In 2017, nearly two decades after being awarded a grant by the Ford Foundation to build the Gertrude Castellow Ford Center for the Performing Arts, the center’s staff sought to re-evaluate their institution and its practices.
“I figured we needed to make some goals, so I put together some strategic planning that was led by Provost Noel Wilkin and Katie Busby, director of Institutional Research, Effectiveness and Planning,” said Julia Aubrey, director of the Ford Center. “We brought together about 25 people from the community and the staff on campus to really discuss what the Ford Center meant to them and what they thought would be good goals to set going forward.”
These goals, both practical and conceptual, became outlined in a formal strategic plan in 2018, which the Ford Center has been building off ever since.
“You have to cooperate in order for something like that to come together,” Aubrey said. “It takes a lot of different people and different ideas, and you finally put it all together and create something that’s unique and something exciting.”
Above all else, these collective ideas are in service of increasing awareness and appreciation for the arts and academia, in honor of the organization’s namesake.
While various objectives remain on the horizon, one can see many of these initial ideas coalescing in the Ford Center’s now-20th season, headlined by the star-studded “20th Anniversary Gala,” taking place March 25.
At the inaugural gala in 2003, Aubrey directed opera students during a segment in the wide-ranging event. Now, she directs the event itself and has served in her current position since 2016.
“Many things I did before as a director and performer lent itself to this kind of position, and I have certainly learned a lot over the last seven years,” Aubrey said.
Serving as director of the Ford Center, or in any Ford Center position, remains a constant learning experience for Aubrey and the surrounding staff, with each event requiring its own unique playbook.
“We have about 15-20 touring shows each year, a lot of which I book up to two years in advance. So that’s a whole set of responsibilities because each one requires different things regarding accessibility, hospitality, lodging,” Aubrey said. “It’s a huge undertaking and takes a lot of coordination from the Ford Center staff.”
While every season is buoyed by touring shows as part of the “Ford Series,” ranging from special guest artists to musical acts, the rest of the calendar is supplemented with series events, all led by separate committees.
These series’ range from the “Artist’s Series,” which recently welcomed the likes of dance group Step Afrika! and musical quintet Canadian Brass, to the “Family Friendly” series, which offers unique artistic opportunities to children of all ages.
“Through these various series, we aim for a lot of variety and diversity in what we program year-round,” Aubrey said.
What will the community like? What will students like? What has not been done before? These are a few of the questions that the various committees ponder in selecting upcoming acts.
This daily decision-making also extends to the organization’s marketing, led by Kate Meacham.
“Every year we start with our season brochure that goes out in the summer, with everything we’re planning for August to May … all of the touring shows,” Meacham said. “Once that has been taken care of, we then move to promoting each individual event.”
In her now-15 years with the Ford Center, Meacham noted how these practices have both evolved and remained the same over time.
“Everything changes so fast,” Meacham said. “We just try to find as many different ways to connect to people that are interested as we can.”
Connection, in all senses of the phrase, remains the true currency that keeps audiences coming back.
“We try to offer a pleasing, welcoming environment,” Aubrey said. “Because it’s also a social event, not just an artistic event.”
This sense of community can largely be attributed to the front of house staff and volunteers, led by Michelle Cook. In addition to the employees, the Ford Center welcomes dozens of volunteers, ranging from former University of Mississippi staff/contributors to current students, bridging generations in a way Gertrude C. Ford would have endorsed.
“The Ford Center has allowed me to connect my appreciation for the fine arts with my desire to serve the Oxford community,” Reagan Allen, a freshman International Studies and Chinese major and frequent Ford Center volunteer, said.
Through connecting with university students, the Ford Center has also opened space for Ole Miss organizations to utilize the Main Hall and adjacent Studio Theatre, resulting in weekly events that generate consistent audiences.
While the goals of the Ford Center continue to evolve, the founding mission remains intact, enriching the education and cultural lives of practically everyone who passes through.
“I began volunteering with the Ford Center to meet a community service requirement, but it’s become more than that for me,” Samantha Case, a sophomore history major and Ford Center volunteer, said. “I’ve met and made connections with some people who also volunteer, and I also love being a smiling face and welcoming the public into events. You never know what someone might be going through, so … that could just be what someone needs to get through the day.”
The Ford Center operates year-round. Information and tickets for upcoming events, including the “20th Anniversary Gala” can be found on the center’s website.
The history of Gertrude C. Ford and the organization will also be detailed in an upcoming book, “20 Years of History, Stories, and Performances: The Gertrude Castellow Ford Center for the Performing Arts,” available for purchase at the gala event.
“Stories of the Present” is the second part of a three-part series covering the past, present and future of the Gertrude C. Ford Center. This series will continue in a later edition of The Daily Mississippian.