Gabrielle Gray Shifts Over to Weave A New Story in American Bluegrass Music

Gabrielle Gray, an icon in American bluegrass music and founder of the ROMP festival in Owensboro, KY., today turned over command of the International Bluegrass Music Museum to Carly Smith (r), who serves as interim director pending appointment of a new executive director. Photo/Keith Schneider

Gabrielle Gray, an icon in American bluegrass music and founder of the ROMP festival in Owensboro, KY., today turned over command of the International Bluegrass Music Museum to Carly Smith (r), who serves as interim director pending appointment of a new executive director. Photo/Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY — There was a big change today in American bluegrass music here in this Ohio River city, which over the last decade has established itself as a global center of the quintessential American music born in western Kentucky. The board of trustees of the International Bluegrass Music Museum announced that Gabrielle M. Gray,  the museum’s chief executive, ends her exceptional 12-year tenure as the museum’s capable and creative leader and steps down as executive director overseeing all museum campus operations.

Gabrielle retains her position as executive producer of ROMP, the signature bluegrass music festival she founded in 2004.  Gray also remains the museum’s grant writer. These two sources of income — ROMP proceeds and grant awards — produce most of the museum’s annual revenue, making it possible for the museum to preserve, exhibit, catalog and archive the artifacts and collections of bluegrass music internationally, as well as host many ambitious programs and events throughout the year.

Carly Smith, a staff member since May 2011 and the museum’s capable assistant director since 2014, steps into a new role as interim director. The museum’s board, chaired by Peter Salovey, the president of Yale University, is conducting a nationwide search for a new executive director. The new director is expected to be in place in the spring or summer of 2015.

Gabrielle Gray, great woman of Kentucky, will continue to lead ROMP, the bluegrass festival she founded in 2004 in Owensboro, KY. Photo/Keith Schneider

Gabrielle Gray, great woman of Kentucky, will continue to lead ROMP, the bluegrass festival she founded in 2004 in Owensboro, KY. Photo/Keith Schneider

The announcement was greeted as big news in this river city of 58,000 residents, in large part because Gabrielle, her staff, her board, and city and Daviess county officials collaborated over the last decade to establish bluegrass music as an economic and cultural priority. The city is working with the museum to build a $15.5 million Bluegrass Music Center on a choice downtown lot along the Ohio that was formerly the site of a state office building. The ROMP festival, held annually over the last weekend of June, now attracts the finest bands in bluegrass and over 20,000 attendees annually. In other words, bluegrass is as important to Owensboro as the blues are to Memphis and Chicago, country music is to Nashville, jazz is to New Orleans, and rock and roll is to Cleveland.

Ron Payne, Owensboro’s progressive Republican mayor, who’s led a $250 million downtown redevelopment campaign that includes the new Bluegrass Music Center, commended Gabrielle’s tenure. “I’m tickled to death that Gabrielle is going to stay on and help us with ROMP,” Payne told the Messenger-Inquirer, the city’s daily newspaper. “She’s done an outstanding job. Bluegrass is where it is today, partly because of the work she’s done.”

Gabrielle’s shift in responsibilities, and Carly’s ascension to a new position of leadership is seen in Owensboro and across Kentucky as a tremendous convergence of events that strengthens the museum’s work to promote bluegrass music. The change in leadership responds to Gabrielle’s desire to focus on ROMP and fundraising, giving the museum continuity and keeping her closely connected to the project that has become a signature event in the nation and helped to brand Owensboro as a leading center of bluegrass music. It also enables the museum to promote a skilled staff member to a position of new authority and responsibility to help lead the organization in a time of exciting transition.

As founder and director of the ROMP bluegrass music festival, Gabrielle Gray attracts the top talent in bluegrass, among them Ronnie Reno (l) and Bluegrass Hall of Famer and National Heritage Award winner Del McCoury (second from right with me). Photo/Keith Schneider

As founder and director of the ROMP bluegrass music festival, Gabrielle Gray attracts the top talent in bluegrass, among them Ronnie Reno (l) and Bluegrass Hall of Famer and National Heritage Award winner Del McCoury (second from right with me). Photo/Keith Schneider

The leadership transition that started today comes after months of preparation and follows more than a decade of steady growth in the International Bluegrass Music Museum’s programs and activities, fostered by the close collaboration between Owensboro philanthropist Terry Woodward, the museum’s 21-member board of trustees, and Gabrielle Gray.

Gabrielle’s work here is a case study in non-profit leadership. Recruited from Somerset in 2002 to become the museum’s executive director, Gray expanded the staff and board, developed a fundraising and program base for an annual budget that now exceeds $1 million, built a widely respected program of showcasing internationally known bluegrass musicians to perform annually in city and county schools, and developed teaching and lesson programs for thousands of residents to play the instruments of bluegrass music. Gray’s mastery as a non-profit executive and her instincts as a musician and promoter enabled the museum  to produce a regular series of instrument camps and concerts at the museum that continue to attract terrific artists and enthusiastic audiences.

Under Gabrielle’s guidance, the museum’s nationally prominent music conservation program, the Video Oral History Project, completed 78 documentary films on the lives of Bluegrass Music’s First Generation musicians. Editing is in progress for an additional 150 films. The International Bluegrass Music Museum has won numerous awards during Gray’s run as executive director, including the 2013 Governor’s Award in the Arts and the 2012 International Bluegrass Music Association’s “International Bluegrass Event of the Year” award, in competition with over 1,000 festivals and events worldwide.

Gabrielle’s work to establish Owensboro’s national and global reputation as the center of bluegrass music is most closely identified with ROMP. The festival’s success is due in large part to the close working relationships Gray formed with her staff and the IBMM board’s ROMP committee co-chairs — Chris Love, a business executive in Owensboro, and Mike Simpson, a developer in nearby Bowling Green.

Gabrielle leaves her directorship having constructed a strong foundation for future excellence at the museum, including an operating endowment exceeding $1.2 million. “It gives me great pleasure to see how far we’ve come as a museum and as a performing arts entity in our community,” she said. “All of our programs have grown by leaps and bounds. Working in close partnership with Carly Smith for the past three years has given me complete confidence in her ability to guide staff and operations at the museum. We work extremely well together and share a common bond of respect and camaraderie.  We also have a dedicated board, two of whom — Rosemary Condor and Ross Leazenby — are assisting with this transition.

Big crowds attended ROMP over the last four years to hear the great bluegrass music that founder and festival director Gabrielle Gray attracted. Photo/Keith Schneider

Big crowds attended ROMP over the last four years to hear the great bluegrass music that founder and festival director Gabrielle Gray attracted. Photo/Keith Schneider

“I am delighted to remain in the leadership coalition of the museum, to write its grants and produce what I and many others consider to be one of the finest music festivals in the world. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than presenting the best musicians in the world in the finest atmosphere at Yellow Creek Park. Nothing makes me happier than experiencing amazing music and sharing it with my local and global community. I want to take this opportunity to thank all the terrific staff at IBMM, and the trustees on the board — especially Terry Woodward — the City of Owensboro, Daviess County Fiscal Court, Kentucky Arts Council, all our granting agencies and foundations, ROMP sponsors, Museum and Center donors, members and supporters, volunteers and attendees — all the thousands of people who have been so instrumental in enthusiastically elevating the bluegrass museum to carry the banner for Owensboro, Kentucky, and for bluegrass music worldwide. All these entities working together have made it possible for ROMP to advance to the position it now holds in the pantheon of great American festivals, and for the International Bluegrass Music Museum to responsibly preserve the history and artifacts of this amazing, international music genre.”

— Keith Schneider (Gabrielle Gray’s admiring partner)

Gabrielle at a Bluegrass Music Museum concert with ROMP co-chair Chris Love and his family, all ROMP volunteers -- (l to r) Michelle, Jessie, and Daniel. Photo Keith Schneider

Gabrielle at a Bluegrass Music Museum concert with ROMP co-chair Chris Love and his family, all ROMP volunteers — (l to r) Michelle, Jessie, and Daniel. Photo Keith Schneider

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2 comments on “Gabrielle Gray Shifts Over to Weave A New Story in American Bluegrass Music

  1. Great story about a great woman! Thanks, Keith!