Liza Zenni: Knoxville's Art Advocate

Liza Zenni is always looking forward. In her work as the executive director of the Arts and Culture Alliance of Greater Knoxville, that's been a good thing.

Zenni, 55, grew up in Oak Ridge, where her father was one of the first independent businessmen. And, like many seem to do, she left for a while and returned. While she was gone, she pursued her love of theater, eventually earning a Masters of Fine Arts from Yale in theater management, rather than acting.

"I was really more interested in the things that affect community organizations," she explains.

She found a home in San Francisco at Theatre Bay Area, a membership organization that was obviously influential on Zenni's vision for the Arts and Culture Alliance, serving theater and dance companies, and individuals like actors, playwrights, and patrons, among others. Zenni spent five years there before making her way back east.

By the time she returned to East Tennessee (after a stop in Cincinnati), Zenni had two young daughters in tow. Zenni came back home to Oak Ridge to be closer to her family, but it quickly became apparent she needed to get back to work.

"When my youngest daughter got to be about three, I took her to nursery school. And she said [one day], ‘Why don't you have a job?'" Zenni says.

So she started networking. But it wasn't networking that led her to the Arts and Culture Alliance.

"My sister saw an ad for this position in the News Sentinel. And I think they only ran it once," Zenni says.

She interviewed for the position in June 2001, was offered the job that December, and started her first day as the executive director on Jan 2, 2002.

The Arts and Culture Alliance's goal is to promote the arts, and advocate for them. So one of the first things Zenni did as the director was walk down to the City County Building and speak to representatives of both administrations about working together. She was introduced to Ellen Adcock, then Victor Ashe's director of the department of administration, who suggested the Arts and Culture Alliance move from the Candy Factory building to what's now the Emporium Building. The move happened in July 2004.

"When we moved in, this block really was a sewer," Zenni says.

But downtown wasn't empty for long. The Emporium Building is representative of Zenni's success in bringing together not only arts groups, but also heritage groups like the East Tennessee History Society. It houses the offices of the Alliance, plus nine other arts organizations, and has studio and rehearsal space for 10 artists. The Alliance now has more than 300 individual members, and leads a consortium of 26 arts and heritage groups. Zenni's Alliance puts together a single city and county funding request on behalf of the 26 organizations, who cooperatively split up the money among the consortium members. They also agree to cross-promote each other at various events.

"That kind of trust does not exist [anywhere else]," Zenni says.

The Alliance also promotes a program called Penny 4 Arts, which enables parents to buy tickets to arts and culture events, and get up to three free tickets for their children to attend also. Zenni says 30 organizations participate here.

"We have 30 organizations who do that. We promote Penny 4 Arts. We don't promote each [event] individually. The fact that they are A-OK with that is an unbelievable and unheard of feather in their cap as an industry," Zenni says.

And she doesn't take the fact that it's extremely rare for arts organization to agree to such levels of cooperation for granted.

"I'm just deeply honored that it would be my job to work with them. And to try to help them do their work, because they do such wonderful work. They get along so well," she says.

But the cooperation of arts organizations was always Zenni's goal.

"It never occurred to me that it wasn't possible," she says. "When you have time after time after time proven that your value system puts them first, then there's trust there. We're busting our asses to make sure...they get what they need."

And after work at the Alliance, Zenni is also on the Public Art Committee, though her term ends in December. She was part of an initial task force that developed guidelines for public art, which dispersed after their task was complete, but was asked to join the committee.

Anybody who's truly committed to seeing public art in Knoxville needs to demand stronger leadership from the Public Art Committee, Zenni says.

"I have great dreams. [But] there has to be a will. I think there's tremendous potential [for public art]," she says.

But when her time is her own, Zenni says she focuses on truly living in the Knoxville area, and taking advantage of everything from the outdoors to the Tennessee Valley Fair to the 100 Block of Gay Street.

"It is a happy place," she says. "I'm so fortunate to have fallen into this project here."

—Paige Huntoon