Natchez documentary filmmaker honored for excellence in media arts Mississippi Governor Arts Award
Chesney Blankenstein Doyle is just looking for that one moment.
When the documentary filmmaker and Natchez native produces anything, her mission is to inspire an audience, one viewer at a time, with one moment she’s dubbed the “eureka” moment.
“It’s that moment where something really and truly speaks to someone, and it changes the way they think,” said Doyle sitting in the Main Street offices of Echo Pictures, the production company she and her husband, Marc, created. “Maybe it’s just a tidbit of new knowledge, but what I hope is that it catches the viewer’s attention and it stays with them.
“If the takeaway is powerful enough, it might even catalyze a personal paradigm shift, and that’s what it’s all about.”
That mentality is what Doyle has poured into the award-winning documentary series “Great Museums.”
The National Public Broadcasting Series has taken her to landmark museums such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and to smaller scale facilities including the California Surf Museum in Oceanside, Calif.
No matter where the museum is or what they display, Doyle uses the museums as a vessel to tell the stories of America.
“Our point of view is that every museum is a great museum — big or small,” Doyle said. “Our museums contain the DNA of who we are and how we got to be.
“Our motto has always been ‘find the museum in your own backyard and get involved.’”
Doyle’s body of work has earned the filmmaker 46 film industry awards for “documentary excellence” including the prestigious CINE Golden Eagle Awards, where she shares the ranks with filmmakers such as Ken Burns and Stephen Spielberg.
But it’s Doyle’s most recent award that has the Natchezian smiling from ear to ear.
Doyle received a 2015 Governor’s Arts Award for excellence in media arts.
The awards are presented annually to outstanding writers, artists, performers, craftsmen and educators who have made significant and lasting contributions through their work as well as to corporations or organizations on the basis of their dedication to arts advancement.
All the awards displayed throughout Doyle’s office are ones she will always cherish because they represent an acknowledgment of the stories she’s been telling since 2001
But being recognized by her home state and in the same ranks as previous award winners such as B.B. King and Morgan Freeman is something Doyle says she wouldn’t trade for anything.
“To be in the company of these people is just stunning because to imagine that somebody or a group of people would look at the body of work that Marc and I have done and say that we’ve made a contribution to Mississippi’s creative legacy is just incredible,” Doyle said. “To say that the stories we’ve told have made a difference means the world to me, because that’s what I’ve always tried to do even before I started working in television.”
Growing up in Natchez exposed Doyle to a backdrop of cultural tourism and historic preservation she latched on to quickly.
A 1978 graduate of Trinity Episcopal Day School, Doyle received her bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Virginia in 1982 before earning a doctorate from Vanderbilt University School of Law in 1987.
Doyle moved to Atlanta to begin practicing law, but it was the arrival of the 1996 Olympics that would light a fire of change.
Doyle began organizing a multi-cultural lecture series in anticipation of the Olympic Games, which eventually led her decision to give up law and take a position as the director of development for the School of Arts and Sciences at Georgia State University.
During that time, Doyle met Marc in Atlanta, and they married in 1996.
Marc was a seasoned television news executive at CBS in Atlanta and had formed his own documentary production company, Doyle and Associates.
Eventually, Marc persuaded Chesney to work with him making documentary films. They renamed the company Echo Productions, where she became writer, director and editor.
The idea that initially led to the creation of the “Great Museums” series came from one of the company’s first projects — a cultural series for television that would highlight and feature the collections of thousands of museums across America.
In the first years of production, Chesney and Marc traveled the country scouting and then field producing the 13 original shows that would pave the way for the rest of the series.
After becoming middle-aged parents of twins, Archer and Alston, the couple decided to move back to Natchez to raise their children.
“I grew up thinking that Natchez is the center of the world, and in many ways I still do, so all the years I was gone was almost just one long exercise in trying to get back,” Doyle said. “The creative community in Natchez has exploded, and we see that the arts can be an economic driver for our little town on the river.”
They have since produced 45 individual documentary films in the series and are currently writing and editing a documentary featuring the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, scheduled to air nationally on public television in 2015.
Their work has also earned Echo Productions great praise from museum officials and art experts across the country.
Jane Crater Hiatt, retired executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, was one of several people who contributed documents of support for Doyle to receive the award.
“A ‘child of the Mississippi 60s’ turned filmmaker, I feel Chesney must have always been watching with one eye on our history and the other on the possibilities of our future,” Hiatt said. “Thankfully, as a result, the unique contributions and shared struggles of Mississippi and the Mid-South are interjected into this dynamic documentary conversation.”
Philippe de Montebello, who was director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for 31 years, worked with Echo Productions through the creation of three “Great Museum” programs exclusively about the Met, including one about the tenure and legacy of Montebello.
“You can see clearly she was certainly inspired in the conception of the program to bring the world of museums to a broad public audience,” Montebello said. “I think overall the program combines seriousness with a sense of purpose in a very accessible format for the audience, and (Doyle) is a great professional to work with.”
As Doyle said she often has to look back and pinch herself to make sure the success is not all a dream.
“For me, all of my varied interests in history, multiculturalism, race relations, education, community building, storytelling — they all come together in ‘Great Museums’,” Doyle said. “This is the most fascinating career anybody could ever have.”
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