I recently caught up with Sherry Jenkins who, in October, became the latest Executive Director of Dogwood Arts. Mention Dogwood Arts to most people around the city and they would acknowledge it as an important part of how we introduce ourselves to the world as a city. After a New York Reporter, John Gunther, wrote, “Knoxville is the ugliest city I ever saw in America . . .” in 1947, our Knoxville Garden Club began organizing to counter the criticisms, launching the first Dogwood Trail and the first version of our Dogwood Arts Festival in 1961.
Fast forward a number of years and, as Ms. Jenkins assumes oversight of her first round of annual events, Dogwood Arts celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the House and Garden Show and, soon, the tenth anniversary of the Chalk Walk, one of my favorite downtown events. That’s a lot of tradition to step into, but she’s been preparing for this for a long time – even if she didn’t quite know it.
She’s originally from northwest Knox County where her family moved six months before she was born. Her mother still lives in that area and Sherry attended Ball Camp Elementary, Karns Middle and High, before moving to Tennessee Wesleyan University She later graduated from UTK with a BFA in Graphic Design.
She worked for a range of companies doing design work of various sorts: Plastiline, Image Point, Bacon and Company, Midsouth Signs, eventually settling into NSA where she worked for eighteen years. During that span, the company went from a small start-up to a national presence and she rose from graphic design work to become VP of Operations. Through every stop, her sense of design and its importance expanded.
During that time, however, she began her involvement in volunteer causes. She began her involvement with Dogwood Arts as a volunteer and donated many hours of free design work for over fifteen years to the Susan G. Koman Organization of East Tennessee. With Dogwood Arts, she helped in numerous capacities and worked on the Festival itself for years. Eventually she became a board member and served for four years. She was on the board as the search began for the current director.
She didn’t consider it at first, feeling she had, “my place built,” and she started thinking of how to help the staff through the transition. She says she had always been a preferred to be, “more of a behind the scenes organizer.” But then, with the encouragement of others, she began thinking, “I could do that.” Considering her strength to be “developing relationships,” she feels that will be a tremendous asset to the organization as they work with other groups and sponsors.
So, she applied and won the position, starting work officially in October. She says now it feels like a natural next step: She was raised creating things, had the fine arts degree, the organization piece was there, she’d volunteered. Add to all that the passion she felt along with the, “complete understanding of the finances” from her time on the board, and she was ready to hit the ground running – which was good, because the headiest time of the year for the organization was not far away.
While she spends much of her time building relationships, she says that, “events are my wheelhouse.” She loves the predictability the organization has in one respect: there is a calendar and that calendar dictates that certain events happen on particular days. Very few surprises. She says, “I see more opportunity than I did. We’ve been very successful, but I see some ways to become more efficient, which will allow us to spend more time on creativity and connecting.”
She takes seriously the creativity aspect because, “We are creating what the organization will be that others will carry through in the future. I want us to be better than we are. The staff has ideas and we’ve clicked as a team. We’re doing analysis of each event to replicated what works and change what doesn’t.”
She’s excited to be stepping into an organization that has no debt and is a vibrant part of the city. She talked about each member of the staff and how much they contribute in their various ways from the work with trails, to curating art and music, working with artists and social media.
“We’ll continue to do what we do well and look for ways to expand. I love the organization and . . . we are in great shape to do good things in this community.”
Get out and enjoy some of the activities and if you see Sherry, please thank her for taking the reins at an organization that has its very roots in making us look better both to ourselves and the rest of the world. Many of the differences that John Gunther would see were he able to return to Knoxville in 2018 are thanks to the efforts of the Dogwood Arts organization. They definitely deserve our support.
To listen to a live interview with Sherry Jenkings on Rocky Top Roundup, click here.