Dogwood Arts hunts new director — again

In News by S. Heather Duncanleave a COMMENT

Less than two years after hiring a new executive director, Dogwood Arts is again trying to figure out who will run its premier local arts festival next year.

Director Tom Cervone left the job at the end of May, his third brief stint heading up a prominent local arts or education initiative. He had previously managed the professional executive MBA program at the University of Tennessee College of Business Administration, after serving one year as the first executive director of the Tennessee Theatre Foundation. Most of his career was spent as managing director at UT’s Clarence Brown Theater.

Dogwood board chairwoman Janet Testerman says Cervone resigned “to pursue other interests.” The Mercury has been unable to contact Cervone for comment.

“He is a great ambassador for the arts community,” she says. “We wish him the very best. Organizations go through transition a lot, and you use that transition as an opportunity.”

Now Dogwood Arts, which dropped “Festival” from its name last year in recognition of its year-round event programming such as its House & Garden Show and Art in the Public Places, is hoping to find a replacement by the end of the summer, Testerman says. Cervone steered the organization through two of its premier April Dogwood Festivals. Its arts market “had a fabulous year,” Testerman says. “Vendors sold more than they ever have.”

“Our significant events continue to grow,” she says. “Rhythm & Blooms has grown incrementally every year, especially from an attendance standpoint.” However, after partnering to run the Knoxville Film Festival for four years, Testerman says Dogwood is “on hiatus” from the event this year “for a number of reasons.”

Testerman hopes the incoming Dogwood Arts director will focus his or her energy first on a strategic plan – including a fundraising and development strategy – and look at programming with fresh eyes. She says Dogwood, which has already received some applications since advertising the job on its website and on online arts and nonprofit platforms, has no preference between a local candidate and one from farther afield.

In an interview last spring, Cervone said his marching orders were to build partnerships and strengthen Dogwood’s financial footing. While Dogwood had been operating in the black — and still does, according to Testerman – it is working to build a cash reserve for lean times, an important strategic move in an era when nonprofits are competing for every donor dollar.

Dogwood Arts launched a donor campaign earlier this year which Testerman says “has been a great revenue stream.” When asked if the organization is meeting its fundraising goals, she says, “I think we’re well on our way. We’ve got lofty goals.”

She says the fundraising push has no set end point but began as a campaign to raise $50,000, to match $50,000 that has been offered by a group of donors. Testerman estimated Dogwood is 65 to 75 percent of the way there.

Cervone had acknowledged that Dogwood Arts had somewhat strained ties with some local artists as a result of its increasingly selective policy toward accepting vendors at the Market Square art festival over the years, and said he hoped to build stronger relationships with them.

“I think we’ve definitely engaged in strengthening those relationships,” Testerman says. “We really need to use our local artists and programs they’ve experienced elsewhere that might be a good fit for our organization. I feel like we’ve done that, but it’s always something we can continue to grow.”

Testerman says the organization held a well-attended artists’ forum last fall to seek feedback and share ideas about Dogwood’s direction. Moving into a storefront for the first time, on Jackson Avenue, created opportunities for Dogwood Arts to display artwork and hold First Friday events. “That’s created more visibility and an avenue for artists,” Testerman says.

Meanwhile, the Knoxville Film Festival will continue this year without Dogwood’s help in marketing, ticketing and acquiring sponsorships, says Keith McDaniel, who founded the Secret City Film Festival and ran it for 9 years before Dogwood’s previous director, Lisa Duncan, approached him about partnering and moving the festival to Knoxville. The Knoxville Film Festival partnership lasted three years under Duncan and one under Cervone.

McDaniel says when Dogwood pulled out, he considered discontinuing the festival, which has seen increased ticket sales each year, but supporters urged him to continue.

Minus Dogwood, “I lost a little sponsorships, but most stayed at some level,” he says, and Regal will continue to host the festival at its Downtown West Cinema 8 theater.

McDaniel says the submission deadline for films is still a month away, but the festival has already received more submissions than it did the entire season last year. The popular “Seven-Day Shootout,” in which filmmakers have seven days to make a seven-minute film, is three-quarters booked, McDaniel says. And this year a new event has been added: the TN10 Best of the Best Filmmaking Challenge, in which ten Tennessee filmmakers were invited to offer up their best work.

Testerman says that in future years, Dogwood might be interested in reshaping its involvement, perhaps through different venues or sponsoring a specific component.

McDaniel says he’d be open to having such a conversation.

“Tom and I got a little crossways at the end,” he says. “As long as he was executive director, it would have been much more difficult for me to think about a future relationship. Now, that’s not the case.”

This article was revised to correct an error in the address of Dogwood Arts.

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at

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