A view from City Hall and voices of Scottsdale Arts leadership
By Terrance Thornton | Digital Free Press
In early summer 2019, Scottsdale Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield was attending a celebration following a formal evaluation at City Hall of the Scottsdale Arts leadership, operating budget and if the entertainment entity was headed in the right direction.
At the time, the heart of the debate was the first annual review of performance – and subsequent approval of a contract extension for Dr. Gerd Wuestemann. The president and arts CEO was just finishing his first year, and as he admits, the organization was just beginning to get its house in order.
“He said that? Well, it was a celebration,” Scottsdale Councilwoman Littlefield said with a smile at her office following a recent City Council meeting at City Hall, 3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd.
“A champion of the arts. Well, I would say I do support Gerd because he has ideas! He has ideas and he has plans, and he is not afraid to tell you so.”
At the little get together, Dr. Wuestemann and Councilwoman Littlefield shared celebratory cheers, and many of those “big ideas” are taking shape even with an entrenchment at Civic Center Plaza as the second phase of improvements continue to break ground.
“He is really stepping it up,” she said. “I really like his energy, his commitment … he is doing a lot for Scottsdale and the local artist community we have. I have been a supporter of the Scottsdale Philharmonic for as long as they have been around, and I heard them perform at the arts center and it was the best performance I have ever heard them do.”
Art as a teaching tool & destination marketing
For Councilwoman Littlefield, something that stood out about the programming at Scottsdale Arts was not just the performance by her favorite local philharmonic but the fact they were at a major local venue, the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.
“He gave them the chance to do that. They are volunteers, you know?” she pointed out. “He supports education. One of the things I see is now at Scottsdale Arts they start very modestly, try something, and if it works make it bigger and better.”
Councilwoman Littlefield says she would like to see more incorporation of artistic expressions into the lives of local Scottsdale residents who may not know it is waiting for them:
- Bring in more local artists into consideration in all things Scottsdale Arts does; and
- A renewed focus on academic collaborations with local public, private, charter & specialized schools.
Councilwoman Littlefield says Public Art and education are natural partners.
“If we can get some pathways developed through Scottsdale Arts for kids who want to have that experience, we can do that,” she said. “I want to see more of that at Scottsdale Arts.”
A complex cultural machine
The Arizona Digital Free Press reached out to Alison Lewis, who serves as chairperson of the Scottsdale Arts board of directors.
“This is a complex organization, which includes the Center for Performing Arts, SMOCA, Scottsdale Public Art and Scottsdale Arts Learning and Innovation, as well as Canal Convergence. This complexity is both a challenge and an opportunity,” she said but noting the operational standpoint is only one facet about what Scottsdale Arts is.
“The good news is that the pandemic showed us all how important art is, in whatever form, to soothe our souls, give us joy and bring us together. Our mission is to spark creativity and build community through extraordinary arts experiences.”
Ms. Lewis points out the COVID-19 pandemic changed perspectives on what kind of reach Scottsdale Arts can have locally – and beyond.
“It was an honor to take on the role of chair of this organization. I started as chair in January 2020, and we all know what happened in March of 2020. That, of course, changed the way we operate at Scottsdale Arts, but did not stop us from thinking big and moving ahead,” she said.
“We kept our amazing staff intact, looked at all available funding sources as our performing venues were closed, and focused on how this organization could grow smartly in the most innovative ways.”
But make no mistake, Ms. Lewis points out, Scottsdale Arts is also meant to be an economic driver.
“The arts have always been an integral part of Scottsdale, and Scottsdale Arts is on the cusp of restoring the shine to the arts and culture experience with an amazing arts complex in the heart of Scottsdale,” she said.
“Not only will this build community, but it will be a big economic driver for the city as that is one of the top factors businesses and individuals consider in moving to the area. With the new outdoor stages, a new museum, planned maker and artist spaces, programs for tens of thousands of school children as well as those adults with memory disorders, we offer arts experiences in so many ways that everyone can enjoy and can be inspired.”
More than one way forward
Ms. Lewis contends funding is the No. 1 concern when it comes to turning the next page at the Scottsdale Arts organization.
“The biggest challenge will be ongoing funding for all our new endeavors,” she said candidly.
“Scottsdale is so proud of its art and cultural heritage, but we have fallen behind with lack of investment in new infrastructure and facilities. We must find a way to address this so we can grow once again and reclaim the title of an arts mecca in the desert.”
Kathy Wills, former Scottsdale Arts board chair, and incoming treasurer is a native of Scottsdale and says she believes firsthand the DNA of “The West’s Most Western Town” are creative juices.
“As Jim Bruner has said, ‘Arts and culture are the DNA of Scottsdale.’ I think that is so true,” she told the Arizona Digital Free Press, noting a great champion of the Valley of the Sun, Bruner, who has served in elected, volunteer, and appointed leadership roles across the metropolitan area.
“As a native of Scottsdale, I have always felt our city’s uniqueness is a result of the cultural and lifestyle opportunities it provides. The arts are a vital part of Scottsdale because it enhances lifestyle, opens minds and creates unique experiences.”
When asked directly: “Is Scottsdale Arts a place where audiences can find a safe place for diverse ideas to be presented, consumed and discussed,” she replied, “absolutely.”
Furthermore, she offers Scottsdale Arts is a place where the mission statement, vision and measure of success is to thrust performing art in all shapes and forms into the limelight.
“It’s a safe place for people to converge ideas in life through different mediums whether it be through visual arts or performing arts,” she said. “Scottsdale Arts strives to do this through its diverse programming, inclusive partnerships and by engaging people of all ages and lifestyles.”
For Ms. Wills, the key task upon any champion of Scottsdale Arts: helping to activate the Civic Center Plaza and the 22-acre Scottsdale Arts campus that could fuel a new economic boon for the billion-dollar brand of Scottsdale.
“As a result of what Scottsdale Arts brings to the community, the return in the community is significant as it provides jobs, attracts tourists and provides residents with unique experiences,” she said.
“Taking on management of the newly renovated civic center, part of the Scottsdale Arts campus will be significant. Activating this space to engage the entire community that supported the bond efforts for it will be critical. I have complete faith that Gerd has the vision and capability to inspire, program and engage the entire community in this effort.”
PART 2 of 3: Look for when the Arizona Digital Free Press reports what the next chairman of the board hopes to see for the future of Scottsdale Arts.