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History of SPARC

Jennie and Larry Brown

Jennie Brown served as SPARC’s Artistic/Executive Director from 1998-2009. A founding instructor in 1981, she served as Associate Director from 1992-1998. In total, Jennie devoted 28 years of her professional career to SPARC.

In 1998, following the passing of SPARC’s founder, Jeri Cutler-Voltz, Jennie guided the Board and staff through transition and helped to establish a trajectory that has led to SPARC’s continued success. That same year, Jennie was joined at SPARC by her husband, Larry Brown, who was hired by the Board to serve as Managing Director. Jennie’s devotion to program quality and studio training prior to performance blended with Larry’s vision for growth and insistence on fiscal responsibility.

Under this dynamic team, SPARC became the largest community-based theater arts training program in Virginia. Programs expanded from rented church basement teaching venues to five educational sites throughout the region. From 200 students in 1995, SPARC was serving thousands of students statewide on a budget that grew from $195,000 in 1998 to $1.2 million when they retired in 2009.

Jennie recruited a faculty of some of the region’s most talented and dedicated professional artist/educators. She and her staff wrote new curricula for SPARC, accommodating a variety of student needs. Among Jennie’s contributions are the establishment of SPARC’s first in-house development activities and the expansion of SPARC’s outreach program, which was later renamed “STAGES,” serving students in schools and community centers throughout the region both after school and during the school day. Under her leadership, summer camps were established, and production activity was increased, including an acclaimed mainstage musical each summer. Jennie created the tagline, “Setting the Stage for Life,” which continues to articulate the value of SPARC’s educational outcomes. In 2003, Jennie was awarded an Outstanding Woman Award by Richmond’s YWCA for her work in the arts.

Larry’s vision and strong management led SPARC through an ambitiously rapid expansion. Among his many achievements was the notable fiscal oversight that gave SPARC its perfect record “in the black,” with income exceeding expenses every year. Programmatically, Larry brought two statewide programs to SPARC including New Voices for the Theater, the acclaimed statewide, high school playwriting competition and residency, and the Virginia portion of the national Poetry Out Loud recitation competition. His tireless work building diversity at SPARC increased the student minority participation from 3 percent in 1998 to 41 percent in 2009. Larry developed the vertical integration model and financial support for the STAGES program in neighborhood schools.

In 2008, Jennie and Larry led the search for a SPARC home: The SPARC Center. While overseeing the financing and purchase of the 2-acre, 2-building property, they guided SPARC into its first capital campaign, directed the move to the new home, the renovation to make the buildings functional, and the planning of offices, instructional studio spaces and an educational theater.

In 2009, Jennie and Larry Brown were awarded Richmond Magazine’s Theresa Pollak Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts.

Jennie and Larry Brown