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Fest Foot Forward 

Utah Arts Festival marks a leadership transition.

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  • Utah Arts Festival

As was true for so many arts organizations, 2020 for the Utah Arts Festival became a year of adapting to a new world. Now, that new world will also include a transition from the director who has guided the festival for 15 years.

On Oct. 26, the Utah Arts Festival announced that festival director Lisa Sewell would be leaving her position effective Oct. 30, and passing the baton to assistant director Aimée Dunsmore, who has also served as UAF's development director for 11 years. While it's tempting to think of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on arts organizations as a factor in someone deciding to depart, Sewell notes that while that's sort of true, it's not true in the most obvious sense. Instead, it was the festival's ability to pivot towards online content when the 2020 festival's in-person event was cancelled that, for her, pointed towards the organization's next phase

"With COVID and everything that happened this year, we navigated that really well, I think," Sewell says. "In eight weeks, to get something else up and running? That's really on Aimée, coming up with Festival Fridays [the weekly online component of the 2020 Utah Arts Festival]. She really ran the 2020 Utah Arts Festival, for all practical purposes. ... We've got an opportunity to expand and develop that whole network of [online] resources, and that's all more in the wheelhouse of Aimée's talents than mine. We're on the cusp of all these changes, so why not let this person take over and imprint their leadership style?"

For Dunsmore's part, it could be seen as a challenging time to take over an arts organization, but when asked what kind of crazy person steps into a leadership role at a time like this, she says, "It was a discussion. We had some private conversations while Lisa was making her decision. It's the board's decision ultimately, I need to know that they're behind it. I guess I am the crazy person. But it's an organization I've been with for 11 years, so it's easier than stepping into something totally new."

Sewell's departure means that she won't have one final in-person festival as her farewell, but she doesn't put a lot of emphasis on what wasn't possible in this particular year. "I did think about that, but really, it's not about me," she says. "I'm just the steward of this organization, and when I look back at all the festivals, 2019 was one of my favorite festivals. The staff worked really well together, we played together on site.

The kind of festival that was possible in 2020, as already noted, did provide the push to develop opportunities for virtual remote participation that had been under consideration for several years. "We knew we couldn't replicate the festival online," Dunsmore says. "We learned really how to be nimble, and the value of online. It improves accessibility across the state, maybe we get more people participating, open the doors for artists who might not be able to travel."

Sewell adds that while the hope and expectation for 2021 and beyond is to return to a full in-person festival, the virtual offerings for 2020 were only the starting point for what's possible going forward, including a new platform for the Artist Marketplace that allows for one-stop shopping for interested patrons. "In the intervening months, the technology has really exploded," she says. "This didn't exist in March ... If we have to tighten back up [in 2021], we've got this new platform, and we've been developing this and have content built-in."

Regardless of what 2021 brings, Sewell and Dunsmore observe that the Utah Arts Festival is on firm financial footing. While sponsorships were lost from the festival's cancellation, that decision was made prior to signing many vendor contracts. Additionally, they have been able to pursue many grant opportunities, made conservative programming and spending decisions, and have the advantage of an endowment and reserve that positions UAF well for the future.

That leaves Sewell and Dunsmore able to focus on the transition, which their obvious mutual respect and 11 years of working together suggests should be smooth. Sewell praises Dunsmore's leadership skills, as well as her ability to communicate with the wide range of personalities that are part of the festival community. "This is a unique beast, this festival," Sewell says; "you have to have a personality that can work with people from all walks of life, and I think she has the ability to take this on."

Dunsmore, meanwhile, adds of what she's learned from Sewell, "Lisa has built a family, really. We say that a lot, but it's so true. I hope that's something I can carry on. Her passion for not just the arts, but for all the people we work with, is inspiring."

For the next year, Sewell will work with Dunsmore in a kind of emeritus capacity, available for support and to answer questions. "It's great to be able to have this kind of transition," Sewell says, "rather than, 'Here's the keys, and good luck.'"

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