ACANSA has long been synonymous with the week-long arts festival that transforms Little Rock into the biggest cultural oasis for hundreds of miles since the inaugural fest in 2014. But this year ACANSA is drawing a distinction between ACANSA, the arts festival, and ACANSA, the organization. Going forward, ACANSA plans to expand its mission by adding new programming and fostering connections between existing arts organizations in the area.
The masterminds behind this new endeavor are Dillon Hupp and John Gaudin. Hupp grew up very much in tune with the arts scene of central Arkansas, thanks in part to his father Bob Hupp, artistic director of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre for 17 years until 2016. The younger Hupp’s role with ACANSA began early this year when he was hired as the executive director.
Gaudin has been an instrumental figure in expanding Argenta and, of course, the arts scene within central Arkansas. An aspiring artist himself, Gaudin is owner of the Argenta Gallery, serves as chair of the Arkansas caucus on the Mid-America Arts Alliance Board, a nonprofit that aims to bring more art to more people, and has served on every committee and board related to the arts in the Little Rock metro. In short, he lives and breathes art. When ACANSA founder Charlotte Gadberry stepped down as board chairman, she naturally asked Gaudin to take over the role. Together Hupp and Gaudin are breathing new life into ACANSA as it prepares for a second act, not unlike that of the Robinson Center.
A New Direction
When Gaudin stepped in as board chairman, he organized a board retreat so everyone could find a group consensus on where they wanted ACANSA to go moving forward and plan how that could be achieved. The group unanimously decided that year-round programming was the obvious next step for ACANSA.
“We came out of it with two main things,” Gaudin says. “One was we had 100 percent agreement that we wanted to be more of a year-round organization. We want to do more collaboration and more branding outside of the festival. What came out of that retreat was reshaping ACANSA from the ACANSA Arts Festival to ACANSA, a regional arts agency.”
It should come as no surprise that someone like Gaudin, with such an obvious love for the arts, would want to expand the cultural scene in central Arkansas by bolstering the arts institutions already in place and by fostering new connections. It’s also no surprise that Gaudin is heavily invested in not only the arts, but in raising the socioeconomic standing of central Arkansas, as well.
Gaudin explained that part of the reason he became involved with ACANSA was because of his fascination with something called the talent dividend, which is a quantifiable measurement of how well a city is doing based on the education level of the population. When a city has a higher number of college-educated people, the talent dividend within that community is higher, making it an all-around better place to live. By raising the talent dividend in central Arkansas by just one percent, it could lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in economic development.
One of the ways that central Arkansas can raise its talent dividend is by creating a place where talented individuals want to be and by creating opportunities for that talent.
“ACANSA became the third leg of the talent dividend, in my mind,” Gaudin says. “We have to offer a high level of artistic and cultural experiences to retain the talent in our community, or people would move elsewhere to access the types of things that ACANSA presents.”
“Those are some lofty and ambitious goals, but it truly speaks to our mission,” Hupp says. “If we can be even a part of helping keep young talent in central Arkansas and helping drive the economy in central Arkansas, I would be very happy with that.”
This Year’s Fest
• Hupp and Gaudin both said they can’t wait for Impro Theatre’s act at this year’s ACANSA Arts Festival. The Los Angeles-based improv group creates full-length improvised plays that are sure to keep the whole audience in fits of giggles. Showtimes: Sept. 22 & 23 / Time: 7 p.m. / Location: Argenta Community Theater / Tickets: $30 general admission, $15 student/military
• Hupp says Complexions Contemporary Ballet is another show he’s really looking forward to. “Complexions Contemporary Ballet is hugely sought after as one of the best contemporary dance groups in America these days.”
Showtime: Sept. 23 / Time: 8 p.m. / Location: Center for Performing Arts at UA Little Rock / Tickets: $35 general admission, $15 student/military
Inspired by the new direction ACANSA is heading in, Hupp, Gaudin and the advisory committee have worked to introduce new year-round programming, as well as bring in huge acts for the organization’s crown jewel, the ACANSA Arts Festival. The festival will be taking over Little Rock Sept. 20-24 for a week of world-class performances ranging from contemporary ballet and improv comedy to rip-roaring New Orleans jazz and serious “heavy” theatre. Created in the likeness of the hugely successful Spoleto Festival in Charleston, Hupp hopes to make ACANSA as much of an economic driver for Little Rock as Spoleto is for The Holy City.
“We have over 20 performances over a five-day period,” Hupp says, “some of which are ticketed, some of which are free. There really is a spectrum of experiences people can have. Ultimately, we want to expose people to new art and ideas and to have people come together as a community for a shared experience.”
A few of the highlights of this year’s festival include numerous events celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine desegregating Central High School, a performance by Complexions Contemporary Ballet, a comedy show from Impro Theatre out of Los Angeles and lively music from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band coming up from New Orleans to play at the Innovation Hub.
Even with such top-notch talent coming to this year’s festival, Hupp and Gaudin wanted to make ACANSA more affordable for everyone’s wallet. For the first time, ACANSA is letting audience members under 17 attend the festival for free. Additionally, the top-tier gold pass prices have been slashed by more than 40 percent, making them $200.
“We’ve instituted a program called the Curtain Up Initiative, which we’re raising money specifically for so we can give away tickets to members of underserved communities,” Hupp says. “Our tickets are affordable — they range from $20-45 — but we also understand that any price is a barrier to certain members of our community wanting to experience ACANSA, and we don’t want that to exist.”
When it comes to the future of ACANSA, Hupp’s goals are two-fold. First and foremost, he wants to continue to put on a quality arts festival once a year with the hopes that it will grow to rival Spoleto in coming years. Secondly, he’d like to see the ACANSA organization grow by introducing new programming and forging new partnerships.
Hupp and Gaudin have already made great strides in that arena. In the likeness of Tales of the South, a wildly popular series of shows held in Argenta and broadcast on NPR, Gaudin revived and reintroduced a new Southern storytelling event titled Potluck and Poison Ivy. The monthly event has been so successful that it’s already sold out for the remainder of the year.
Partnering with The Oxford American magazine, ACANSA has also helped launch the Jeff Baskin Writers Fellowship, which is a $10,000 prize, placing it in the top tier of writers fellowships in the country. ACANSA also announced a partnership between Hilary Trudell, founder of The Yarn storytelling and director of local programming at the Clinton School of Public Service, for the 10-Minute Play Showcase slated for March 2018.
By 2018, Gaudin aims to have ACANSA programmed well into the next year, which he hopes will make the festival more sustainable in the long run. With so much change bubbling thanks to this new mission, ACANSA is prepping central Arkansas to be the next big cultural destination in the South.
“We’re going to keep doing new programming year-round,” Hupp says. “We’re going to foster connections. And we’re going to keep presenting stuff that showcases the incredible talent that we have here that makes it such a special place.”
The third annual ACANSA Arts Festival takes place Sept. 20-24. | Tickets + Info: ACANSA.org