Women of Vision
The Grand Center Visionary Awards highlight six St. Louis women who are making an impact in the arts.
EVERY YEAR, one of the highlights of the arts season is Grand Center’s announcement of the Visionary Awards, given to exceptional women whose tireless devotion to the arts in St. Louis has made a significant impact and dramatic improvement in arts programming, opportunities and the lives of all St. Louisans. “These awards are important because they give all of us an opportunity to celebrate the women of St. Louis who contribute to our region’s rich cultural tapestry,” says Marilyn Shepard, Grand Center vice president for development. This year’s awardees—six extraordinary and dynamic women—use their talents and skills to bring art to everybody.
Joanne Kohn’s lifelong devotion to the arts has involved her with nearly every major arts organization in St. Louis. Bestowed with the Lifetime Achievement Award—presented to a woman whose career serves as a standard for career artistic achievement and as a beacon to arts enthusiasts—Kohn lives up to the award’s reputation by striving for artistic excellence in everything she does. The fact that the award is not given every year only adds to its significance.
Kohn’s impact on the cultural scene in St. Louis and Missouri is proven by her extensive service as a board member, arts advocate, educator and fundraiser. She has lent her talents to the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Guild, Dance St. Louis, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, The Sheldon and Saint Louis Art Fair, to name a few. Yet Kohn does not limit herself to the local arts scene. She has also served on the national boards of Opera Volunteers International, the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies and currently the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. Kohn’s passion and commitment to artistic excellence have helped her make the arts an integral part of life for everyone from kids to seniors, in both urban and rural areas.
It’s hard to guess which art form Andrea Purnell, recipient of the Emerging Artist Visionary Award, will be exploring at any given moment. A woman of many talents, she works as a producer, actress, writer, stage manager and documentary filmmaker. As communication and artistic director at the Missouri Institute of Mental Health at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Purnell uses her background in the arts to educate the community on matters related to mental health through a variety of creative programming—like helping students write their own plays about issues that are important to them.
Purnell first made waves at Provident, a local family services agency, when she encouraged students to tell their stories through theater. The resulting performance, “Hear My Cry,” proved life-changing for participants and audiences alike. Purnell also portrays the lead role of Camilla Jackson in “Pennies for the Boatman,” a film set in North St. Louis that explores family dynamics, race relations and class differences in a compelling melodrama. In 2012, the film was a finalist in several categories and winner of best film script in the Madrid Film Festival; it was also a recipient of the Platinum Remi award in the Independent Experimental Film category at Worldfest Houston International Film Festival 2012.
Outstanding Arts Educator
It’s rare to find a St. Louisan who hasn’t been impacted by Lynn Rubright’s work in one way or another. The Outstanding Arts Educator award recognizes a woman whose dedication, commitment and insight as an educator greatly affect the individuals she works with, as well as the larger community—a title that fits Rubright like a glove. For starters, she’s a professional storyteller, educator and author of two books and a children’s opera. She also co-founded the nationally acclaimed Metro Theatre Company in 1973 and the St. Louis Storytelling Festival in 1979. The National Storytelling Network has presented her with both the Circle of Excellence Award and its highest honor, the Oracle Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Rubright conceived and led Project TELL, the nation’s only federally-funded demonstration program for storytelling in the classroom. She also created and performed two one-woman shows for the Missouri Historical Society and co-produced the EMMY award-winning documentary “Oh Freedom After While,” about the 1939 sharecropper protest in Southeast Missouri. After 36 years as a Webster University professor of education, she designed “Literacy through Storytelling and the Arts” for COCA’s Urban Arts program. She continues to perform and teach in the St. Louis area.
Outstanding Arts Professional
Agnes Wilcox spends much of her time in prison—as the force behind Prison Performing Arts (which grew out of The New Theatre, co-founded by Wilcox in 1983). Named Outstanding Arts Professional, Wilcox has exemplified a “woman who has dedicated her professional career to fostering creativity and encouraging ongoing participation in the arts.” Through PPA, prison inmates use theater to transform their lives. Communities benefit as well—statistics show that inmates who have participated in the program are a third less likely to return to prison than inmates who have not. The PPA program is successful because inmates who work on plays gain focus, commitment, collaboration skills and tolerance, all of which makes them more employable.
Prison Performing Arts has also brought national recognition to St. Louis, promoting the city as one that values its arts and underserved populations. The popular NPR show “This American Life” featured an episode about Wilcox and PPA, which now is re-aired every year as a staff favorite. Many inmates continue to perform with PPA’s Alumni Theatre Company after their release, which helps them stay out of prison and achieve fully-realized lives by experiencing the performing arts and building a sense of community.
Successful Working Artist
Lydia Ruffin, recipient of the Successful Working Artist award, is a long-time local singer who consistently sets new standards of excellence in her craft. Her one-of-a-kind singing style conveys a heartfelt sensibility, while her lyrics impart messages of deep longing and social justice. There’s even some humor thrown in, and it’s all wrapped in a musicality that exudes the utmost confidence. Above all, Ruffin is an empathetic soul—she often uses her musical gifts to raise money for worthy causes, like bringing clean drinking water to residents of Malawi.
Ruffin might be best known as the founding artistic director for Art & Soul Cafe? in St. Louis—an inclusive gathering place where participants get involved in the arts to explore spirituality through reflection and creative discovery. The gatherings are often organized around a theme, which draws the community together through shared values of compassion and social justice. Ruffin takes her show on the road, too, whether it’s for hospitalized children or Alzheimer’s patients. She can also be seen performing around town with the acoustic roots music trio Mayor Taylor.
Major Contributor to the Arts
Scarcely an important event in the St. Louis arts scene occurs without Carol Voss’ involvement. Her vital contributions to St. Louis arts organizations have ensured many a success. The Major Contributor to the Arts award recognizes a woman who has made a significant financial commitment to the advancement of the arts in St. Louis, but Voss’ contributions extend to serving on a variety of leadership boards, as well. Many nonprofit and arts organizations have benefited from her highly effective fundraising skills, and she constantly strives to help make the local arts community more dynamic, vigorous and accessible for all.
Voss’ dedication appears tireless. In the first six months of 2013 alone, she has worked on the Arts and Education Council’s St. Louis Arts Awards Dinner, the Doorways Interfaith AIDS Housing’s RED Top Hat Gala, Gateway 180’s Open Your Heart for the Homeless Gala and the St. Louis NAACP’s Centennial Gala.
All six women will be honored at the 2013 Grand Center Visionary Awards on May 13 at Sheldon Concert Hall. For more info, visit grandcenter.org.
Women of Vision
Photo credit: Dave Ulmer. Photo courtesy of grand center.