For this week’s edition of Hometown Heroes, AY About You sits down with Dr. Bevan Keating, executive director of the Wildwood Park for the Arts.
Keating is originally from Canada, from a blue collar but musical family. He followed his older sister into music, who was 18 years older than Keating. He became his sister’s teaching guinea pig, and she became his mentor.
“She is the one who kicked me out of the nest, as it were, and told me I needed to come to the States,” Keating says. “So I did, and did my Masters and DMA in choral conducting at the Ohio State University.”
Keating loves to relax in his spare time by playing hockey.
“I try to play as close to weekly as possible, and helping out with my son’s teams is always a pleasure,” he says.
Keating also enjoys working outdoors and travelling as well, especially internationally, and he is looking forward to when the choirs he conducts can start touring abroad again.
Keating explains the Wildwood Park for the Arts.
“Wildwood Park for the Arts is a really incredible place, that’s been something of a hidden gem in west Little Rock for years now. It’s had several names and visions over the years, but our goal is to keep evolving to meet the needs of our community. Our mission is to provide our community with access to nature and a full spectrum of the arts all year round and to partner with other nonprofits to provide space for all kinds of events,” he says. “We have a small, but incredibly motivated and dedicated staff and group of volunteers that goes above and beyond to make sure Wildwood can offer year round educational and cultural programming – and that’s a long list.”
Wildwood offers educational programs for elementary through high school students during spring break and summer, like the Junior Naturalist Camp. The Wildwood Academy of Music and the Arts (WAMA, for short) includes summer sessions for Strings, Dance, Visual Arts, and Beginner Musicians. Once the pandemic wraps up, Wildwood will offer Voice sessions again as well. WAMA has also expanded into a year round program – now the organization offers private lessons for all ages in piano, voice, strings, and brass during the school year as well. Una Voce at Wildwood is a youth honors choir that rehearses and performs at Wildwood.
This fall, Wildwood will also be starting up its big cultural events as well. That includes the festival schedule (Westoberfest, The Wildwood Winter Festival, and Lanterns) and mainstage performances.
“That’s particularly exciting – those in particular are events that let us showcase the amazing professional performing artists that call Arkansas home while giving a lot of folks, kids especially, the opportunity to see live theatre for the first time,” Keating says. “The festivals also allow us to partner with and give a platform to the wonderful array of diverse cultural organizations here in central Arkansas.”
Keating says that the pandemic didn’t stop them from continuing to work to provide access to this kind of programming – they just had to get creative.
“We started Music in the Wild, our new outdoor, socially distanced concert series last summer. It was a safe way to get people back to in-person, live music and gave some of our favorite local and regional musicians who have been really hard hit by the pandemic the opportunity to get back to performing,” Keating explains. “We’ve also started Wildwood Community Days, which is geared towards families, especially the ones that live close by. We offer free kids’ activities in the morning, and offer things like park scavenger hunts. And of course, the park is open to the public, free of charge, until sunset every day of the week. Guests can explore the gardens, use the paved and unpaved trails, and we even have catch-and-release fishing in Swan Lake. Nothing makes us happier than seeing people out enjoying the park.”
Keating’s first work at Wildwood was when it was, primarily, an opera theater.
“I conducted two shows here nearly a decade ago. Then, years later, directed a production of Peter Grimes at Wildwood. Those experiences were amazing,” he says. “Wildwood brings together all the best parts of a natural setting with an amazing artistic energy. Not to mention, there’s the challenge and excitement that creating performances on Wildwood’s thrust stage in the Cabe Theatre, as well as in our outdoor spaces.”
Shortly after the Peter Grimes performance, Keating was asked to take over directorship of the Wildwood Academy of Music and the Arts, the summer arts education programming, which has since grown into a year round program. From there, he began to work as the Artistic Director for the park as a whole, working to bring more performances to the park and develop the organization’s educational programming for the benefit of the community.
In 2018, Keating became executive director, and shares that it’s been thrilling to be part of the incredible growth the park has seen over the last couple of years, all while keeping that same exciting combination of nature and the arts that drew him so many years ago.
Wildwood has plenty of upcoming events scheduled for the rest of the year.
Currently, Wildwood have two more Music in the Wild concerts on the schedule for June. The Rodney Block Collective will be performing in concert on June 4th, and Wildwood will be partnering with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra for their June 25th offering.
Then, there are Wildwood’s Community Days on the first Saturday of each month, where free kids activities are the highlight there.
The Wildwood Academy of Music and the Arts summer sessions are in June as well. This year they’re offering Dance, Advanced Strings, Visual Arts, and two sessions for Beginner Musicians.
Keating is also very excited for the fall, when Wildwood anticipates picking up their festival and main stage performance schedules again.
“We hope folks will keep an eye out for announcements about that programming.”
There are many ways to get involved in the park, too.
“We are always looking for volunteers for events, work around the grounds, and even in the office. There really is something for everyone in terms of volunteer opportunities. Becoming a donor, of course, is great. But one of the easiest ways is to just come out to the park,” Keating says. “Whether you’re coming for a specific performance or camp or just to spend an afternoon enjoying the beautiful scenery, there’s nothing that makes us happier than seeing people enjoy the park and what we have to offer.”