Earlier this summer Jennifer Dobbs Hill was named as the new executive director of ArtsBridge — the local Atlanta nonprofit that provides arts education and programming to students all throughout the metro Atlanta region. Dobbs Hill has a long history of fundraising and arts administration — most recently she was the executive director of the Alonzo F. and Norris B. Herndon Foundation in Atlanta. Prior to that, Dobbs Hill was the director of development for the Center for Ethics at Emory University, where she raised funds for an inaugural international summit.
ArtsATL took a moment to catch up with Dobbs Hill in advance of their upcoming 10th anniversary Gala, which will take place at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre on the 21st of this month. We discussed their programs — including the lauded Shuler Hensley Awards — as well as the importance of arts education for students in the area. Below is a portion of that conversation.
ArtsATL: ArtsBridge already has a pretty wide footprint in the state of Georgia. It has been reported that the organization has successfully worked with over 300,000 students from 57 Georgia counties, in addition to students from surrounding states. As you get acclimated to your position, what kind of goals are you developing to reach out to even more students?
Jennifer Dobbs Hill: Obviously our goal is to reach even more students. But that goal goes hand-in-hand with many other things. We need more money to do more outreach to more teachers and students. Anything we do, we need to look deeply at the practices of similar organizations and institutions with similar programs to make sure we are being effective. In addition to those efforts, we also need to conduct surveys with the schools we currently work with to review our process. We want to be sure that we’re catering to our constituents the best way we can. Nothing we do is on a whim; it’s with a keen eye towards satisfying their needs.
With that said, we’ve greatly increased the number of students we serve. We served nearly 47K last year. We’ve surpassed the numbers we originally had in our strategic plan. That’s in thanks to our small but phenomenally dedicated team. We’ve got a great problem — we’re growing exponentially. It’s time to get the word out to the community about how well we’re doing.
ArtsATL: When it was first announced you were hired, you mentioned your interest in developing new partnerships with other organizations around the city. Can you tell me a little bit more about what you have in development?
Dobbs Hill: We have partnerships with The Atlanta Ballet, the Atlanta Opera, the Alliance Theatre, KSU College of the Arts, Mayor’s Department of Cultural Affairs and the arts coordinators throughout the state. Those types of partnerships have served us really well. Also with Walton Communities and Boys and Girls Club. We’re trying to continue those.
One thing I’ve learned is that we need to continue our work breaking down barriers. We happen to be located in Atlanta, and we serve the entire metro region. We want partnerships with as many organizations and foundations and corporations as possible. We’re not confined by topography or geography; everyone is welcome.
No child should be held back from participating because of their lack of ability to pay. You know the old saying “It takes a village to raise a child”? We put that saying to work: It takes all of metro Atlanta to help ensure that our goal of creating the future through arts education is met. Arts education is greatly lacking. But the arts affects everything we do and everyone. You need creative ingenuity in any position — a writer, an attorney, a CEO, a surgeon. We want any and all types of partners to work with us because we take our mission so seriously. We see the impact it has on these kids. It touches our hearts and makes us want to work harder.
ArtsATL: One of the programs ArtsBridge is most known for is the High School Musical Award show, the Shuler Hensley Awards. How do you look to continue to grow that program, and how does its success inform your thinking as you develop other programs and look for new partners?
Dobbs Hill: The program is absolutely phenomenal. It’s one-of-a-kind in Georgia. This year tickets were sold out in an hour and a half. We can only accept 75 schools and had 60 apply in less than an hour. These are good problems to have.
People don’t really understand what the show is and how impactful it can be on the students who participate. When people do come, they are astounded beyond belief. It’s a mini-Tony Awards! We’ve got red carpets and stellar performances. And afterward, two students get to go on to New York to compete nationally. We’re so glad to be able to provide actual outlets.
What I hope is that we have more people who help fund this. I would really love if someone would endow the program so that it can go on in perpetuity. It’s one of those programs that highlight the tremendous talent that exists in our high schools. Anyone, foundation, corporation, individual, to fund that so it can continue to become even greater.
ArtsATL: You’ve got an extensive history in development and fundraising in Atlanta and elsewhere. What do you think [is] the biggest problem Atlanta faces in arts education? How is ArtsBridge uniquely positioned to help bridge that gap?
Dobbs Hill: Fundraising in the arts is one of the most difficult fields to raise money in. People automatically understand the value of education. Even though everyone is impacted by the arts daily, its importance can be difficult to communicate.
If we were somehow unable to raise funds to help fund bus trips, tickets to our shows — our future geniuses and leaders will not get the exposure they need to fulfill the destiny awaiting them. We have a lot of committed donors who give to us generously every year because they understand the impact we have on the next generation.
I want to help nurture our current relationships as well as bring others into the fold. They are investing in lives.
ArtsATL: Could you articulate why, to you, arts education is so necessary?
Dobbs Hill: The whole earth, the whole world as we know it, in my opinion, is built from arts and education. Culture is essential to every human being’s soul. There is no sense of belonging without it. This is my opinion, but education is the great equalizer as art is the great equalizer. I cannot think of too many other things that socioeconomics, color, size and weight don’t matter within. It doesn’t matter if you come from a family that has nothing. If you have a natural intelligence or skill, or some fantastic talent — you can make it. Anyone who says these things aren’t important, I have to heartily disagree.
Art saved my life. They offered me a positive outlet and diversion. They taught me that instead of taking I could give. I know that feeling of walking into a building that seemed out of reach and being mesmerized by the opportunity to belong in such a space, to perform in such a space. It is up to us not to limit their hopes and dreams. It’s such an important outlet for them to positively impact the world and community around them.