The Baton Rouge Blues Foundation is entering a new chapter.
The organization last month announced it had created an executive director position and that it had hired Kim Neustrom, a Lafayette native whose professional life has been spent working with nonprofits and culture-focused music festivals, to fill the role.
Also, at the end of October, Clarke Gernon Jr., the foundation's board of directors president for three years, ended his tenure. Philip Smith Jr., the former board vice president, has replaced him.
"After nine years on the board," Gernon said, "we felt it was a good idea to shuffle the deck on the executive leadership to bring in some new energy as well as giving me time to focus on other professional and personal opportunities. So at the end of my three-year term as president, I decided to step back. Phil as president and Kim as the new executive director are going to take the foundation to a new place in part because they have such deep knowledge of the nonprofit world."
Neustrom was part of Lafayette's Festival International board of directors from 2006 to 2012 and served two terms as chairwoman. She has also worked as the marketing director for Acadiana's KRVS Public Media, account executive at advertising agency BBR Creative and has held positions with Celtic Bayou Festival and Habitat for Humanity.
Among other events year-round, the Blues Foundation sponsors the annual Baton Rouge Blues Festival, which will hold its 25th event April 13-14 in downtown Baton Rouge. The lineup will be announced in January. More information about the foundation can be found at brbluesfoundation.org.
We recently spoke with Neustrom about the foundation's new executive director position, developing that role and her hopes for spreading the history of Baton Rouge blues. An edited transcript of that interview follows.
As the first executive director, how do you hope to define the position? What is your goal in the role?
My goal is to build off the successes that have happened at both the foundation level and the festival level. The festival has now evolved into something that, to me, runs very seamlessly. They have a great crew and support team that helps execute the festival itself. So for year one, it would be to immerse myself in all of the history and expertise that comes before me and, hand in hand with the board of directors, figure out what it is the foundation wants to do to further the mission of promoting and preserving the blues culture and musicians in this area.
One of the main functions of the foundation's effort is to really invest in an educational component, to look down the road, to work with these young musicians that are up and coming. How do we engage them and the blues? How do we introduce them to these mature blues musicians who surround them and impact them — to have an interest in that genre and pursue that for the future? Because everyone wants to see down the road that this thing, the blues tradition, continues.
Right now, I think there's a lot of mature musicians and we just want to make sure that we're educating the next generation. Whether that's doing master classes with younger kids, or interacting and interfacing with the school system to provide some sort of educational component on the blues,bringing musicians in and bringing instruments in.
So, year one: immerse yourself. What about year two? Are there long-term goals you’d like to talk about?
This is so very new from everyone's aspect, you know. There's no physical office right now — the office is wherever I'm sitting. We also have a few new board members coming on. And we'll be doing a board retreat on Nov. 10, which is very timely. We will have an opportunity to look at our past strategic plan; it's time to be updated. And so we’re really seeing collaboratively what the goals are for the foundation and how we also support the growth of the festival.
The festival has grown exponentially over the current and past leadership, from a one-day festival to a two-day festival to increasing the festival footprint, more stages, more attendees. I guess I'm reticent to go into year two. I feel that I have so much to get up to speed on and align myself with the goals and intentions of the foundation board and then engaging the other efforts that we have — from educational to supporting the festival structure to the gala that we recently had. I think that always a priority for an organization like this is growing donors support, growing donor loyalty, grant potential, and I think there's a lot of opportunity for that in this area.
What are your thoughts on how to grow recognition of the blues history here in Baton Rouge?
There's a segment of the population that has a deep and rich appreciation for it, like Clarke (Gernon). And I again, I think that through this, the festival’s growth specifically — that has reflected an interest in the blues scene. Then it's our job to follow up with year-round opportunities, through education and other types of engagement, to continue that appreciation and knowledge.
Our board of directors is a great cross section of people who are experts in blues, whether they're musicians themselves, whether they teach music, and we have a good cross section with professionals in the community. And so I think that drawing upon the expertise that exists and figuring out how we push forward through the festival, we continue to do that. And then, again, through these other opportunities for education or collaborative efforts, maybe with local arts councils, other performing arts organizations, collaborating with them on tapping into their audience and sort of using that as an opportunity to further the promotion and education of what is an extremely rich blues scene in the Baton Rouge area.
What can the Blues Foundation do to spread that message outside of Baton Rouge?
I think that that has a lot to do with — for example, someone reached out to me from the Center for Louisiana Studies, which is located in UL Lafayette. And he said, “Look, we have all these great field recordings from south Baton Rouge blues musicians” — we should somehow partner with them. Or, you know, I met with someone this morning in New Orleans, just to tap into their blues scene. So I think we can try and go at it collaboratively and let them know, “This is what we have here, so drive an hour this way or drive 45 minutes that way.” Or say “Hey, Atlanta,” “Hey, Birmingham,” “Hey, Houston, this is something to travel to see and experience.”
I think it's incumbent upon us to educate others versus putting the onus on them to, just in their spare time, formulate a higher appreciation for the blues. As a foundation, that's part of our mission — putting it before them. So to think about not only collaborating locally but also regionally and nationally with other arts organizations to tap into the blues and making sure that we're on all their radars. That will help us grow and our exposure as a foundation, which ultimately will hopefully impact attendance at the annual festival, which is more of a tangible for people to come and attend.