Hidden Jewels: A Passion for the Arts Benefits the Entire Community

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You know that old earring that’s rolling around in your jewelry box? You misplaced its companion a while back, but you just can’t bring yourself to throw it out. Maybe your jewelry box is also home to a broken necklace or an old brooch that never gets to go out anymore.

Kathleen O’Brien likes to salvage those jewelry box misfits. She uses them to create new pieces of jewelry, a process that gives the original gem a “new purpose or perspective.” Three years ago, she began donating pieces to a silent auction held annually to support the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC).

In her artist’s statement about the jewelry she calls Shimoka Plum (a name inspired by a family friend from Japan), O’Brien writes, “That original gem is the inspiration for a new design. This creative process is exactly what the arts can do for the human experience. A jewel exists within every child and adult. Building on memories and traditions, the arts unfold hidden treasures, bring them to light, and take us in new directions.”

O’Brien’s passion for the arts — and more specifically, her passion for TPAC’s mission to “provide a lifetime of meaningful and relevant experiences in the performing arts” — is apparent in her statement about her jewelry. But Kathleen O’Brien is more than just a concerned Tennessee artist contributing to an organization in which she believes. She’s also TPAC’s President and CEO. And that statement that accompanies every piece of Shimoka Plum jewelry says a lot about who she is.

“Kathleen firmly believes that the arts are vital to education,” says Lori Ward, TPAC’s Vice President of Communications. “And when you have that kind of passion and belief in what you’re doing, it makes you an even better leader.”

O’Brien, who joined the TPAC staff 23 years ago, says she’s been passionate about the arts for as long as she can remember. Born and raised in Maine, the she attended many professional performances at a famous summer theater called Lakewood. “I can vividly remember seeing Oliver! and My Fair Lady,” O’Brien says. “I’m not sure which one I saw first, but I was completely moved by both of them.”

When she was 14, her family moved to Miami because her father “got tired of shoveling snow.” O’Brien attended two years of college there before getting married and moving to Bristol, Virginia. She finished her degree at Bristol’s Virginia Intermont College, where she majored in journalism, and subsequently took a job at the college as the Director of Public Relations. She made several trips to visit her grandmother in Nashville, and she fell in love with the city. In the meantime, she divorced, and after about four years of working for Intermont, she decided she was ready for a change.

“There wasn’t anything compelling me to stay, and for career advancement, I felt like I needed to move to a larger market,” O’Brien says.

So, as luck would have it, she met Nancy Jones, then-Tennessee Film Commissioner, at a Virginia Intermont alumni reception (an alumnus was producing a movie in Tennessee). “I asked about job openings, and she told me to come see her,” O’Brien says. “I did, but I got lost along the way and ended up in the Tennessee Arts Commission. I asked them if they knew of any positions, and they said they thought one was available in the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.”

In 1988, she joined TPAC as Director of Public Affairs. Gradually, she climbed the ladder, assuming her role as President and CEO in 2005. Today, she’s proud to oversee a private, non-profit corporation that employs 86 full-time people and raises between $1.4 and $1.5 million each year to bring performances to Nashville and provide various educational programs to students across the state.

“I love what we do,” O’Brien says. “I love that we can transform lives by someone coming to a show and having it resonate with them in some fashion. I love the fact that we can provide educational opportunities for schoolchildren that they otherwise would not have.”

But O’Brien’s passion for her work isn’t the only thing that makes her a quality leader. In fact, Ward says, that’s just the icing on the cake. “She’s a sharp businesswoman; she’s smart, savvy and high energy,” says Ward, who has worked with O’Brien for 12 years. “She has the remarkable ability to keep a close eye on the bottom line and to make the hard decisions that come with being President and CEO of any company.”

There’s no doubt TPAC is lucky to have her, but according to O’Brien, she’s the lucky one.

“From the beginning, I felt positive and excited about being a part of TPAC — I just had to pinch myself almost every day,” says O’Brien. “But I never ever felt like I would have the opportunity that’s been afforded me, to oversee this organization and the amazing team we have. I’m really happy.”
 
Photo by Michael W. Bunch

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