In 1980, the Chattanooga arts scene consisted of the symphony, the Hunter (sans signature cliffside building) and the then-“Little Theatre.” There was also, relates Bob Boyer, a fairly flourishing pop music scene inside places such as The Brass Register, Yesterdays, Black Angus, The Tiki Hut, and, Boyer remembers fondly, Dino’s Bar & Grill.
But there was nothing like the series that premiered that year at the new UTC Fine Arts Center, partially funded by the Gray family in honor of its famous relative, Dorothy Patten. “Before Samuel L. Jackson, Dorothy Patten was probably the most famous Chattanoogan actor,” Boyer says, noting that she appeared in 30 Broadway plays and several films. The original proposal for “The Dorothy Patten Fine Arts Series” states: “The firm intent of UTC is to present an eclectic series of performers of national reputation and superior talents which will augment the artistic presentations of Chattanooga’s professional symphony, opera and theatre. This new series will not replace existing performances; instead, it will serve to broaden and deepen the artistic life of our community.”
That first series kicked off with a bang, presenting world-class performers such as Marcel Marceau and the Pablo Casals Trio. It also included a performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by The Acting Company, which has continued its relationship with UTC for the following 33 years.
And during those years, Chattanooga arts lovers have been privileged to experience music, theatre and dance performances that would be the envy of many other cities its size, and at ticket costs that are amazingly affordable, due to the support of the university’s foundation. Boyer, who became the series’ director in 2004, credits the foresight of his predecessors, and leaders such as former mayor Robert Kirk Walker, for understanding that a series that was designed not to make money, but to enhance the cultural landscape, was worthy of support.
“One of the things that great innovators do is try to drive some of the cultural conversations in the community,” Boyer says. “Our budgets are stable, and we do not rely entirely on ticket revenue. This enables us to get out on the edge and present art that might not show up in the profit-driven venues.”
All has not been smooth sailing, however. When Boyer took over in mid-2004, managing a series that had already been programmed, subscribers were unhappy at the complexity of booking subscriptions, and totals plummeted. It took two years to right the ship and lure them back, Boyer says. Now, however, he’s able to maintain a booking formula that essentially consists of “four familiar names or titles, and three that may not be.” The season still balances music, dance and theatre presentations.
“I listen to the dance gurus in town when booking the dance companies,” he says. “And one of the things I’ve discovered is that my audience is far more adventurous than I had given them credit for.”
Boyer attends arts trade shows each year, which feature showcases of performers and performances available for booking, and agents bombard him with offers for others. But Boyer holds out for the best he can find. “I want magic,” he says, pointing to performances by Kathy Mattea, the Classical Theatre of Harlem, Secret Sisters, Diavolo Dance Theater and Ladysmith Black Mambazo as some of the nights to remember.
“With Kathy Mattea, for example—she is the real thing. She was singing the songs of the coal miners…that honesty turns into magic,” he says.
Like all fine arts programmers, Boyer is seeking ways to attract younger audiences. He laments, “We are essentially dealing with a second generation which did not have the advantage of arts in the schools.”
But there are some bright spots: “Music is crossing generational and genre lines more than ever,” he says. In the 2013-2014 series, Sybarite5, a young string quartet, “plays everything from Mozart to Radiohead.” Performances like these, he says, bring in people who recognize the series as something for them, rather than just for their parents.
New this year are two “Patten Unplugged” performances, something Boyer wants to expand in the future.
“We offer intimate, professional shows in a venue that is comfortable and has great sight lines and acoustics. The ‘Unplugged’ shows slot in people who are a little less well known, but who are working at the highest levels,” he says.`