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The Artsman: Tommy Usrey

By Melanie Moffett
In Bayou Icon
Jun 27th, 2016

article by Maré Brennan | photography by Brad Arender

Unless you’ve lived under a rock or never taken advantage of our region’s vibrant arts culture, you are sure to know this colorful man’s name. Tommy Usrey is as proud as a peacock of the Northeast Louisiana Arts Council, as well as the arts organizations and artists it represents – and he dresses the part, too. The day he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the State of Louisiana, Tommy was the lone blue and white seersucker suit paired with tan and white spectators with a bright orange tie in a sea of dark business suits. Talk about a statement. “Now this was something special,” he laughs. “Gaye Hamilton, the State of Louisiana’s Cultural Economy Initiative Program Manager said, ‘We can always count of Tommy to wear his bright colors.’”

And he loves his shoes. He found a new appreciation for his beloved bucks (white bucks are his fave), when he suffered from back and heel issues and had to find slip on mules to wear. With over 40 pairs, he gushes, “I’m a shoe freak – I love all kinds. Luckily, Melanie is a shoe person, too.”

Melanie is his true partner, in all things shoes and life. The couple has been married for the past 45 years, raising two sons and now loving their new roles as doting grandparents. Wiping a tear from his eye, Tommy adds, “She’s the reason. I give her the credit for encouraging me and letting me do what I have done. We have had an amazing partnership.”

The pair met during their freshman year at LSU, during the storied Freshman Frolic event where boys and girls lined up and were marched into the Coliseum for a mixer. Whoever you happened to land next to was your “date” for the evening. As luck would have it or perhaps by some creative dodging put in place by Usrey and his friend, Tommy wound up next to the pretty, little dark haired beauty named Melanie from South Louisiana. Usrey remembers vividly that Chad and Jeremy, a popular singing group, was the entertainment. Usrey had just pledged ATO and was studying history and Melanie was a pre-med zoology major. The two hit it off, and Tommy asked Melanie to come to his upcoming fraternity keg party. “Well, Melanie said she didn’t drink beer, so I asked what she would like. She said she drank Jack Daniels. Needless to say, we had a really good time. By Christmas we were dropped, and after initiation we were pinned in the spring. By our senior year, we were engaged, and I made my third trip into the University Lake,” laughs Tommy. “We were known as the ‘institutional couple’ around campus.”

Tommy says RUPAR, the Rural Underserved Presenters and Representatives, and its strength is one of his greatest accomplishments since being president and CEO of the Northeast Louisiana Arts Council. Usrey developed RUPAR and it has since become the largest presenting consortium in the state of Louisiana, connecting Ouachita with surrounding parishes to promote arts activities. He explains, “Someone may see an act in Caldwell Parish and decide to go see them again in another north Louisiana venue. RUPAR was based on the ‘teach a man to fish’ concept, so that an arts organization like Byerly House in Lake Providence could go out and find artists, negotiate a contract and present acts and exhibits that would be able to pull our region together.” When Usrey took over the Arts Council in 1994 from Dot Bassett, only Winnsboro’s Princess Theatre and Bastrop’s Rose Theatre and Snyder Museum were actively a part of RUPAR. We had to create an arts infrastructure from scratch.”

Looking at arts funding from a state perspective, Usrey says we need to always look at state funding as the icing on the cake. Arts organizations need to have strong revenue streams sourced from programming and creative fundraising. The Louisiana Decentralized Arts Fund Program (DAF), initiated in 1995, makes the arts available in every parish in the State of Louisiana by providing grant funding for artists, nonprofit organizations, community groups and local government agencies. Funding is allocated to each parish on a per capita basis utilizing U.S. census figures. It is based on population, not on any additional factors. The Louisiana Division of the Arts (LDOA) oversees the program, disbursing funds to each of nine Regional Development Agencies (RDA’s), including the Northeast Louisiana Arts Council, which in turn regrant those dollars to parishes in their region.

The Northeast Louisiana Arts Council (NLAC) does things a little differently than other councils across the state in that early on Tommy chose to invest in our local organizations to provide programming rather than become a presenting entity itself. In order to fund our area arts organizations, NLAC, under Tommy’s leadership knew fundraising would be key to keeping our arts community well-funded and not at the mercy of the state legislature. Signature events like the Blend of the Bayou with Men Who Cook and now the North Delta Food and Wine Festival are known for bringing more and more new people into the Arts Council fold.

One of Tommy’s most ardent volunteers for the Arts Council, Margaraet Lauve, recalled how Blend of the Bayou came to be, “I have known Tommy a long time. He is three years younger, but his sister and mine were dear friends.  Tommy called Jan Brockman and I in 1997 with the idea of Men Who Cook and wanted us to chair the event, which I still do and enjoy. It is work, but it’s always fun working with so many different people involved in creating such a great event. Many times Tommy has written Jan and I up in different magazine articles, always selflessly giving the credit to us and not mentioning all the work he does. He nominated me for the Arts Council’s Mary Lee Milam Service to the Arts Award last year, which I received. His speech gave me all the credit, none for himself, but that is Tommy. He has been a dear friend for many years. He and Melanie are the best grandparents ever. I know he may be moving to be near grandkids, but he will really be missed in Monroe.”

“I’d love to brag on Tommy!” says Corey Trahan, Assistant Professor of Theatre/Director of Music Theatre at Northwestern University and a long time collaborator and friend of Usrey. “I attribute Tommy’s success to three things,” adds Trahan. “First, he genuinely loves the arts and the artists. We feel appreciated and valued, and his undying support makes us want to go above and beyond for whatever opportunity he grants us.  Second, Tommy is a people person. He knows people throughout his region and is a known personality. Tommy faithfully attends arts events and somehow remains unbiased as to which area of the arts he and the Arts Council support. Finally, Tommy is, at heart, a businessman. He’s intelligent and aware of how business needs to function. He’s great with money, he delegates to people based on skill strengths and he’s not shy to have a confrontation when one needs to happen. You always know where you stand with Tommy!”

Tommy believes he was at his personal best when he and Linda Ford created Ballet Under the Stars at Kiroli Park. “I credit Linda Ford for teaching me what dance was all about and how to appreciate dance. It is the complete art form combining music, theatre, costuming and movement. Missy Crain has also had an impact on me as well,” explains Usrey, crediting these gifted women with raising our community’s awareness of dance in its many forms.

“In May, I was honored to have several of my past board chairs with me at the ceremony when I received the Louisiana Cultural Award for Lifetime Achievement from Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser,” says Usrey. “Phil Boggan (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Louisiana’s DCRT-Office of Cultural Development) sent me an email and wanted my resumé. That was my first clue that something was up. Phil and I go way back to when I helped write the Decentralized Funding Program with Pam Breaux and Maida Owens to develop a funding source for the Arts in 1993-94.”

The Lifetime Achievement Award itself was designed of stained glass by Monroe native and longtime Baton Rouge arts legend Sam Corso, who was also honored as a Louisiana Cultural Ambassador by Lt. Gov. Nungesser for his own work as an artist and advocate for the arts.

Usrey is quick to give credit for his Lifetime Achievement Award to a long list of ladies who encouraged and cajoled the maestro into a career serving the arts. One of the first artforms a young Tommy Usrey discovered he loved was ballroom dancing. “Every Wednesday night, all the 8th graders would take dance lessons from Lolly Neal. I was such a rebel. My family would be at church, and I would be out dancing,” he says with a knowing wink. Now that Dr. Trettin has replaced his bad knee, Usrey says he is ready to cut a rug again. Later on, it was arts patron and volunteer Joy Marshall with whom Tommy credits starting him on the arts career path. “She really got me involved with the Monroe Symphony Orchestra. Once I started volunteering for the symphony, Betty O’Donnell was the person who taught me how to be a board chair.  I was a three term president for the MSO board of directors. Every time I moved to a new board, I would bring Georgia Street with me,” says Usrey. “Frances Adcock called and said she would agree to be President, if I would be her VP of the Arts Council board. Dot Bassett (who headed up the Arts Council at that time) was my mentor for being an arts professional. Of course, I was lucky to have Melanie by my side, attending openings and events and encouraging me throughout my career.

Tommy’s business background was corporate by nature. He made a career out of examining the bottom line and watching expenses as operations manager for first Montgomery Ward, then exploring his entrepreneurial side as owner of Swiss Colony in life B.A.C. (Before the Arts Council). Since becoming CEO and President of the NLAC, Usrey has been active on the board of the Louisiana Partnership for the Arts and as a chairman of the board for the Americans for the Arts’ Louisiana State Arts Action Network, which advocates for the Cultural Economy and the artists and organizations that drive it. In 2013, Usrey was awarded the Alene Valkanas State Arts Advocacy Award for demonstrating time and again the instinctive ability to bring together people, political opportunities and resources to grow and strengthen the arts on the state level starting from the ground up. “When you work at the national level, you can see what great programs other states are doing and how you can bring that back here to our state,” he says. “Before 1994, the state had zeroed out the budget in terms of funding for the Arts. With creating the Decentralized Fund that year, we went from number 52 in the nation on spending for the Arts per capita to number 24 or 25, overnight, with the addition of $5.2 million through the decentralized funding program. Senator Francis Thompson was our champion to get the legislation passed, and Senator Walsworth has been very supportive as well. I think the leadership of Monroe and West Monroe, especially our mayors, have also done an outstanding job as supporters of the arts. It is proven that our cultural economy helps grow our businesses,” he adds.

“I met Tommy in 2000 when I was an apprentice with Shreveport Opera,” explains Corey Trahan. “Following a concert, he approached me and said, ‘Young man, I love your voice. Now, before the next concert, I want you to make sure the labels are cut out of the inside of your tuxedo. Every time you gestured, we saw white labels, and it was distracting.’ At first, I was offended but then came to realize that’s just Tommy Usrey’s way of showing he cares about the image and product the Arts Council puts on stage. We soon became friends and for the past 16 years, he has been a mentor, friend and one of the Arts’ biggest supporters I know. I have learned how to write grants, create budgets, negotiate contracts and many other aspects of arts administration that aren’t taught in school,” says Trahan. On the other hand, Tommy is quick to credit Corey with teaching him how to work with artists. “Corey is like part of our family. Singers might be the easiest artists to work with since they carry their instruments with them wherever they go,” he laughs.

“Tommy and I, after years of trial and error, have found a balance of our two skill sets that has resulted in projects that have positively impacted Northeast Louisiana and surrounding cities like numerous concert tours like We Three Kings, The Louisiana Trio, Hooray for Hollywood, Five Golden Rings, Broadway’s Latest and Greatest, Celebrating Sinatra, With Love-Corey and Lisa, South Pacific in Concert, countless staged productions and pops concerts funded by the NLAC and grants for established and emerging artists),” explains Trahan.

Laughs Trahan of time spent with the legendary Artsman, “I could write a short novel on Tommy Usrey. I talk to him a couple of times of day, usually about nothing in particular, but just to be entertained. We often recall funny incidents that have happened over the past 16 years and still find them as funny now as when they first happened. I believe the all-time best Tommy Usrey story is, of course, the ICEE incident.  Following a holiday concert, Tommy and I were driving back to Monroe with Mrs. Coralie White.  Mrs. Coralie wanted something to drink, so we stopped at a sketchy gas station that had an ICEE emblem on the front door. For safety reasons, I offered to go inside.  Tommy said he’d go to and he immediately went to the ICEE machine.  I saw him reading the instructions, aloud, of how to make an ICEE as he awkwardly handled the lid, cup and straw.  Before long, I heard a huge explosion and Tommy’s distinctive voice screaming ‘Jeeeeeeeeeezus!’ He had not stopped the ICEE machine in time and it exploded all over him and everything nearby.  I was on the floor laughing as he stood there dripping with ICEE remnants.  I helped him refill the cup and return to the car.  As he handed the ICEE to Ms. Coralie, he said, ‘Coralie, you better drink every damn bit of the ICEE.’  He began to drive with the palms of his hands.  I asked him what he was doing and he, in Tommy fashion answered, ‘If you think I’m about to get ICEE on this Cadillac, you are mistaken.’ If only this article could be accompanied by a read along cassette, I would gladly be the narrator.”

Former chair of the NLAC Board of Directors and Origins Bank Senior VP Patti Nelson describes Tommy as “truly one-of-a-kind! He’s a great collaborator. He listens (yes, sometimes he does) and picks-up on the personalities and assets of others. He then forms groups of those who will play and work well together to find opportunities and solutions for challenges facing the Arts. Having known Tommy nearly all of my life, I can say it has always been fun and certainly always interesting.”

In the near future, Usrey foresees being there for his successor, Barry Stevens, the newly appointed CEO and President of the NLAC. Says Tommy, “Barry has a good presenting background, and he knows if he needs me I will  be his support during the nine month transition.” Patricia Cameron has been tapped to help rebrand the NLAC just as Sarah Johnson and Brian Fassett did when Usrey took the reins of the NLAC from Dot Bassett.

But the real plus side of retiring is measured in time spent with his five grandchildren, “burning up the roads between Chatanooga and Dallas,” he smiles from ear to ear with a huge twinkle in his eyes.
“We plan to travel a lot,” says Usrey. “Melanie and I truly enjoy musical theatre, so trips to Broadway are always a treat. Plus I can splurge on Junior’s infamous sugar free cheesecake in Times Square when I’m there. We’ve already booked an Alaskan cruise for next year, as well.

In addition, my good friend and St. Frederick High School Principal Bob Webber called to see if I might be interested in substitute teaching,” says a truly interested Usrey who went back to school in 1994 to earn a degree for working with at risk youth. The Usrey’s sons were alumni of the school and Usrey had served on the school’s board of directors when his children were there.

As far as the future of Northeast Louisiana, Tommy says, “I don’t want to see us get too big. We have a great community full of great people. I would love for us to go back to a kinder, gentler time. For example, I love the renaissance of downtown Monroe. We have come back together. We value each other, and I hope we can slow things down a bit. We are delta people at heart. We value traditions and stay true to them. Our mamas taught us to use our manners and,” adds Tommy wistfully as he blinks back tears, “I think my daddy would be very proud. He put so much emphasis on giving back to the community. What he instilled in me was service to our community. Daddy worked to raise funds for the YMCA, and his trophy for raising the most money was a terrible, ugly yellow tie. Well, my beautiful stained glass Lifetime Achievement Award is my ‘yellow tie.’ I’ve been the front man, but I have a big team behind me.”