Dogwood Arts Festival Revival

Wrangling a team of staffers, sponsors, partners, and over 600 volunteers, Lisa Duncan has made the Dogwood Arts Festival truly festive again

Lisa Duncan figured she would be getting into a lot of hard work, sure. After all, before she resigned her spot to enter her own name as a job candidate, she was herself a member of the Dogwood Arts Festival executive-director search committee—and had been on its board for years, part of her role as events manager for the Knoxville News Sentinel.

This was early 2008. She'd been with the Sentinel for 31 years, and had recently made quite a splash with projects like the Women's Today Expo, but she was ready for a new challenge. Her husband Dan Duncan remembers her talking about the position after each meeting, and he started noticing how appealing she was making it sound.

"I said to her, ‘Just take that job,'" he remembers. "We have one child left at home, we don't have any debt, and we're not going to go hungry."

The job Duncan had set her sights on was, in a word, unwieldy. The quality of Knoxville's premier festival, launched in 1961, had fluctuated wildly over the years—by the late '90s settling into an easily parodied collection of crochet Kleenex holders, hot glue T-shirts, and church-bus excursionists for the most part. Then it got a revamp under Executive Director Ed Pasley's reign, beginning in 2000, with more interesting evening-entertainment options, festival-style beer sales, and higher-quality crafts—until Pasley resigned in 2006, citing the city's continuing financial woes and the shadow of debt that hung over the festival. He was replaced by Utah-festival standout Robyn Nelson, who made a few stabs at tightening DAF's belt, and then departed herself after 14 months. Not only was the festival short a director, it was fighting years, even decades, of identity crisis: craft or fine art? Music or twang? Exhibits or vendors whose stuff would sell, like, well, funnel cakes?

And there was one giant elephant in the room: Very few in the area felt free to criticize or even offer suggestions for improving the festival, due to the simple fact that most every person who had ever ridden in a parade or sat on the board of directors was still around, ready to bristle.

Duncan got the job. She had a glint in her eye and an overarching idea: "I wanted to give back to our community by utilizing my skills and experience to return the festival to the nationally recognized status it once had," she says. "I wanted to make this festival mean once again what it [had] meant to our community years ago. And my first responsibility is to residents—I want it to be a joyful celebration in our community, and want community members to be so proud they'll invite others to join activities with them."

She started right away with a novel approach only a born manager knows how to implement: Duncan reached out to past co-chairs first thing, a luminary list that includes Knoxville's old-school power-clubbers, like Rep. John Duncan Jr. (no relation). "I still have an annual luncheon for them to give them an update and overview of the upcoming festival," she says. Duncan listened. And she also tossed her favorite motto into most every conversation: "Think of the possibilities!"

Maybe even more importantly, she recognized, almost celebrated, her own limitations, allowing those who are really in the know to steer important tasks. So the woman who loves music, but can't remember band names, cultivated Attack Monkey Productions and promoter Chyna Brackeen to renew some of the festival music selections. Duncan loves planting tomatoes on the deck and raised-bed gardening, but tapped experts like certified master arborist Jim Cortese and University of Tennessee plant pathologist Mark Windham when it came to cultivating more dogwoods. She's married to an artist (Dan is a respected woodworker) and likes to dabble a bit herself, but put an artist, Lynda Evans, in charge when it came to revamping the arts offerings across the board.

And though she loves bike riding and nature, she gives herself the toughest, most accountable job. "I had dreamed I would be able to enjoy the things I'd be promoting and producing," she says. "I actually thought I would have a lot more time to experience the art process and the gardens during non-peak times. Instead, most of my time is spent, ah, promoting and producing."

The Four-Year Difference

During the official festival month of April, Duncan has even less time to stop and bike the trails—and most of that is her own fault. While she's excruciatingly careful not to take any credit she doesn't deserve and in fact sometimes won't even take credit for successes she clearly has earned, an exhaustive bevy of volunteers and visionaries has propelled the festival in numerous new directions during her almost four-year stint as director, including:

• Art, everywhere. The Art in Public Places piece had started the year before Duncan came on board, the brainchild of board members Eddie Mannis (now the city's chief operating officer) and Bart Watkins, with masterful sculptures by contemporary artists showing in the Dogwood Arts' featured exhibition, and it only continues to get better. But in Duncan's first year at the helm in 2009, that exhibit was also joined by a very reputable fine-art show. Such fine-art experts as former Metro Pulse art reviewer Chris Buckner fairly gloated, "Well, you won't find any pastoral watercolors or tepid high-society portraits." Instead, the show, which still included traditional fare, expanded into multimedia, Pop Art collage, and glass-and-steel sculptures.

• The Rhythm N' Blooms festival, with Attack Monkey Productions owner Brackeen at the helm: a weekend of music from a who's who of locally and nationally renowned roots-music acts. This year's addition is the Saturday, April 12, Music Village at the East Tennessee History Center. Free to the public, it will include music workshops and vendors selling music-related products.

• A re-branded patron's party became Dogwood After Dark, and now draws 350 attendees and serves as a fund-raiser. The party was already in place: Volunteer committee chair Gay Lyons and her group just parlayed it into a bigger bash that also sold tickets to the public. "We were first charged with creating a fun event, and one that celebrated the arts as part of the party," she remembers. This year's event had 350 in attendance, ranging from attorney Charles Swanson to retired restaurateur Bill Regas and some younger partiers, say the 25-plus set. Entertainers included a flamenco dancer, Whitney Houston impersonator, and a flash mob dressed as zombies performing "Thriller"—Greg Carney's troupe from the Broadway Academy of Performing Arts.

• Chalk Walk—artists take to a stretch of sidewalk. The Chalk Walk demonstrates how Duncan has included draws for the younger set: the winners in 2009 were high-school students from Oak Ridge. It also demonstrates her approach to volunteers, in a nutshell: "This was the idea of volunteer Doug Slocum, who had seen a similar thing in his travels, and was willing to sponsor it," notes Duncan, adding that Slocum's wife Cathy chairs the event. "It has grown from a couple dozen to more than 100 this year and more on the waiting list—we only have so much sidewalk space!"

She always comes back at a volunteer with the critical question: "How can we make that possible?"

Duncan herself will turn over rocks for funding, and has a roster of event sponsors that encompasses ORNL Credit Union and the Tennessee School of Beauty, Star 102.1 and Richie Tractor—to name a few. At the same time, she won't let an idea come into the fold unless someone cares enough to shepherd it through, and possibly, like Brackeen or Lyons, to get 10 or 12 of their closest friends to volunteer or open their pocketbooks, too. "That's the only way we're succeeding, with volunteers who are passionate about their projects," she says. The festival currently utilizes over 600 volunteers.

At the same time, Duncan acknowledges, the festival can't grow indefinitely. Her group has increased the total income about $600,000 between the financial reports dated June 2008 and those dated June 2011, and increased in-kind media advertising around $200,000 in the same period. "We constantly evaluate, and at some point will have to make some decisions about what's working best," she says.

The Tourist Biz

DAF has no formal relationship with the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corp., and thus didn't catch any flak or feel defensive when CEO Gloria Ray was publicized (and eventually allowed to resign) for her $400,000+ compensation this January. But she's still felt the reverberations, says Duncan. For one thing, the two entities do enjoy a partnership of sorts, with DAF being one of the many entities KTSC uses to draw tourism to the city. They didn't bring in as many visitors in the times when Dogwood was underfunded and thus didn't have much programming, acknowledges Duncan, but KTSC has offered Dogwood a "significant amount of time and energy," particularly human resources, says Duncan. "And we've always had a good relationship, in that their staff promoted the festival," she says.

She's also worked closely with the leadership at KTSC, and had conversations with both KTSC and the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development about how arts and culture could drive more tourism into East Tennessee. "We plan to continue those conversations," she says with a small laugh.

In other words, Duncan isn't going to kick KTSC when they're down, but she will say she was no fan of Ray's bloated compensation. And she's very quick to point out that her own board has a policy, one developed far in advance of the Ray debacle: Less than 25 percent of every dollar in the budget can go to salary and benefits for staff. This year, that total was up—to $301,000 from last year's $223,000—but still well below 25 percent of total budget, and all salaries glommed together are well below Ray's former pay.

"Everyone wants to know that nowadays," she says. "Since you can plainly see that our budget is $2 million with in-kind donations, no one is getting paid like Gloria Ray here."

In fact, she makes $90,000 a year, as reported from IRS forms by the News Sentinel in February. And though she herself would never draw the comparison, Duncan is the antithesis of the seldom-seen, hands-off Ray. Instead, she attends each one of the events her group produces ("I'd do the all the events our partners produce, too, but then I'd have to be at work literally all the time in April," she says), is nominally on dozens of committees, and is right there in the pit with the volunteers when her time's not being better spent at marketing and fund-raising.

Just one example: Who was answering phones for the staff of eight at the Dogwood offices some three hours before Dogwood After Dark was slated to start over at the KMA?

"Hello, this is Lisa Duncan."

Love Among the Dogwoods

A self-described Army brat, Duncan is originally from Indiana, and had a grandmother whose favorite flower was the dogwood—something she's only remembered in recent years. In her free time, she likes to grow things and is a fierce bike rider—for fun and physical fitness. She's recently started a Wednesday evening stained-glass class, too. "Interestingly enough though, it took me joining Dogwood to realize that most all my friends are artists," she says.

So is her husband. Duncan's family spent a few of her school years in Chattanooga, and she returned to study marketing at UT in 1980. Dan Duncan was traveling through from Washington State in those post-Vietnam war days and they've been a couple since she was 19.

Originally employed as a VW mechanic, he's been a self-employed woodworker all these years, with a studio at his house where he can take a 20 minute power nap in the afternoon. "People are in a bad mood if their car is broken; it's completely different if you're woodworking, and this is a lot more creative," he says.

Dan was the first Duncan to interact with the festival, beginning in 1984 or so, with the East Tennessee Woodworkers Guild. They set up a woodworking show with the goal of "getting away from crafts and into furniture," he says. He never sold a lot at those shows, he says, but the more important aspect was the education. "If you show people real quality at a festival, they'll eventually make a better decision on what they do buy," he says. "We've got very talented people in this area."

While he's diplomatic about it, you can tell Dan's stung about the first time he dropped out of Dogwood. "Bob Neel, he killed all those shows—the quilters, the woodworkers, everybody, took them all out for some reason" he says, alluding to the director who took over from Jim Walls.

"That was the end of my involvement until Lisa got back with it. I always found that curious, because my relatives in New York, they visited for the quilts, the pottery—to see the artisans. Now that Lisa's got it changed back, I think it will revive, and be pretty important for the area."

Dan may tweak Lisa about never taking time to smell the roses, but he's close to his wife. They share time gardening—just planted greens and broccoli in raised beds—and biking. He's just a firm believer in an eight-hour work day. "I learned that years ago. Work eight hours or life goes to pieces. In my trade, you can't run equipment tired, and you shouldn't. I've already lost a finger."

His wife, though, "she's not going to take a break, she just keeps going!" he says with a laugh. He allows she's gotten much, much better with delegating in recent years, but still thinks she works too hard. "I'm never gonna do that kind of hours, but Lisa—you don't get done in eight hours, in her trade. Actually, I guess if I were in her shoes I'd feel I had to work those hours too. The biggest thing to do for Dogwood is raise money, and that's not something you take lightly."

Lisa quickly echoes his sentiments. "I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility."

Dan quips that his favorite part of Dogwood Arts Festival is "May," when, of course, it's over, but joking aside, he is a steadfast volunteer on events from Rhythm and Blooms to the parade, and he's his wife's date whenever his schedule allows.

They were both at the Dogwood After Dark patron party/fund-raiser at the Knoxville Museum of Art, pretty much right from the start, with Lisa in a little black dress and Dan wearing a sportcoat and jeans. "That's what he's comfortable with, and I want everyone to be comfortable," she says with a smile.

He feels the best word to describe Lisa's approach to her job is "hostess," and she's definitely that this evening, gliding around the room, shaking hands, thanking workers, making introduction after introduction.

Towards the end of the evening, she finally gets a chance to relax. The music has swung from a fast dance number to a slower pace, and Lisa invites Dan out on the floor. They sway, and laugh, and are joined by another woman in a short dress and wrap, and then a few others, and all seem welcome.

The lyrics swing into "beneath the light of a neon moon..." and a few on the sidelines sing along.

Some are probably reminded of moonlight and magnolias.

Duncan, though? She's probably thinking dogwoods.

Correction: In a few places in the story, we mistakenly had "Sam Duncan" instead of "Dan Duncan."