There are plenty of places in the Triangle where you can catch shows by legendary musicians such as Lindsey Buckingham, Judy Collins and Suzanne Vega. But The ArtsCenter of Carrboro is a uniquely intimate showcase for these giants, all of whom perform in its 2012–13 season, lured with tenacity, finesse and delicious brownies by Tess Mangum Ocaña.
Even though the Earl and Rhoda Wynn Theater seats only 355 people, it has become a national touring destination under the decadelong stewardship of Ocaña, the 38-year-old concerts director and facility rental coordinator who was part of the team that rescued the ArtsCenter from a huge budget shortfall during the financial crisis of the late 2000s. If the pedigree of its upcoming musical offerings wasn't proof enough, the new JBL speakers hanging above the stage indicate the institution's restored stability.
Ocaña vividly remembers those perilous days when important grants vanished and membership declined. "The staff got together and sifted through every line of the budget," she recalls. "We were scrubbing the floors ourselves. We got lean and mean without sacrificing the quality of programming people had come to expect from the ArtsCenter's 37 years of serving the community. We're now operating in the black, enjoying a bright future under incredible love from the community and the new leadership of Art Menius [who took over as executive director in April]."
Ocaña brought to the job a background in many different aspects of the music industry—from management and booking to public relations—and an eclectic, heartfelt taste for American music. Upon securing the position, she inaugurated her own American Roots Series, which sweeps up everything from Cajun zydeco and American songwriting to the blues. This gave the ArtsCenter's musical offerings a stronger air of curatorial authority. In 2013, the series runs from January through May and features icons who could fill larger venues, including Mavis Staples and Dr. John.
Ocaña grasped that her venue's intimate size—a potential limitation—should rather be embraced as a mark of distinction. To further shrink the distance between audiences and performers while helping to ensure the ArtsCenter's ongoing solvency, Ocaña's new season features limited numbers of premium tickets for key performances—including Buckingham, Collins, Vega, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds and Los Lonely Boys—entitling patrons to attend backstage meet-and-greets or master classes with the artists.
"[Access] is one way we set ourselves apart," Ocaña says. "But of course, I watch with great admiration what our peer venues do. I feel lucky to live here with DPAC and the Cat's Cradle, because the ArtsCenter is able to straddle all of those worlds."
The admiration is mutual: Cat's Cradle regularly hosts shows in its neighboring venue, and DPAC General Manager Bob Klaus sings Ocaña's praises. When he started working for DPAC, Klaus remembers, "one of my first calls was to Tess because I was such a fan of the magic, the incredibly big artists, that she was bringing to the ArtsCenter. I wanted to know what her secret was, and it was simple: a passion for the music and for bringing great shows to Carrboro."
Ocaña is a seventh-generation North Carolinian from Locust, a small town in Stanly County. Her father was a songwriter who came from a country background and loved Western swing. Her mother was a jack-of-all-trades, from runway modeling to carpentry. Her grandmother, Kate Mangum—"86 years old, still kickin', still plays a mean chop rhythm"—gave guitar and vocal lessons to a young Randy Travis. In the '30s and '40s, when Kate Mangum was still a little girl, she toured North Carolina with her brothers, Carter Family-style, lured by promises of new baby dolls.
Music is clearly an important part of Ocaña's background. "As far as people sitting around on the weekends," she says, "pickin' and grinnin', I kind of thought everybody did that. It wasn't until I grew up that I realized, no, not everybody sits around and plays 'Cowboy Sweetheart' and yodels and talks about 1938 Gibson guitars." But she never wanted to be the person onstage, becoming more interested in making connections between musicians and listeners.
In the early '90s, she came to UNC and started working her way through the journalism school's public relations sequence, meanwhile landing a formative internship with famed Americana label Sugar Hill Records, which was then based in Durham. "Everyone treated me so well," she recalls. "Indie rock never spoke much to me, but rootsy stuff did, and I really respected how they had started from scratch and what [Sugar Hill founder] Barry Poss had done."
"I clearly remember when Tess showed up at Sugar Hill," Poss says. "She quickly understood the importance of learning about the business of music. These are all traits which have served her well in forging an incredibly successful career as an arts presenter."
After a stint of managing local bands and working for the now-defunct Durham label Alula, Ocaña moved to Ireland to study ethnomusicology at the University of Limerick. She returned to the Triangle in 2000 with a master's degree and a husband-to-be in tow. Mangum applied for the new music marketing position at the ArtsCenter, taking the burden from the executive director. Within 90 days, she was booking the shows as well.
"It's like getting married 50 or 60 times a year," Ocaña says of booking. "You find the girl of your dreams and she agrees to get hitched. There's a dowry of sorts, a contract, lots of planning and invitations, food and lodging to arrange. You wonder how many guests will show and if anyone will get wild and start dancing.Then the big day comes, and it's a whirlwind. There are parts you don't remember, and there are little flashes of moments you'll never forget."
Ocaña is thinking big for the future. "My longtime dream is Joni Mitchell having a week-long residency here," she said. "She rarely tours, but she's a painter, photographer and musician, so she could teach workshops in [all of those things]. Put that in, really! I've even written in my out-of-office auto-replies that I'm on vacation unless you're Joni Mitchell's agent saying she'd love to play here next month."
But Ocaña's enthusiasm isn't about proximity to stardom. What, then, drives her through the long hours of grant writing, agent cosseting and show running? "The looks on the audience's faces," she answers, without missing a beat.