After thirty years with TPAC, former CEO Kathleen O’Brien stepped down in July. Replacing her is no easy act, but Jennifer Turner is a leader with a deep artistic legacy that stretches through years at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre, and Detroit’s Michigan Opera Theatre. She recently sat down for an interview with me to talk about exploring Nashville, her vision for TPAC, and being a visible example for young women entering the arts.
Looking back, can you pinpoint a moment that really established your love of the arts?
Turner: Initially, I would have said that it was my first opera, Aida. I got to experience so much behind the scenes and seeing it all come together, watching the choir and the supers (supernumeraries, or extras), and watching the principles and rehearsal. But then seeing the sets and the costumes and everything come together, I was blown away. It was just incredible to me. So I would say that was my main one.
But we recently lost the great Toni Morrison. I think the most pivotal experiences in my career was when we presented the opera Margaret Garner in Chicago. We worked with Toni Morrison and it was based on the book, Beloved. We didn’t present it for any financial gain, but only because it was so important that that piece of work was seen. The experience of working on that and seeing how much it touched the audience really showed how the arts matter. It showed that we had – I don’t want to call it a power – it’s a responsibility to make sure that things are accessible and available to the audience.
You come to TPAC directly from Costa Mesa, California’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts. What would you say is the most important thing you accomplished during your time at Segerstrom?
Turner: I was recruited to come out to Orange County to change the county, which seems like an enormous responsibility. When I was when I was asked to consider the role, the project that was put in front of me was building an arts plaza and the center for dance and innovation and developing what we call the Center Without Boundaries program. That meant we would go out into the communities of the people that we serve, asking what they wanted, asking people how arts could help their communities. There was a large demographic shift going on in Orange County. The Center had found during a strategic plan that they were not, as an organization, responding to that demographic shift. It was time to change. It was time to look at what the center meant to the community.
They found that two of the largest growing populations, the Latino and Asian populations, were not represented in programming, in the audience, or even felt like the center belonged to them or that they could be there. So the programs that I worked on were building the outdoor plaza and building the center of dance, but it was really to just reinvent the center and make it more accessible and open. We had to invite communities to come and participate to liven the campus to make it more community- friendly and oriented.
We formed these fantastic partnerships with Alzheimer’s Orange County and with Easter Seals and we started a school of dance and music for kids with disabilities. We partnered with American Ballet Theatre to start a curriculum for ballet which then allowed our students to dance on our main stage production. They got to dance every year in American Ballet Theater’s Nutcracker, they got to dance with the Mariinsky Ballet, they got to dance with the Mikhailovsky Ballet.
So I would say that the center was a different place after I left it and I’m very proud of the work that I did there. The center was changed and it changed for the better.
If you could identify a few, what are your highest priorities for your early tenure at TPAC?
Turner: I think the community engagement piece is important for every arts center across the country. We cannot sit back and expect people to come to us. We need to come to them and we need to open that dialogue. And we need to be asking the community, “How can the art serve you?” And then we need to really examine what we can do. What is our social responsibility to respond to that? That is one piece that I think is very important, especially for TPAC. We want to make sure that the community here – Nashville, Middle Tennessee, extended out into Tennessee – that they know that we are committed to
them. This is a reciprocal relationship. We’re not just looking for people to come in and buy a ticket; we actually want to engage with them.
What do you think TPAC can do to get the Nashville area more engaged in the arts?
Turner: I think it all comes down to access, looking at what barriers could be in place, and trying to strip down those barriers. Is it transportation? Is it money? Is it when you’re having performances? Is it, you know, making sure people don’t feel intimidated to come into your space? That happened a lot when I worked in opera is that we would get very timid calls to our customer service line saying, “Am I allowed to wear jeans?”
Often times, the arts has always sort of dictated the type of experience that you’re going to have. You’re going to come in, you’re going to put on your best and finest clothes, you’re going to pay a lot of money, you’re going to spend money on dinner and parking fees, you’re going to come in, we want you to put your phone away, we want you to sit straight and not fidget and not make any noise. Don’t open any candy.
We’ve always dictated that experience and what we found is that people like to curate their own experience. They have a lot of options, right? So I think our intention is to identify what the barriers are to participation and how can we knock back some of them.
Is there a show – opera, musical, play, or ballet – that gives you goosebumps when you think about it?
Turner: American Ballet Theatre committed to doing performances at our theater in Chicago and they did a run of Giselle. I saw some of the most amazing pairings. I think I went to every single performance and every single performance was different. It was thrilling. I mean, Natasha Osipova and David Hallberg. I just watched every single pairing and I thought, “I’m so lucky. I’m so lucky to be able to see this, to see this here in this beautiful, beautiful venue. The world’s best dancers are right here and I get to see them all.” I would say that was a big goosebump moment for me.
Now that you’ve been in Nashville a little while, what are some of your favorite things to do here?
I’ve been really enjoying exploring the history. I went out to the Women’s Suffrage Monument a couple weeks ago. I’m so excited about the anniversary coming up in 2020. There’s so much history here. I love like going through the city and reading about where things took place, the little placards that talk about the age of a church or what happened at the sit-ins down at Woolworth. It’s just so rich and I love that. I live in East Nashville, so I’ve been just exploring. There’s never a shortage of restaurants to try. I think that’s the thing that I’ve received the most recommendations on is where to eat. People are very passionate about that!
Taking the long-view, where do you see TPAC as an institution in 10 or perhaps 20 years?
Turner: It’s going to be glorious. I can tell you it’s going to be glorious. This is this is a committed team. We want as many people to experience the arts as we can. We want to not only celebrate what’s here in Nashville – the history, the culture – we want to celebrate and elevate that, but we also want to bring things in from all over the world that you wouldn’t have a chance to experience. I mean, I love that about our Broadway series. The fact that we have the same caliber… and some people don’t know. Some people think that the touring is a local or regional thing, but it’s right straight from Broadway. It’s the same sets, costumes, direction, choreography, and actors. You know, it’s fantastic. So you don’t even have to go to New York to experience that right here in your own hometown. So I think that we just want to do more and make it better and have more outreach, have more educational opportunities, celebrate more of the arts, but also be really true to Nashville, and to really highlight what is so special about this town and just be a part of that.
We’ve got so many transplants coming in from Los Angeles and New York and they have wonderful museums, theater, opera, and dance at their fingertips. And they will have that here too. We just want to let them know that it’s here and give them more of it.
Finally, do you have any advice for women in the arts? From the top down, it seems this world is still largely dominated by men. What would you tell a young woman who sees you and says, “Yeah, that’s who I want to be”?
Turner: I am so glad that there are more opportunities now. There’s actually curricula for working in arts management or theater management or venues that didn’t exist when I was coming up in the industry. It was very much you just work and you take advantage of opportunities and you work hard. I think it’s getting better. I think the industry has a lot more work to do, but I am constantly amazed at the people that come up. Our board chair is a woman. I’m a woman. Our C.O.O., who’s coming in in two weeks, is a woman, and our CFO is a woman. So, it’s a completely women led organization, which is really exciting.
At the Broadway season preview, a woman walked up with her 11-year-old daughter and she said, “My daughter heard about you and wanted to meet you.” And that touched me so much. I was overwhelmed by that. I think being a good role model, having women that they can look up to, and being accessible are key. I love taking the time to go and speak at educational events where you can model that this is possible for younger women.
Representation matters. It matters not only for women, but people of color. It matters for the LGBTQ community. It matters for everyone. You can’t be what you can’t see, so if you have made it to one of those positions, I think it is your responsibility to go out and show a younger generation that it’s possible.