Carver Community Cultural Center has just wrapped up the 2012-13 season, and executive director Yonnie Blanchette couldn’t be more pleased.
“I think it was a great season; at least that was the feedback that I got from everybody,” says Blanchette, who has led the venerable East Side institution since 2007. “I get comments from audience members all the time, which is wonderful because how would you otherwise know what people enjoyed? Our best-sellers were probably the opening show, Poncho Sanchez (and his Latin Jazz Trio), and (singer) Aaron Neville’s Christmas show. But even when a show didn’t sell that well, people who attended always had positive comments.” That’s hardly surprising since the Carver is the only local presenter that brings to town top-notch performers from around the United States and abroad while keeping ticket prices in the affordable range. Besides the already mentioned artists, the season included the Royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi; soul legend Bettye LaVette; bassist, composer and Grammy winner Christian McBride; Texas favorite Terri Hendrix, and two remarkable contemporary dance groups — Minneapolis-based TU Dance and Philadelphia’s popular Philadanco.
Almost all visiting artists also offer youth matinees for area school children and master classes for upcoming talent. In addition, a variety of San Antonio performing arts groups rent the Carver for their own shows.
Renovated and expanded in the early 2000s, the center actually consists of three buildings: the familiar old edifice facing North Hackberry Street that houses the 650-seat Jo Long Theater, the smaller Little Carver Civic Center behind it that hosts smaller shows and all sorts of gatherings, and an office structure across the street. Altogether, some 300 events are held annually at the center, and approximately 6,000 children attend the youth matinees. There is also a year-round visual and performing arts school for both kids and adults. Over all of that presides a woman who had no background in the arts when she took the job of interim director in 2007. (It became permanent a year later.) A retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, Blanchette was working in the city manager’s office when she was asked by her then-boss and former deputy city manager Jelynne Burley if she would consider taking the helm of the iconic cultural center, which is operated as a department of the City of San Antonio Convention, Sports and Entertainment Facilities.
“I thought of it as I did about assignments in the military,” explains Blanchette matter-of factly. “You are assigned to a new station, and you go and learn from the people already there. That’s how it was here. I knew I would have a pretty good staff. They are the reason I have been successful.” Then she adds with a laugh: “I say I have been successful, since I haven’t been fired yet.” Though she did indeed learn from the staff the particulars of choosing and booking artists, she was confident that her experience in management would see her through. By now, her annual trip to New York to attend the Association of Performing Arts Presenters’ mini-festival is her favorite part of the job. It’s an excellent place to get acquainted with the performing arts world, as hundreds of artists present showcases for the attendees day and night. Artist management agencies also contact the Carver directly, offering to include San Antonio on their tours.
“I look at all of that and eventually decide what to include in our season. Is the show good for the Carver? Is it unique?” she says. “Our mission is to have a diverse, multicultural and multinational programming with an emphasis on African-American and African heritage, and it all has to fit into the budget.”
After seeing the world, she chose San Antonio
A native of Clinton, N. C., teenaged Yonnie went off to college believing she would get a degree in social work and return home to practice. But once in Greensboro, where she attended North Carolina A&T State University, she had second thoughts. Inspired by a friend and the lure of exploring new horizons, the young woman joined ROTC, receiving a commission as a second lieutenant upon graduation. For the next 20 years, she saw the world, earned a master’s in human relations, got married and acquired a wealth of experience in personnel affairs and organizational management. But her face lights up when she talks about her favorite assignment, a six-year stint at the Pentagon, where she served as a liaison to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. The latter is a civilian body that advises the military on all questions pertaining to military women.
“The Pentagon is a huge place with thousands of people working there. It’s a hub for all things Defense. It was an exciting place to be; so much going on. It was all action,” says Blanchette, with a bit of that excitement still tingeing her voice. “My husband says I am a type A person and that’s why I loved it,” she laughs. It’s interesting to know that one of the issues the committee dealt with was sexual harassment, which has been in the news in a big way lately. But other issues have been resolved since, including allowing women to join combat operations. It was also in the military that she met her husband, Stephen Blanchette, now a wealth manager at USAA. They have two children. Neither was ever deployed to a war zone because they served during a mostly peaceful period, she notes. After completing their last assignment here, the couple decided to make their home in San Antonio. Her family, especially her husband, attend many shows at the Carver while she is, of course, always there, keeping an eye on everything. With a relatively small staff of 11, everyone is multitasking, including the director. The collaborative attitude certainly helps to build bonds among staff members and with the visitors. There’s something about the atmosphere at the Carver that makes people feel like they are among family, observes Blanchette. Even the most renowned performers come into the lobby after their performance to chat and take pictures with patrons. “It’s a cozy, warm place,” she says. “When we had (vocalist and Grammy-winning actress) Jennifer Holliday here, she asked whether she could go to dinner with my husband and me. She was hungry. She got in the car with us, and we ended up at Chili’s because that was one of the few places open that late at night. Then we dropped her off at her hotel, and I took her to the airport the next morning. All very informal and friendly!” She’s just as friendly with patrons who approach her to talk and share their impressions after the shows. That’s another favorite aspect of the job. As she puts it, “handshakes turn into hugs” and new friendships are born.
Though the Carver attracts audiences from across San Antonio, Blanchette wants to extend an especially friendly hand to the surrounding community for whom the center has been a neighborhood hub for decades. “We want to continue to be part of this community, and we want to remain accessible by keeping things affordable,” says the woman who is credited with bringing stability to the Carver after several years of change and uncertainty. “It is my desire that this be the place where folks can come to see first-class artists and programming.”