Trollwood/Bluestem Vision articulated by TPAS Co-Founder

On Sunday, June 17th, 2012 The Forum published a letter to the editor written and submitted by Trollwood Performing Arts School Co-Founder and former Executive Director, Vicki Chepulis. Due to space constrictions, Vicki’s original letter was edited. The following commentary is her unedited version submitted to The Forum.

 

2009, group photo of Vicki Chepulis and TPAS staff

Vicki Chepulis (far right) and TPAS staff members making a 2009 orientation presentation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is now Bluestem Center for the Arts was conceived as a new, stable home in which Trollwood Performing Arts School would become a world class arts center, much like internationally recognized Interlochen Center for the Arts, which also began as a summer youth arts program.

I had the privilege of co-founding and serving as executive director of Trollwood Performing Arts School, watching it grow in size and impact for 32 years, serving students and audiences from both sides of the river from the first year of operation in 1978.

As a program of the Fargo Schools, offered in collaboration with the Fargo Park Board, the first fifteen years solidified TPAS as a staple on the slate of summer entertainment and arts education options. However, summer floods in 1993 began an ongoing threat of floods and erosion in our North Fargo home.

For the next ten years, we (the Trollwood team–Trollwood staff, Fargo School board reps, community supporters and eventually FutureBuilders, our nonprofit fundraising arm) searched for solutions, from adapting Trollwood Park to exploring several sites in Fargo and Cass County. Among those options was integrating TPAS’s facility needs into the Fargo high school remodeling projects, moving the school indoors, at the cost of millions of dollars to the Fargo Schools.

Eventually we accepted an invitation to look at Moorhead, resulting in an offer to move to south Moorhead and $5.5 million support from the Minnesota State Legislature, contingent upon completing the project by the end of 2008. 

Hundreds of community members were invited to participate in creating a vision of how TPAS could best serve the public through growth in this new location. A master plan was designed, and fundraising began. Over the course of two years Trollwood staff, working with FutureBuilders, raised millions of dollars to match the Minnesota bonding money. Efforts continued to raise the money for the remaining construction costs, as well as five years of operating expenses. As the deadline approached, the Fargo School Board provided loans so the construction project could be completed and the legislative dollars secured. 

Unfortunately, a new organizational structure was established that immediately generated difficulties, resulting in ungainly management, unsuccessful fundraising, unhealthy work environment, and stifled efforts to provide innovative and community-responsive programming. 

I believe that recent Fargo School Board decisions pave the way for promising renewal.  By assuming the lease and developing a workable organizational structure, the school board will set the stage for the original vision to be realized and surpassed.

The next step is the creation of a managing authority, composed of stakeholders and arts advocates, including people who have worked tirelessly to make this vision a reality.

While it’s positive to reference a local model like the Dome Authority for the composition of this group, I encourage the leaders to look outside athletic/entertainment venue model as they develop the rest of the organizational structure. Numerous examples of flourishing arts centers provide more appropriate and inspiring reference points to establish a successful organizational structure. Thriving arts centers follow the basic principle of one leader with one team, working together toward common goals, based upon a clearly articulated vision shared by all. That may sound like simple and clear common sense, however the current situation at Bluestem/Trollwood Performing Arts School is the opposite of this.

Among the first responsibilities of the managing authority will be hiring a Director/CEO–a single leader, with visionary experience in providing artistry and innovatively serving the community, while operating an efficient and fiscally responsible organization. All other functions-facility scheduling, maintenance, programming (including TPAS’s grade 1-12 summer programs), fundraising, financial management, marketing/community relations should be conducted by staff and volunteers who report to this dynamic leader or her/his department heads, carrying forth the plan articulated by the managing authority. Examples abound of arts leaders who capably manage complex organizations as successful businesses, debunking the myth that people with artistic sensibilities lack the capacity to also think and act strategically. Having a capable, visionary leader at the helm is critical to creating a world class arts center known for excellence and innovation.

The current Trollwood team, under the leadership of Kathy Anderson, has done an outstanding job of serving area youth, while working with half the previous budget and in an extremely challenging work environment. In fact, there are now more kids served at TPAS than ever before. In a few weeks they will open “Legally Blonde,” and demonstrate the many theatrical capabilities of the new stage, while showcasing the talents of teenagers from our region. This capable Trollwood staff shares my passion for growing the organization into all that was promised to our donors and the community. This new direction should give them the “green light” to begin doing that.

As the community experiences the benefits of this new regional resource through concerts, festivals, and performances featuring national and local talent, quality education programs for all ages, and through use of the site’s beautiful facilities, and forthcoming wooded trails, beautiful gardens, family picnic and outdoor play centers; history shows that they in turn will seek out ways to support its viability for the future, through donations of money and their volunteer time.

There’s a lot of work ahead, but the Fargo School Board has taken an important first step, and now has the opportunity to make choices that will ensure that this world class arts center serves the public for future decades, and significantly adds to Fargo-Moorhead’s growing reputation for exceptional arts and education programs.

Submitted to The Forum by Vicki Chepulis, co-founder and former executive director of Trollwood Performing Arts School

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