes Ashford started the after-school arts program at Springdale Elementary School and will manage the mural program sponsored by Rhodes trustee Chick Hill. Later she will tackle the task of expanding the program to other buildings to fight graffiti, beautify the city and give local artists an opportunity to showcase their talents.

Luke Branim ’10 has been a generalist so far, working on the mural project, the spring Juxtap’art campus festival and arrangements for the Chicago trip. An internship at Goner Records, a labor of love established by Zac Ives ’97, exposed him to “a part of the musical scene—underground rock—I hadn’t seen before.” And that led to an involvement with the start-up project that is now Rhodes Radio.

Even as a sophomore, Branim understood that he was gaining maturity in his approach to the arts. “I’ve gone from performing—theater, debate, public speaking, etc., in high school—to being socially involved through CODA to preparing myself to be an advocate,” he says.

Meghan Wilcox ’11 has big ideas and is chafing to bring them to fruition.

“It’s frustrating to be young and naïve!” she says, adding, “I think I’m making progress.”

Her goal is no less than raising the consciousness of the people of Memphis.

“So many people just go to work, go home, eat and sleep,” she laments. “They don’t get to experience anything but TV. They don’t even know about the Brooks and all the other cool arts facilities here. I think everyone can appreciate every type of art. It’s just a matter of education and awareness.”

Wilcox is forcing herself to learn from the ground up by tackling grant requests and proposals, talking with artists and voraciously attending lectures, shows and gallery openings while managing the transition of the Springdale arts program to the Tri Deltas in addition to managing a mural project downtown.

Katherine Gentsch ’11 chose Rhodes because of CODA after a high school career that encompassed singing in a choir and starting an a cappella group, dancing, acting, directing and conducting. Her artistic life at Rhodes is just as frenetic. She is a member of the Rhodes Singers and Lipstick on Your Collar and is studying piano, music theory and conducting.

“I study when I’m not doing art,” says this rising sophomore who is also a Rhodes Student Government senator.

At last fall’s CODA-sponsored Arts Leadership Symposium, Gentsch met the head of the Student Advocates for the Arts chapter at Columbia University and spawned the idea of establishing a chapter in Memphis. She is now working with students at Memphis College of Art and the University of Memphis to try to form an intercollegiate organization.

“I have met so many incredible people through CODA,” she marvels. “I’ve only been involved with the program for a few months and have had four years’ worth of experiences. It’s not hard to be a go-getter in this group. They just hand you the opportunities and say, ‘Go!’”

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