Baton Rouge arts leaders weigh in on 15 years of local culture

Katie Pryor

Melanie Couvillion

Eric Marshall

Ann Connelly

Jody Hanet

Fairleigh Jackson

John Gray

Kris Cangelosi

Jenny Ballard

Katie Pryor

Executive director
Baton Rouge Film Commission

15 years ago: Was a year out of college and working in marketing and public relations

What were your hopes when you joined the film commission?

“I started in April 2017, before the new tax incentives for film productions went into effect in July. It was kind of a nail-biting time. Since then, my goal has to make young people aware of opportunities and how to approach them, because you can get a degree in film, but you can also work on a set and work your way up. We also have to make sure filmmakers are aware of their access to the tax incentives. We need to support locals who want to work in the film industry and lower the threshold for local filmmakers to be a part of this.”

What’s been the most surprising thing during your tenure?

“A lot of my film work in the beginning was in New Orleans. I didn’t realize what a community of film there was in Baton Rouge until I got into it a bit more. The incentive program was incredible because of what it did to reinvest in the community.” 

How do you see your organization growing in the next 15 years?

“I think it’s very important to have a workforce to attract the film industry and then industry to build a workforce—it’s a chicken and egg type thing. The more projects we get, it signals to people that they can move to a lower cost of living area and still work in this industry. At the end of the day, we’re creating a thriving economy and a business.”

What’s important now for the film community to thrive in Baton Rouge?

“I know COVID is a shadowed time for everyone, but I think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel if we can recognize and see the value of support for creative industries. It’s hard to automate what happens on a film set, so we have to support those workers in the industry. There’s a saying that whatever humans do not do for survival they do for entertainment. I think our imaginations need this creative outlet, and to me that’s what protects the creative industries during this time.” 


Melanie Couvillion

Executive director
Manship Theatre

15 years ago: Starting her first year as executive director of Playmakers of Baton Rouge

Tell us about the Shaw Center during its 2005 opening:

“When the Shaw Center opened, I was there for all the festivities and the tours. Even though I wasn’t at Manship yet, I was able to see firsthand their vision of what they wanted the theater to be. I remember doing these tours and they talked about how the Manship stage is perfect for small dance ensembles and small chamber orchestras. They kept talking about all the things this theater could do on a smaller scale—they wanted it to be a real intimate space. Jump forward, and the next thing you know the B52s are on stage, and we’ve had these enormous shows and brought in professional dance companies that aren’t small in any shape or form. I really don’t think they anticipated growing the way we did and bringing in the caliber of artists we bring in on a regular basis.”

What’s been the most surprising thing you’ve seen happen on the local arts scene?

“What I’ve noticed now is that so many people have said, ‘I can’t wait to come back and see a live show. I miss that so much.’ I feel that way, too. I can’t wait to walk on stage and introduce an act or a band. I’m hoping in 15 years that’s old hat and we’re back to normal for people of all ages.”

Where do you see Manship Theatre 15 years from now?

“After our gala in March, right there my goals were already looking at our next season, which would have started now. In 15 years I hope we’re continuing to offer extraordinary, stimulating and entertaining programming and people are still excited about coming and being one of 325 people in the audience and experiencing all the arts. I hope the Shaw Center stays strong. What’s so great about it is that it feels like we were an anchor to downtown coming alive. I hope we’re still an anchor and Manship Theater is still the hidden jewel in downtown.”

To you, what’s important now for the arts community to thrive in Baton Rouge?

“I think communicating with each other and helping, listening and continuing to be a community, working to be a community. Not just driving in your own lane. Hopefully we are looking around and seeing how we can partner and how we can help each other. I think now especially, we’ve got to hold each other’s hands and say we’re all in this together. If we want to look ahead, right now we’ve got to help each other.” 



Eric Marshall

Executive director
Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra 

15 years ago: Was in Erie, Pennsylvania, as an undergrad student at Mercyhurst University

What was something you hoped to do when you came to Baton Rouge?

“I have only been part of the Baton Rouge arts community for a little over a year, since May of last year. One of my goals was to introduce the symphony to a much broader audience. We’ve made strides online, but COVID has had a huge impact on our plans. But we’re on our way to some of the things we planned, such as bringing in more diverse performers,performances and venues. Going into different places across town really helps us expand our footprint and really falls along with the mission of the organization. We want to be accessible to everyone.”

How do you see the Baton Rouge culture scene growing in the next 15 years?

“There are similar organizations to the symphony that have done a great job with breaking out, but I think there are still a lot of silos in Baton Rouge With some of the leadership we have now, there’s a lot of room for those silos to come down and the Baton Rouge community to come together.”

Give a shout-out: What’s a cultural event or creative organization you think has provided a huge benefit to the Baton Rouge community in the last 15 years?

“They’re all amazing, and we partner with so many of them, but the one that’s been around for a long time that does a really good job is the Louisiana Art & Science Museum. What they do down there year after year is pretty remarkable. They’re a world-class institution that we’re really lucky to have in Baton Rouge.”

How do you see yourself or the Symphony Orchestra growing in the next 15 years?

“We have a lot of room for growth. We were on the edge of extinction a couple of years ago. We don’t hide that. However, we are currently debt-free. We went back to our roots and said ‘What do we do well, how do we do it, and how do we keep doing that?’ We are on the precipice of really big growth right now. Once we get through this COVID thing, we are going to hit the ground running and really kind of tackle our mission and expand in big ways, and work with community partners to get our musicians all around town. I’ve had talks with a lot of community partners around town, and I’m excited. I think in 15 years there won’t be anyone in the area who doesn’t have access to the symphony. For me personally, I have a 3 year old and a 7 month old. So 15 years from now, I’ll be at high school graduation for one of them and dealing with life with teenagers. I’m excited to watch my little ones grow over the next 15 years.”


Ann Connelly

Director and owner
Ann Connelly Fine Art

15 years ago: Was in the gallery’s second location on Christian Street, 15 years into the business

What was something you hoped to do for the Baton Rouge arts community back then?

“Just connecting with other creatives. It was a little bit of a closed door with different organizations not being super connected. We were outsiders because we started our business in Europe and didn’t really know the local scene. Sometimes it’s blissful to be ignorant, and we really did shake hands with a lot of different cultural institutions in trying to get into what they were doing. ”

What’s important now for the arts community to thrive?

“We need to continually bring our best, along with all of the creative partners that are informing people about the best of who we are and what we have. The more we say it, the more buy-in takes place, and the better community we can build.”

What’s been the most surprising thing you’ve seen happen on the local cultural and arts scene?

“It’s just so open to young people. Everybody reaches across the table. It’s a real openness with a youthful vibe, which is fabulous for a city.”

How do you see your business growing in the next 15 years?

“The way we started was really organic. It was buying master drawings, looking at museum quality frames, and figuring out how to put them together in an affordable way. From that, we expanded as makers. What we realized is we have to have an incredible frame shop. Early on, we focused on being makers. Now, we are focused on the digital age. We bring in an entire group of young creatives who are makers and artists, and we use our super skills and use our digital makers to make us look good on a digital platform. We also have the old school makers. We are going to grow those two components together over the next 15 years. We’re also getting ready to launch a pottery line with a world-class potter, and we’re continuing to host exhibitions for LSU.”


Jody Hanet

Executive director
Kids’ Orchestra

15 years ago: Was living in Scottsdale, Arizona, raising her two boys and cantering at a church, and wishing she was involved in music education

What was something you hoped to do for the Baton Rouge arts community back then?

“Fifteen years ago I would come home to Baton Rouge, and I always scanned the media to see what was happening in the world of music, because I was a graduate of LSU School of Music. What I noticed was, ‘What’s happening with the kids?’ My thought was that I would love to get down here and start making an impact on children, because there’s just so many opportunities. Now, I’ve certainly had that opportunity, not only as an educator, but also as an executive director at Kids’ Orchestra over the last almost eight years.”

How do you see Kids’ Orchestra growing in the next 15 years?

“Our mission is to build a community of creative, confident, socially engaged students through music education. Our vision is to bring Louisiana together through music. Right now, we are celebrating our 10-year anniversary. We’re excited we’ve been sustainable for that time.. So we see, in the next 15 years, great expansion. We want to see growth across the state.”

How do you see the Baton Rouge culture scene growing in the next 15 years?

“I think Baton Rouge will get more state-wide and national attention. I think it’ll become known nationally as a place for culture and the arts. I think there’s going to be more opportunities for students in the arts. The LSU School of Music is churning out great musicians who are embracing Louisiana’s rich musical culture. I think that’s so important, that our flagship university is giving us such great musicians.”

To you, what’s important now for the arts community to thrive in Baton Rouge?

“We need continued support. I’m not talking about state-level, but in neighborhoods and the parish. We need community, Without it, the arts are not going to thrive, and our students will not have the chance to experience rich musical and cultural heritage right here in our city. We can’t lose the arts during this pandemic. We’ve got to embrace it. The arts and music are healing, and we as a nation need to heal. This is an outlet for healing.”

Fairleigh Jackson

Executive director
Preserve Louisiana

15 years ago: Living in Asheville, North Carolina, working full time as a ceramic artist 

What did Preserve Louisiana look like in 2005?

“It was the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, and was doing much of the same work that we are doing now. But in the past 15 years, it’s expanded to be a more inclusive approach to preservation, telling the full narrative, and working on preservation for all communities. We’ve also expanded our work in the Old Governor’s Mansion.”

How do you see the Baton Rouge arts scene growing in the next 15 years. How do we thrive?

“I see it growing to expand what we recognize as culture, beyond just our visual and performing arts or preservation, to include the stories of our communities. That is what we strive to achieve in historic preservation. By celebrating the stories of our artists and culture-bearers, that we can then strengthen pride in our community. Included in that is diversity, and celebrating all the different cultures we have as artists. We need more business investment in the arts and culture communities. We need businesses to realize the very real economic impact that arts and culture has on our community, and maybe that is a silver lining of the pandemic. When our cultural entities suffer, the community suffers. They are the incentives for people coming to visit, relocate or stay here. It’s a really important part of what makes the community appetizing. I think we need our businesses to step up, and we need support on the local level, from our mayor and Metro Council.”

What was something you hoped to do as a member of the Baton Rouge arts community back then? Were you able to achieve it or do you see it happening now?

“I think that we’ve come a long way. I think there’s still a lot of work to do to support our arts organizations and our museum entities. I feel that we need to be more supportive of diverse art and cultural organizations, in the private sector, the business sector, and our local municipality. I think that while it’s been a difficult time, I think people’s eyes are being opened to really look at all of what our city has to offer culturally.”

What’s been the most rewarding thing you’ve seen happen on the local cultural and arts scene?

“During this pandemic and current world we live in, one of the most rewarding and uplifting thighs I’ve seen is such a collaborative and supportive approach by many of our cultural leaders to stay in contact, know the state of each organization, and offer support and co-marketing. We’ve revived our Downtown Association of Museums Group. Now we have a much more coordinated plan to stay in touch with each other and share our plans for best practices.”

How do you see Preserve Louisiana growing in the next 15 years?

“As many non-profits and cultural entities are, we are struggling financially. Most of our revenue is tied to our cooperative endeavor agreement to be the stewards of the Old Governor’s Mansion. The serious decline in event rentals has affected us financially, yet we continue to do the preservation work we do on the local level, state level and federal level. What I would hope is that we continue to do our work in preservation, whether that is continuing as the stewards of the mansion or not. There’s very real relevance for the work we do, A) for retaining the cultural and architectural stories of our state, and B) providing and advocating for financial incentives such as historic tax credits on the state and federal level, which make community revitalization through historic preservation possible. I hope our work continues to get stronger, that we continue to collaborate with partners from across the state in doing this work, and connect more with local entities.”

John Gray

Michael Foster Project
Find the band on Facebook

15 years ago: Just finished his second degree in music performance at Southern, substitute teaching part time and playing gigs with the Michael Foster Project

What’s been the most surprising thing you’ve seen happen in the local arts scene?

“There’s really been no expansion into the variety in which venues have been opening up. As far as the venues are concerned, they’ve been very generic. Which is why so many places open and shut down. Everybody is trying to cater to the 25-year-old crowd.” 

What’s important now for the performing arts community to thrive in Baton Rouge?

“Places for musicians to actually be able to perform.” 

How do you see yourself growing in the next 15 years?

“I think the Project is going to continue doing what it does which is performing … we’ll continue being that particular band and doing things our own way. Even though we’re getting older, we’re continuously getting new younger crowds. We’ve played for people while they’re in college, then played years later at their wedding. For myself, I look forward to new projects. I ventured out and started playing with bands in New Orleans. Now, I’m knocking out this graduate degree in music.” 

Kris Cangelosi

Artistic director
Cangelosi Dance Project

15 years ago: Had recently moved back to Baton Rouge, was freelancing as a teacher, choreographer for nearby studios and traveling to cities on the weekend teaching dance conventions and judging dance competitions

How do you see your organization growing in the next 15 years?

“During this pandemic, I have had the time to rethink the growth for dance students and future opportunities in performing. I will continue to intensify the dance program and enrich students on their best path for a dance career.”

How do you see the Baton Rouge art scene growing in the next 15 years?

“Baton Rouge has several mixtures and levels of talent in this community. I am sure it will continue to follow this path like it has in the past 15 years. The artists in the area who are producing good work will continue with their presence.” 

What’s important now for the performing arts community to thrive in Baton Rouge?

“A strong leader who can direct local talent, develop resources, provide opportunities for artists, and educate the community of the performing arts. We need less over-talked art programs that go nowhere.”

Jenny Ballard

Managing artistic director
Theatre Baton Rouge

15 years ago: Was an artistic and education director in Knoxville, Tennessee.

What was something you hoped to do as a member of the Baton Rouge arts community back then? Were you able to achieve it?

“When I joined Theatre Baton Rouge in 2014, I wanted to grow our younger audience base. I thought it was important to get students involved. We have gotten a lot of younger volunteers and actors. Another objective has been to diversify the theater. Historically speaking we have not been. We recently created a diversity, equity and inclusion committee during the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement to serve all people.” 

What’s been the most surprising thing you’ve seen happen in the local arts scene?

“I think the positive surprise that came out of the pandemic was how quickly we were able to adapt and pivot. We as a community and theater showed resilience. This September, when we did American Son, we sold out every show. The community was very willing to come to the theater. I’m always surprised at how overwhelming the support is from our community. We live in a place with very lovely people who have proved theater in Baton Rouge is necessary.” 

How do you see the Baton Rouge music and art scene growing in the next 15 years?

“As far as local theater, I hope that we can work together more than we have historically. I think it’s important that we work to partner more. We’re all trying to do the exact same thing and we’re serving the same people. I’d love to see some sort of theater district recognized in the Baton Rouge community.” 

How do you see yourself or your organization growing in the next 15 years?

“I hope we can get to the point where we can pay our actors. Right now they’re all volunteers. I’d like to see us as a touring company. I’d love to see our education program and young actors program grow more than it has. I want to see us serving the community for another 75 years. I want to enhance our current facilities or build a completely new building. I think Theatre Baton Rouge is on the preface of exploding to a different level.” 

This article was originally published in the November 2020 issue of 225 Magazine.