RALEIGH — The combination of “art” and “explosion” that makes the name of Raleigh’s annual art festival also aptly captures the scene in Artsplosure program director Terri Dollar’s office.
Piles of student art line every surface on the way in. A steel grid covered in colored metal shapes is a leftover from a children’s art project. A pile of black instrument boxes awaits the Canadian band that will play them next weekend, while a stack of yellow tarps waits to be painted with a mural to cover the construction zone in one corner of Artsplosure’s space this year.
Dollar, 57, plans the annual festival, which runs Saturday and Sunday and is celebrating its 35th anniversary. She books the bands, helps choose the artists, recruits volunteers and tends to thousands of tiny details. She also runs the city’s annual First Night celebration each New Year’s Eve.
In some ways, the term Artsplosure also describes Dollar’s life. Outside of her job, she owns a talent agency, teaches theater to students with special needs, and serves on the boards of several arts organizations.
A former high school drama teacher, she has designed arts programs for several local schools. In her spare time, she’s taking in avant-garde performance art, making decoupage, or learning to play the ukulele.
In 16 years with Artsplosure, Dollar has sought to mix the familiar with the edgy, to engage people who love art and those who just want to enjoy a spring afternoon downtown. She never tires of the festival’s central concept: bringing art to the people.
“I love throwing all that art out there and seeing what it does to people’s lives,” she says. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Ann Smith, who helped start the First Night celebration 24 years ago and has co-chaired two major openings at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, says Dollar is her go-to person for any big project.
“There is no one who is any better at bringing people together, creating new ideas and enthusiasm,” Smith says. “She has the most creative brain and the ability to work with people from all walks of life.”
The perfect job
Dollar grew up in the small town of Polkville in Cleveland County, where she enjoyed performing from a young age. She remembers hanging sheets over a clothesline for puppet shows with her brother. She also performed in plays at her church.
“You would come off stage and everyone would be so excited,” she says. “And all week people would be telling you what a good job you did.”
Her mother also enjoyed Dollar’s moments in the limelight, taking her to all manner of auditions and talent shows. The family moved to Shelby when Dollar was 11, and she continued to act in school plays and other productions.
She studied theater and English at Appalachian State University and came to Raleigh as a student teacher. After that, she landed a job teaching drama and English at Broughton High School.
Not much later, however, her mother’s sudden death prompted her to shift her priorities to family. Already engaged, she married and had her two daughters in short order.
The family moved to Wilmington, and Dollar earned her master’s degree and continued acting while her girls were small. Over the years, she has played a murderer on Matlock and has been in commercials and training videos.
Both of her daughters are pursuing acting careers in New York. Caroline Dollar has landed several television roles, including a stint on the Guiding Light.
When Dollar and her family came back to Raleigh from Wilmington, she also returned to arts education, helping to develop the preschool arts curriculum at Arts Together and an after-school arts program at Magellan Charter School.
Her talent agency grew out of her experience guiding her daughters’ acting careers; it has more than 300 clients.
When one of her daughters got a partial scholarship to Boston University, Dollar started looking for a full-time job to help fund the rest of the tuition. The job at Artsplosure, a nonprofit that receives about a third of its funding from the city, was a perfect fit.
“I can honestly tell you I was born to this job,” Dollar says. “I never would have imagined there was a job out there that uses 100 percent of my skill set – writing, drama, love of the arts. It uses everything I’ve got.”
Balancing different tastes
While the work is most intense before and during the events she runs, Dollar is constantly seeking fresh ideas, recruiting artists and volunteers, eyeing events and public art projects in other cities.
This year, she found a group from Asheville that will produce an interactive music exhibit at City Plaza while serving on a committee to choose artists to do a piece for the International Bluegrass Music Awards.
A documentary she saw about back-up singers inspired her to plan an acoustic set in the Longview Center in which several musicians who are playing with other bands on the main stage perform their own songs.
In both music and visual art, she strives to bring in new and upcoming artists that her audience may not have heard before, but will enjoy.
“I have to really have a strong finger on the pulse of what our audience likes,” she says.
Raleigh’s reputation as a creative mecca has grown considerably since Dollar took over Artsplosure, and balancing the tastes of today’s younger downtown residents with longtime Arsplosure fans is a particular challenge.
Sometimes she has a hard time keeping up with the expectations she sets. Putting a Ferris wheel on Fayetteville Street for First Night, for instance, took months of persistent phone calls and a lot of set-up headaches. It was so popular, though, that she had to keep bringing it back.
She says if Artsplosure is a marathon, First Night is an exhausting sprint – one she completed this year after having her appendix out on Christmas Eve.
Last-minute glitches and difficult situations – such as holding First Night when Fayetteville Street was a demolition zone – require a lot of creative solutions. After a long day during each event, she’ll he’ll find herself making the motions of answering her cell phone in her sleep.
The colorful stories from these events are endless, and she relishes telling them. Her favorites tend to involve the unexpected ways in which the art touches all kinds of people.
“You have someone with an MFA in music, standing by a millionaire, standing by a homeless man, and a little boy who plays in his school band,” she says. “And they’re all enjoying it at their own level. That’s when I get goose bumps. There’s nothing more rewarding that that.”
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