Introducing the CEO of Charlotte’s Blumenthal Performing Arts
WORDS BY EMILY TRACE | SAN FRANCISCO | VISUAL ARTS
MAR 21, 2023 | ISSUE 3
Tom Gabbard by Jeremy Lewis
Tom Gabbard is no stranger to theatre: as CEO of Blumenthal Performing Arts, he presents the largest annual season of Broadway productions in Charlotte, along with works by 16 local theatre companies across six different venues. But what about Blumenthal’s co-production of the uniquely immersive, cutting-edge engagement offered by the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit?
According to Gabbard, IVG Charlotte “represents a next step in how we approach the theatre. It gets audiences up out of their seats, from having a passive experience to a much more active one.” Combining European-style digital art, a historic venue seemingly tailor-made for both Charlotte and Van Gogh, and a comfortable way to return to the arts after COVID, “it feels like a next chapter for those of us who work in the theatre business.
For Blumenthal specifically, partnering with Lighthouse Immersive to bring IVG to Charlotte fulfills an ongoing commitment to attract global talent while also honouring local culture. “It’s about blending big, bold international ideas with wonderful, exciting ideas from our local artists, and interweaving them in a really meaningful way. Sometimes that convergence of international and local can be problematic, because it isn’t done respectfully or authentically. But I think we’ve learned to really embrace both.”
In this vein, IVG is modelled on Blumenthal’s three-year presentation of the London hip hop festival Breakin’ Convention in Charlotte, which they proudly dubbed “the best from around the world and around the corner.” “With Immersive Van Gogh,” Gabbard said, “we’re finding exactly the same thing.”
Gabbard added, “I know of no other city where an organization like ours has such a huge presence in the regional community. With that comes a lot of responsibility, but also a lot of opportunity, since our being enablers is really going to make a difference for some of these artists. We can shine a very bright light on them and make the public aware of what they do and why it matters.”
In this season’s production of Immersive Van Gogh, international collaboration and innovative audience engagement both stem from IVG’s unique European style of digital art, which has now been featured in cities across the US, Canada, and abroad. Gabbard himself, however, had already been a fan of the exhibit long before IVG Charlotte was ever dreamed of. Gabbard spoke warmly of Lighthouse Immersive co-founder Corey Ross’s initial pitch: “Corey called me and began to describe the show’s success in Toronto and its style. But I said, ‘Corey, you don’t have to explain that to me!’ I pulled up my iPad, because my screensaver was a picture from the Atelier des Lumières in Paris, which I’d already visited several times. I said to Corey, ‘I’m already a fan!’”
Before IVG Charlotte, Gabbard had worked with Ross and his team on numerous theatrical shows. “To expand that team, adding Svetlana and others,” Gabbard said, “has been a real joy. We’re thankful we’re dealing with partners who have good taste. It’s important for us as tastemakers here in Charlotte to bring high-quality productions here. So we have to have partners whose taste we trust, and I do very much trust Corey and Svetlana and the creative team they’ve engaged.”
Gabbard also stressed his appreciation for Lighthouse Immersive’s willingness to help him make the production, in his words, “Charlotte’s own.” His comments were aimed at IVG’s installation in Camp North End’s historic Ford Building, a 1924 Ford assembly plant that is now surrounded by art galleries, boutique shops, and local eateries. Aside from housing a heaping slice of American and Charlottean history, the unique venue also bears a special connection to some of van Gogh’s most memorable subject matter, representing the 20th-century equivalent of the working-class farmers and craftspeople the artist frequently painted. “They toiled in the fields, they got their hands dirty,” Gabbard explained. “And the building we’re in in Charlotte is exactly that.”
As Immersive Van Gogh continues to expand into new markets, Gabbard’s comments made clear that the show’s ultimate value stems as much from its thoughtful situation in different local environments as it does from the core artwork. “At the heart of it is this beautiful digital art that Massimiliano has put together. But then how it’s implemented and what it’s surrounded by are totally unique in each city, and uniquely reflective of that city. At a certain point in time, fans will find it well worth the trip to visit these various sites and compare and contrast them.”
Gabbard described IVG’s implementation in Charlotte as creating a sense of discovery for ticket-holders. “Most people who have bought tickets have never been out to this site. It’s literally only a mile and a half from our Blumenthal theatres in downtown, so it’s really close by, and yet people haven’t been there. So, this whole experience is an opportunity for us to tell a story of discovery. When you buy a ticket to Immersive Van Gogh Charlotte, you’re going to discover what for many will be their first experience with this European-style digital art. And you’re going to discover some things about Van Gogh. But you’re also going to discover this incredible industrial site that’s just now beginning to be revitalized.”
Finally, it’s worth asking where something like IVG Charlotte lands coming out of COVID. On this point, Gabbard was proud to note, “It lands perfectly.” At a time when performing arts organizations like Blumenthal are concerned about whether people will be comfortable getting back to shoulder-to-shoulder seating in large auditoriums, Immersive Van Gogh’s more open, spacious layout offers a kind of middle ground on the way to more conventional theatrical productions. More importantly, IVG’s pivotal role in many patrons’ personal narratives of returning to the arts cannot be overstated. Reflecting on this aspect of the experience, Gabbard observes that, “for many people, this is their first time coming back to a public event. I have literally seen people tear up over that. Not just ticket-buyers, but also some of our staff, who have been without this kind of work for a year and a half and are back for the first time. They’re tearing up, because they’ve missed it so much.”