An ongoing shakeup in Colorado’s arts leadership ranks since the pandemic began has accelerated in recent weeks, and it represents both a drain of proven creative experience and an opportunity for new voices to emerge.
But experts say this reshuffling is also evidence of a much greater societal trend. Since COVID pressed pause on normal life last March, Americans of all ages and vocations have been using this intermission to reconsider fundamental life choices, recalibrate priorities and make big changes accordingly.
“There is some deep, deep inquiry taking place, and I am seeing it in people from all walks of life,” said Boulder psychotherapist Nancy Portnoy. “The vast, unseen opportunity of COVID is the chance to step back, reflect and ask yourself, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ … ’Is this how I want to keep going?’ And those are some good and courageous questions for all of us to be asking ourselves right now.”
Since the shutdown started, at least six veteran Colorado arts leaders have announced plans to leave some of the state’s largest nonprofit organizations:
• Elaine Mariner retired on July 6 after eight years as Cultural Director of Parker Arts following eight years leading the state’s arts office, Colorado Creative Industries.
• Steve Wilson stepped down Sept. 4 after 26 years at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center, the last 16 as Executive Artistic Director.
• Dean Sobel, the founding director of Denver’s Clyfford Still Museum, left in September to become a professor of art history at the University of Denver.
• Regan Linton, Artistic Director of Denver’s disability-affirmative Phamaly Theatre Company, announced Jan. 20 she will move to Washington DC later this year, four years after rescuing the company from catastrophic financial trouble. She is presently the only artistic director leading a professional American theatre company from a wheelchair.
• Lisa Rigsby Peterson, the founding Executive Director of the Lone Tree Arts Center, departed Feb. 12 “by mutual agreement” with the city of Lone Tree.
• And on Feb. 12, Scott RC Levy announced his surprise resignation after 10 years as Producing Artistic Director of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Theatre Company at Colorado College to become Deputy Director of the Green Box Arts Project in Green Mountain Falls.
Each left for very different reasons, but all included some variation of the words: “It’s time” in announcing their departures. That comes as no surprise to Deborah Jordy, Executive Director of Denver’s Scientific and Cultural Facilities District.
“The pandemic has been such a massive life disrupter, and in my mind, what better time than right now to reassess your life, make changes and reinvent yourself?” she said.
Levy leaves the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at a time of huge personal and professional change. There is new executive leadership in place both at the FAC and Colorado College, which is in the final stages of absorbing the arts center and all of its programs. Adding to that, his mother-in-law passed away a month ago.
“Frankly, 10 years is a long time to be doing anything, and with everything I have done and fought for over the past few years, it was just time to go,” Levy said. “This has been a great time to take stock and re-evaluate all my life choices. My wife and I have kids ages 15 and 12, and there is something very attractive about getting out of this 10-year routine of 80-hour work weeks. I just don’t want to go back to that style of life anymore.”
Mariner said she had been looking for the right time to retire and spend more time with her family even before the pandemic hit. And when she realized the PACE Center would be closed indefinitely, she found it. “We have such a fantastic Parker town council, and such strong support from the town right now, that the timing was really perfect,” Mariner said. “I felt like I had accomplished what I had set out do. I also realized that by stepping down when we were closed and would have no revenue coming in, my leaving would mean significant salary savings.”
Peterson has led the Lone Tree Arts Center from its planning stages in 2010 and built it into one of the leading arts centers in the Rocky Mountain region. Since then, she said, she has watched all of her aspirational visions realized “a hundredfold.”
Since 2011, she added, “the Lone Tree Arts Center has welcomed hundreds of thousands of patrons, brought hundreds of national and international artists to our stages, created a regional movement toward inclusion … and, most recently, weathered devastating existential challenges during the COVID pandemic.
“It is now time to step aside and allow someone new to build even further upon the work of the past decade. I have always said that when someone leaves an organization, the next person who comes in will be even more outstanding, having the opportunity to build upon the foundation that was laid for them.”
Before the Lone Tree Arts Center opened, City Manager Seth Hoffman said, “the community here enjoyed plays in a basement at the golf course and symphonies at a local church. Ten years later, patrons from all around the Denver metro area experience world-class programming from internationally known artists in one of Colorado’s most spectacular theater spaces – all thanks to Lisa’s leadership. It has exceeded our expectations by every measure.”
Linton, also a veteran actor who has performed throughout the country, said she is moving to the nation’s capitol to make more space in her life both for performing and her work as an advocate for the disability community. Linton, who has been part of Phamaly off and on for 16 years, returned in 2017 to lead the company back from an immediate, $250,000 shortfall. She committed to the job for one year and stayed for four. But she will be back to direct the company’s next big musical, whenever that becomes safe to stage.
“COVID has been stark reminder of what can happen in the short existence that we have on this Earth, so you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do while you have the time to do it,” Linton said. “But while my role will shift, I will never be disconnected from Phamaly.”
Wilson’s departure follows several years of financial tumult at the Mizel Center and its parent company, the Staenberg-Loup Jewish Community Center. “In my case, there were changes happening at the Mizel that made me understand my specific expertise would not be valued at that organization going forward,” said Wilson, who is nevertheless looking at the pandemic pause as an opportunity to reinvent himself – while also being mindful that he has a daughter entering college next fall, and needs to work. He leaves for Florida in April to direct a production of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” as a guest artist for the Naples Players.
“What I really want at this time of my life is to learn new things, and this past year has been a great time to circle back and ask, ‘What can I learn next?’ — while still trying to answer the big question, which is, ‘Are you still relevant?’ ” Wilson said.
The departures of Linton, Mariner and Peterson are cause for particular concern for some in the local community because they represent three proven female arts leaders who have nearly 75 years of combined experience among them.
“These are such talented, smart women, and we are definitely going to miss them,” Jordy said. But their departures will not necessarily create a vacuum in local female arts leadership. Parker Arts, the Clyfford Still Museum and the Mizel Center are all being run by women in interim capacities. And since 2017, Phamaly has been co-managed by Linton and Managing Director Sasha Hutchings, who will oversee the naming of Linton’s replacement.
“Change is hard, and Regan will leave large shoes to fill,” Hutchings said. “But Phamaly is in a really stable place right now. And to be in a position to seek out a new artistic leader to lead us into our next chapter is super exciting.”
Jordy is eager to see what the next generation of female leadership will look like. “I look forward to more amazing women coming in, and people of color, and to other new opportunities for growth within these organizations,” she said.
There is further change underway among smaller arts organizations. At the 3-year-old Benchmark Theatre in Lakewood, founding Executive Artistic Director Rachel Rogers has stepped down and plans to move out of state. After a restructuring of the company, co-founder Haley Johnson will serve as both Producing Artistic Director and Executive Director; Abby Apple Boes as Managing Director; and Neil Truglio of Denver Film as Artistic Director.
Even before COVID, the local arts community was starting to see some big changes on the arts leadership front. The Denver Film Society filled an 18-month leadership gap in August when it named former Denver mayoral candidate James Mejia as its new President and CEO following the surprise resignation of Andrew Rodgers in 2019. That same year, Nora Burnett Abrams replaced Adam Lerner as the new director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.
Mariner, for one, believes all this change, even hard change, is for the overall good.
“I honestly think there is so much talent out and passion out there,” she said. “I can’t wait to see what the next generation of leadership is going to come up with.”
Wilson agreed, but cautioned: “I also hope there will be an embracing of the wisdom of experience.”
WHO IS RUNNING THE SHOW?
• The Acting Director of Parker Arts, which manages the PACE Center, is Assistant Cultural Director Carrie Glassburn.
• Theatre Company is co-managed by Regan Linton and Managing Director Sasha Hutchings, who will oversee the naming of Linton’s replacement.
• Associate Director Nathan Halvorson and Production Manager Christopher Sheley are serving as co-Interim Artistic Directors of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Theatre Company at Colorado College.
• The interim director of Denver’s Clyfford Still Museum is Deputy Director Joan Prusse.
• The interim Executive Director of the Lone Tree Arts Center is Production Manager Paul Ackerman.
• The unofficial interim leader of the Mizel Arts and Culture Center is Director of Festivals Amy Weiner Weiss.