Nurturing new arts lovers: the Brooks Center’s Tri-ART Educational Series

By Sallie McKenzie

For years, performing arts at Clemson University left footprints all over the community. From performances in the 1940s in Littlejohn Coliseum and Tillman Hall to the completion of the Brooks Center for the Performing Arts in 1994, cultural arts opportunities for adults were vast. However, offering performances only for adults did not fully satisfy Clemson University’s mission to provide education and public service to all. The reach needed to be greater and the audiences more diverse. What better audience to serve first than the children who would one day lead the community? This is where the Bill and Donna Eskridge Tri-ART Educational Series began.

To determine what type of educational program was important to Clemson’s surrounding community, the Brooks Center worked with educational leaders in Anderson, Pickens and Oconee counties. Through discussion and planning, the Tri-ART program emerged – a series for children ages 3 to 18 who are brought to the Brooks Center from public, private and home schools throughout the Upstate to attend live morning performances in music, theatre and dance.

As final details were fleshed out for the inaugural 1995-1996 season, program administrators made an important and benevolent decision about the admission price. Each Tri-ART performance would be available for either $2 or free of charge for every student who attended — and that admission price has not changed in 16 years. The goal was never to make money, or even to cover costs, but rather to be inclusive by presenting quality performing arts programming for all students.

However, artists’ fees, production costs and other expenses had to be covered. Brooks Center patrons Bill and Donna Eskridge of Seneca, South Carolina, responded generously by creating an endowment for the series, and so it was named in their honor. When asked why they chose this area of giving, their answer was passionate and purposeful. Bill quoted from the poem Priorities: “A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove…but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.” The Eskridges believe that the Tri-ART Series provides that difference and enlightenment. Their generosity will continue to bear fruit in the life of each child who passes through the doors of the Brooks Center.

Nearly 200,000 students from 58 public and private schools, as well as 164 home schools, have taken part in the program. Annually, the series presents nearly 20 interactive performances by world-renowned musicians, singers, theater companies and Clemson student ensembles. From classical concerts to performances such as the African Children’s Choir and Golden Dragon Acrobats, and from productions dealing with current issues to puppetry and narration of beloved children’s stories, the series provides something entertaining and educational for students from pre-school to high school. Each show is selected based on artistic quality and for its ability to expand the minds of the students through diversity, creativity and awareness.

Christine Custer, a long-time supporter and attendee of Tri-ART, has watched the program impact her family. “Tri-ART has given my family many opportunities to see some wonderful performers in music and drama,” she explains. “I think it has inspired some of my children to continue their music lessons.”

“The wide-eyed faces of countless students as they enter the doors and the energetic conversations and smiles as they exit is worth more than any artist fee or ticket revenue,” says Brooks Center Director Lillian “Mickey” Harder. “Oftentimes, these performances are an escape for the children. The shows can transport them to a truly magical place where their imaginations and dreams can run wild.”

For more information about the Bill and Donna Eskridge Tri-ART Educational Series. visit the Brooks Center website.

Sallie McKenzie is director of marketing and communications for the Brooks Center.