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Women in the Arts: Meet Kern Wadkins, Executive Director of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra

Updated: Sep 2, 2023

If we have learned one thing over the past several years at The Columbusite, it's that creative women are essential the health of the arts in our community. It is our shared goal for this series to shed light on the many different ways local women are working behind-the-scenes to advance the arts every day - no matter what other roles they may also be juggling.

We continue our series with Kern Wadkins, the new Executive Director of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. Read on to learn about Wadkins' strong background in arts education, passion for increased accessibility to the arts across communities, and clear vision for the future of the second oldest symphony in the nation.

Q: Can you share a bit about your background in the arts, Kern?

A: Sure. I’m from Columbus, and I always knew from a young age that I was very artistic. Being around creativity really lit me up. I liked telling stories. One of my earliest memories is with my Dad. I was really into The Wizard Oz, and my dad would come home from work and we would like role play The Wizard of Oz story. I would be Dorothy and he would be everybody else.

I always felt very lucky to be in Columbus growing up, because the Springer existed. My parents took me to see The Wizard of Oz at the Springer when I was like three. It was my first play ever, and it was a very formative experience for me.

Then, when I was six, they did Annie, and I told my mom I wanted to audition for the lead. Which is funny, because I’m pretty sure my seven year old would be like ‘No way’ but I was like ‘I’m gonna learn a song and I’m gonna go sing it, and I will be Annie’

Q: This is an adorable story, Kern.

A: (laughing) Well, my mom was really great because I think she understood that I was six, you know, and not ready for the lead. She knew I wasn’t ready to take on the rehearsal schedule and line memorization. But she did take me down to the audition and she was very proactive. She helped me prep it and told me “You know, you probably won't get it. Sometimes that happens. But this is going to be a good experience for you, and if you want to do this, I'm behind you.”

So I did it. I sang “Dumb Dog” for Paul Pierce. (laughing)

Q: Really? That's adorable!

A: Yes. I didn't get it, which now makes complete sense. (laughing) But you know who did get it? Sally Baker.

Q: No way!

A: Yes. We went to see it and I remember watching Sally and being like, I wanna be just like her when I grow up.

Q: Don’t we all?

A: I know! I still do! But anyway, that was my introduction to theatre, and my goal after that was to be on stage at Springer. And I was!

I did my first show at the Springer when I was nine. Over the years, I did more shows there. And then Sprigner Theater Academy started the summer I was going into high school. So I did that, and that was life changing.

Q: Really? How so?

A: Everything that I do now, any job that I've had has been very grounded in what I learned there. I would imagine that is true for lots of other people that came through that program.

During my time in Academy, I decided I was going to study theater in college. So I went to the University of North Carolina and studied theater there. It was a wonderful experience. It was very DIY. We had lots of student-produced work available to us, so I was able to get right into producing, directing, and acting. There was a professional repertory company that was attached to the theater, so I got to work on those productions as well.

Q: That sounds amazing.

A: It was a really great experience. I came out of college feeling like I really wanted to be a director. It was my focus for a while, but I think for me, having to find a job while you're in the middle of a job was very hard. I just wasn’t prepared for that kind of lifestyle. Not in my twenties.

One day Ron (Anderson) called and he said, “What are you doing?” And I told him I was living in Chicago and kind of bouncing back and forth between Chicago and New York, but didn't really have much going on. I also told him I was thinking about grad school, but wasn’t entirely sure what my next step needed to be.

He said, “Well, you know what? I'm looking for an education coordinator. Why don't you come home, save some money, teach, do some shows. It’s a full-time job.” So I came home and I was the education coordinator at Springer for four years. It was great. I mean, during that time I was acting in shows. I directed some shows. I assistant-directed some shows. I stage managed some, and I was running their entire education series.

Q: That’s awesome. Was that your first official administrative role in the arts?

A: Yes. I had taught for them during my summers in college, but this was the first full-time administrative position. It was my first office job. I was booking all of the groups for the arts and ed performances. I was creating lesson plans for their study guides, and I was running all of the Academy stuff.

It was a wonderful job. But I also knew that it wasn't going to be a long term thing for me. I loved it, but I really struggled with what was next. Then, my husband Robert and I got together and it was very clear that we were going to stay in Columbus. So, I really had to evaluate what that would look like. I remember asking myself, “How do I stay connected to my creativity? How do I give my best creatively to the community? What does that really look like for me?"

I knew it wasn't going to be working full-time at the Springer, so it became very clear that I had the tools to teach. And so that's what I did. I think I was a really wonderful teacher and I loved my years in the classroom. In the last teaching job I had, I saw pre-K four to 12th grade students. Being in the classroom very much laid the foundation for me to understand how people enter into a love of the arts.

Q: What else did your background in education teach you?

A: Well, I also teach part time for the PAIR Program at Springer Opera House. Being in my own classroom previously and now in and out of a lot of schools in our area has shown me what kids have access to in a variety of schools. Unfortunately, it’s not equal. You know, there is not equal arts access in Muscogee County. It's just not. And one of my driving forces is to do everything I can to make sure everyone in our community is served by the arts.

Q: We share that goal.

A: Yes, because the arts make such a difference in a life. You can see that in, in what I'm saying about my own life.

Q: Absolutely. So how do you find that teaching and a background in the arts has prepared you for your new role as the Executive Director of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra?

A: In every way. That’s why I started this discussion by going back to being five years old and falling in love with the arts. I really believe I've been preparing my whole life for this job.

My time at the Springer Opera House really helped me to understand how non-profit organizations work. I had the privilege of seeing absolutely every aspect of what it takes to grow and develop a non-profit organization in the arts, and I have the utmost respect for all of the incredible arts organizations in our community. I’m both humbled and excited to be among Columbus’ arts leadership, and see such a bright future ahead for us all.

The Columbus Symphony Orchestra is especially exciting to me because of its wonderful history and patronage. Many, many people have invested in this organization over the years, and I’m excited to partner with an even larger audience to continue growing the organization as a whole.

Q: It sure sounds like that is true. What is your favorite thing about being in Columbus, Georgia?

A: The thing I love most about Columbus is the rich access to the arts and the growth that I've seen surrounding our arts community. Because when I was little, the only things here were the Springer, the Symphony at the Three Arts Theater, and the Columbus Museum. But then, I remember I performed at the groundbreaking for the RiverCenter, the building we're sitting in, and that was just so exciting to me. But you know, there were so many things that weren’t here yet. The CSU downtown complex was not here. The Bartlett Center was not here. When I think of all the things that weren’t here when I was a child, and now I see everything that is here for us to enjoy now, it’s really remarkable! It’s just incredible to me to see the investment that we've made in the arts in this community.

Q: Agreed. What’s the things you’re most excited about your new role at the Columbus Symphony Orchestra?

A: I feel very connected to the artistic community in Columbus. It’s done so much for my own personal growth, and just me feeling connected to the community overall. I'm very excited to be a part of the next phase, and committed to doing everything I can to make sure all areas and demographics of our community are served by the arts.

I want to make sure our local kids have access to all of the incredible programming happening here. I want to make sure we reach the members of our community that really don't know we exist. And while I know that might be strange to hear, there are communities in Columbus that don't know about the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. It is our oldest arts organization in town.

Q: Yes. That’s true. It is the second oldest symphony in the United States.

A: Yes! And it predates the Springer, which I didn't know until I started this new role at the CSO. Can you believe we’ve had an active season since 1949?!

Q: It is incredible to think about that.

A: Yes. I feel so honored to really steward this organization into the next chapter of its existence. My hope is to grow it even further, to make it stronger. I’m exploring our creative musical history and excited to bring some innovative new performers to the stage. Mainly though, I’m excited to keep the foundation of Columbus's musical rich musical history going - and to do so in a way that includes as many members of our community as possible. ◾️

If You Go:

The Columbus Symphony Orchestra's 2023-24 season opens October 7, 2023. Season tickets are currently on sale. Purchase them here!

To view their full season of concerts, click here!


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