The Show Goes On

As the search commences for a new executive director, volunteers and others take the helm of the Dogwood Arts Festival

The Dogwood Arts Festival is forging ahead without, for the moment, a director. Supporters make it sound like things are going so well, you might wonder if they even need one.

The last executive director, Robyn Nelson, resigned unexpectedly just before Christmas, after only 14 months on the job—and just two months before the first of this year's big events, the pre-festival Home and Garden Show, to be held at the convention center this weekend. During her time at the helm, Nelson had tried to control expenses and also trim down the festival some, lopping off its investment in some outlying events in Fountain City and Farragut. She had bought a residence on Gay Street, but people who knew her say they have no idea why she quit, or where she went. Finances have often been a struggle and were rumored to be behind the resignation of her predecessor, Ed Pasley, but that aspect of the business was reportedly improving.

At 48, Dogwood Arts is Knoxville's oldest annual festival, or, at least, the oldest one not directly associated with the Tennessee Vols. After a couple of decades when the festival's target audience seemed to be rural retirees on church-bus day trips, the festival was reborn with a fresh, almost hip persona, mainly during Pasley's administration, with interesting evening entertainment, festival-style beer sales, and quality crafts.

"The festival is going forward," says a cheerful-sounding Ken Knight, president of Dogwood Arts' board of directors, whose day job is managing the Crowne Plaza Hotel downtown. "It's going to be a great festival."

Last month, the board assembled a search committee for a new director, and the position is being advertised. As far as qualifications, he says, "We're flexible, it's kind of a unique position. There are things we'd like to see in a director, but we'll talk to anybody."

They had heard from some interested parties about the opening, but chose to advertise it nationally. "That just all got placed in the last couple of days," he said on Tuesday. The deadline for applications is March 7. He doesn't know whether a Dogwood Arts Festival has ever been held without an executive director, but expects this one to run smoothly, anyway.

"We have such a strong volunteer base," he says, noting two remaining staffers, development director Judith Scoonover and business manager Pam Abernathy.

"Each event has a committee of volunteers responsible for most of the details," says Knight. He adds that former chairman and board member Eddie Manis is helping out a lot this year, as well as singer/actress Sara Schwabe, who has been working part-time for the festival and helped line up the musical acts at the Festival on the Square. Held over a three-day weekend, April 11-13, the most festive part of the festival will feature three days of music on two stages; those confirmed at this writing are well-known local performers. Public radio station WDVX will be in charge of an Americana series that Sunday, with performers yet to be announced.

Other events include an art and photography exhibition that will kick off on April 4, followed a few days later by a jazz concert, the trail opening, and the traditional downtown parade on April 11 (the theme is "Let the Blossoms Roll"). After that comes the Diva Luncheon, an event at the Knoxville Museum of Art to celebrate female artists; the Cardboard Boat Regatta, held in Oak Ridge; and a Very Special Arts Festival, an event to encourage "children of challenged circumstances."

But, for now, Knight is boosting this weekend's event. The Home and Garden Show is the festival's biggest fundraiser. He says it already boasts a "record number of exhibitors," over 200 in all. Among its offerings will be a horticultural innovation, the mobile wheelbarrow garden.