April 16, 2006- After Rhoda Tillett, founder of the Arts Alive concerts and shows, died three years ago, some worried that her tradition would not carry on.
Not to worry: Tillett Garden's Arts Alive is now going into its 26th year. The events are an integral part of the arts community. The peaceful garden — ringed with palm trees, a huge sheltering genip tree, a frothing fountain, resident iguanas, a restaurant, Pistarckle theater and the craft shops — is a showplace for the arts. It's a natural for music, food and camaraderie.
Tillett almost single-handedly engineered culture in the gardens. She was the mover and shaker behind the evolution of Tillett Gardens as the territory's first and most enduring arts and crafts center, and the founder of the Arts Alive Festivals, Classics in the Garden concerts and annual classical music competition events. It's common knowledge that Arts Alive worked because Rhoda Tillett worked.
"It was a one-woman act," says Ruth Prager, the new executive director of the Tillett Foundation, the presenting entity of The Tillett Foundation. "It was her love, her joy." Prager, a potter, has been in the director's chair for about a year and a half. She runs the Kazooti Clay Studio in the garden compound. She says the name derives from the '50s TV marionette show, "Rootie Kazootie." [Prager spells Kazooti without an "e."] She explains with a laugh: "My friends were always calling me Kazootie, Rootie Kazootie."
Prager is a very youthful 40-something. She has big brown eyes, short reddish-brown hair and a cheerful and outgoing manner. She smiles a lot. She frowns, however, when describing her first months in her new post. "Eric asked me to run the organization, and it's a lot of work. I've never been the executive director of anything."
Eric Tillett is Rhoda's son. He lives with his wife in North Carolina. In a 2003 Source interview shortly after his mother's death, Tillett said Arts Alive would "stay and expand." Tillett and his wife, Kellie Falk-Tillett, are members of the Arts Alive board (See "Longtime Arts Patron Rhoda Tillett is Dead").
Prager formerly worked as a corporate database manager before moving to the island about four years ago to join her boyfriend and to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a professional potter.
She opened the Kazooti Ceramics studio in the back of the Tillett compound, a studio which is now, in fact, her corporate office. Among the ceramic supplies, sit her laptop and her printer. We sit at her "desk," a potting table covered with a green towel, which is not to say Prager isn't organized.
Organization is the key to how she has set up the current board activities. Though Prager has been on island a relatively short time, she has, perhaps intuitively, tapped the heart of the island's talent pool, and deftly organized committees.
Musician and longtime community figure Lawrence Benjamin is board chair and head of the programming committee. "He pulled it out of the fire," she says. "The first year, he was like my life preserver."
Most important, Prager says, "We got Charlie Shain on the board as a consultant." She says, "Charlie's is the voice of knowledge with his background as consultant for not-for-profits. He did a killer job. He was the one thing that turned the board. He gave us incredible pointers, and it made all the difference. The board listened and followed through. Everyone did what he said."
"We don't have an endowment," Prager said. "We get an $8,000 grant from the V.I. Council on the Arts," she says. "And last year I wrote for and received grants from the Mid-Atlantic Foundation and the Pennsylvania Organization for the Performing Arts. I don't know if we will get those this year."
The concerts don't break even by a long shot. Prager says, "They cost upward of $10,000, and we sell 200 seats at $30!" She lauds the organization's donors. "Without our donors, this would have been our last season. "We lost some of those after Rhoda died," she says, "but, we are working to get them back."
Funding is always the immediate challenge. Prager said one of her personal challenges is asking for that money in person. "I find it difficult. I have to think of what is the worst thing that could happen? They could say 'No.'" On the brighter side, she says, "People in the community keep telling me we are doing a good thing. People come up to me, and say to keep doing this."
She says they need corporate sponsors, as well as private donors. "We need sponsors to buy tickets for students, for children to come to the concerts," she says. "They present forms of music the youngsters haven't heard before, that they need to be exposed to."
Costs for the concerts, aside from paying the artists, include air fare, hotel accommodations, advertising, programs, food and transportation. "Two hotels – Frenchman's Reef and the Holiday Inn – have been very supportive," Prager says.
"Wein Dimetros, general manager of the Holiday Inn, told me a story," she says, smiling. "She said when friends ask her what she does to hear good music on the island, she tells them she goes to the world-class Arts Alive concerts."
Dimitros knows whereof she speaks. The next Arts Alive concert season, starting in November with five performances by internationally recognized stars, includes: St. Thomas-born concert violinist Patmore Lewis, who performs regularly with the New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; blind jazz pianist and music educator Valerie Capers; and the world-famous Amadeus String Quartet.
This year's Arts Alive Springtime Arts, Crafts and Music Festival will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., on Saturday, May 6 and Sunday, May 7 (See "Arts Alive Has Spring Arts, Crafts and Music Festival").
Prager is excited about the event's music. She says, "Davis Murray put all the artists together, and they are doing it for free." The music will run throughout the two-day event.
Just some of the performers include: Barefoot Davis with Moran the Steel Pan Rael and Kris Woodrum; Lightnin' Phil Robinson; Jason Jones; Harmony Dem' with Polly and Fred Watts; Janet Reiter with Dawn Dobson; Guitar Scotty; and Danny Silber and the Smoking Section.
Thinking over her new responsibilities and looking forward to the upcoming festival, Prager, who never met Rhoda Tillett, says," People have told me we would have liked each other." That would seem a safe bet.
Budsan is a fan of Prager's. "She has done such a good job," he says. "It's hard, but to see the people leaving the concerts, it's worth it. They look so refreshed when they leave. It centers them."
He adds, "I just wish we had more corporate sponsors. We are really in need of them."
Prager can be contacted at 776-8566.
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