Arts of the Pamlico makes leadership change

Published 7:56 pm Monday, June 27, 2016

Since 2007, Joey Toler has been the face of the arts in Beaufort County, as executive director of Arts of the Pamlico. His many roles as grant writer, passionate arts advocate, organizer of countless exhibit openings and emcee of theater performances come to a close this week, as Arts of the Pamlico welcomes new executive director Debra Torrence to the leadership role.

The transition from old guard to new has taken place over the last month. Toler’s last day on the job is Thursday, then he’ll be taking a new job in Wilmington, also in the arts, as sponsorship coordinator of the Cucalorus Film Festival.

Just as Toler is taking a new direction, under Torrence’s leadership, the arts council will be as well — shifting focus to create local, state and national partnerships, expanding services, as well as arts and cultural programming, and drawing on the community’s thoughts and ideas to establish an arts center in which people have both a sense of pride and ownership.

“(It’s) building on the foundation that Joey and the board members have put in place,” Torrence said.

Toler reflected Monday on some of the changes the arts council has seen over his tenure, not the least of which was a physical move down West Main Street to the Turnage Theatre, the early 19th-century theater that AOP purchased in 2013.

“Well, it certainly is not the same arts council it was when I came on,” Toler laughed. “The move to the Turnage changed the way we did business significantly and now it is time to go to the next level. … Debra brings a whole different set of talents to the table that I think will help push us to that level.”

Torrence has a solid background in nonprofits — more specifically, in seeking out resources and generating funding for them. For the last eight years, the Bath resident has served as both director of North Carolina Institute for Child Development Professionals, as well as fund developer of the national nonprofit T.E.A.C.H.

“I’ve worked for 20 years finding leverage and resources. I’ve always had to sing for my supper,” Torrence laughed.

Taking on Arts of the Pamlico and its Turnage home presents a new set of challenges, not the least of which is paying off the theater’s mortgage and finding money to support the organization without jeopardizing the arts council’s mission.

“We’ve got to increase some revenue streams,” Torrence said. “And we’ve got to look outside the county to get those — go beyond the borders.”

Money is a priority for the organization, but it’s not the only one. Rather, Torrence is exploring ways to expand: children’s programming, rentals, use of the old vaudeville theater upstairs, art classes, the volunteer base, the size of the gift shop — every aspect of the organization is being discussed in terms of expansion.

The end goal is an arts organization and theater with many uses, from meetings to performances, but where all are welcome to do something as simple as grab a soda, sit on a bench amongst the art and take advantage of the free Wi-Fi, she said. To create that place, she’ll be asking for community participation.

“We need community input. We need input from the people we serve,” Toler said. “I read this once and I’ve come back to it a lot lately: ‘When you do something for your community instead of with the community, you’re not really doing anything for your community.’”

“What do you think (Arts of the Pamlico/Turnage Theatre) is? What do you think it could be? How do you think we could work together?” The communication lines are open,” Torrence said.

“There are lots of big questions,” Toler said.

“And we’re hoping the community will help us answer them. I’m a big believer in putting the questions out there,” Torrence said.

The two have been working together to find the future path for the arts council, the theater and its services. As for the past, Toler is happy with many of the programs he helped nurture and grow: getting BCTMA (Beaufort County Traditional Music Association) on its feet; BoCO music festival; helping the Pamlico Writers Group get their first conference off the ground. But it’s time to move forward, for both him and the arts council, he said.

“Now, we’ve just got to get the community to see what a valuable resource this is,” Toler said.