The Denver Gazette


Pandemic brings new wave of leaders to Colorado arts landscape.


It became clear early on that the pandemic was going to bring a major shakeup to Colorado’s arts leadership ranks – it just wasn’t clear how that shuffle was going to play out. But with at least seven major positions having been filled since February, we now better know the new look of the local arts leadership landscape. And it’s not all that radically different than it was before.

While the new class of Colorado arts leaders maintains recent gains toward gender parity in key power positions, it does not show that a broader national call for greater inclusivity and representation in terms of race and ethnicity has taken hold here. One exception is Pirronne Yousefzadeh, the newly named Producing Artistic Director for the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Theatre Company at Colorado College.

While she comes from the Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, N.Y., she directed the refugee play “Wisdom from Everything” for the 2017 Local Lab new-play festival in Boulder.

“In not only my appointment, but of so many artistic leaders across the country, I think that we can see that people of the global majority — people who are Black, Indigenous or, in my case, a person of color — have been ready to lead for some time,” Yousefzadeh said.

The list does bring generally younger voices into key decision-making positions, and other new blood to Colorado. Phamaly Theatre Company, which exists to create performance opportunities for people with disabilities, delivered on its promise to hire an artistic director on the disability spectrum.

Ben Raanan of Chicago, son of an Israeli immigrant, was born with Erb’s palsy and is considered “neuroatypical” – an umbrella term that covers an array of mental and behavioral disorders. “I call myself a militant disabled activist, and I am fiercely proud of that title,” he said.

Rich Cowden, the new General Manager of the Mizel Arts and Culture Center, believes the leadership shuffle is only just beginning.

“I think we’ll see some more high-level turnover at the executive level once those people feel confident that their organizations can survive post-pandemic,” he said. “Many leaders have been under indescribable levels of stress since March 2020. And they may well want to call it a day and move to a secluded cabin in northern Maine to escape.”

Here is a brief introduction to seven new Colorado arts appointees, in alphabetical order and in their own words:

Leigh Chandler

Artistic Director, Lone Tree Arts Center

• Born: Smithtown, N.Y., on Long Island

• Most recently: Marketing Director at Lone Tree Arts Center

• Predecessor: Lisa Rigsby Peterson, now Executive Director of the Wheeler Opera House

• What can we expect? I’m looking to build on the solid foundation we’ve developed since opening our

doors 10 years ago. I’ll expand offerings in some genres such as dance and jazz — which we’re already doing through our new series with Gerald Albright called “Lone Tree Sessions.” I’ll also explore residencies with visiting artists when possible. And I’m hoping we’ll return to producing plays and musicals in the next few years.

• What does your appointment tell us about the moment we are in? Given how tremendously the Lone Tree Arts Center has grown over the years, it made sense for us to have someone focused on artistic direction separately from the duties of the new Executive Director (Nicolle Davies).

We were fortunate never to have to shut down over the past year and a half, and to continue to offer programming to people in our region — whether through live-streaming directly from our stage or limited capacity in-person performances. All that shows just how important the arts are to all of our lives.

• Fun fact: Before I moved to Colorado six years ago, I lived in Vermont for 20 years and raised llamas, alpacas and sheep (while working at an arts organization there).

Rich Cowden

General Manager, Mizel Arts and Culture Center

• Born: In Manhattan, but raised between the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn and, wait for it … Grand Junction

• Most recently: Executive Director of Colorado Conservatory of Dance in Broomfield

• Predecessor: Steve Wilson

• What can we expect? With an almost entirely new team now getting on board and up to speed, folks can count on us for restarting and reinvigorating those programs that have been so key to the organization’s success, including the JAAMM Festival and Wolf Theatre Academy.

We also will be bringing a new and innovative approach to programming across a wide spectrum that includes presenting, producing, facility rentals and partnering with others in the arts, culture and business spheres. We’re very focused right now on stability, sustainability, our EDI (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) initiatives, and establishing a clear vision for the Mizel, both short and long term.

• What does your appointment tell us about the moment we are in? I’ve noticed that there’s been a great deal of movement among the entry-level and middle tiers of arts organizations in my orbit, which can be rationally attributed largely to the devastating effects of the pandemic on the arts and culture sector.

Many smaller organizations were forced to close over the past 18 months, which has led to a vast reshuffling of folks in those categories.

• Fun fact: I have perfect pitch.

Nicolle Davies

Executive Director, Lone Tree Arts Center

• Born: Paramus, N. J.

• Most recently: State Librarian for the State of Colorado

• Predecessor: Lisa Rigsby Peterson, now Executive Director of the Wheeler Opera House

• What can we expect? I look forward to building off of an amazing first 10 years of the Lone Tree Arts Center. And to working with the talented staff to continue to diversify our offerings. And to increasing dance and theatricals in the coming years. I hope to expand our reach and welcome new patrons as well.

• What does your appointment tell us about the moment we are in? The Lone Tree Arts Center has matured over the years, so the City had a desire to separate the job duties between an Executive Director and an Artistic Director. My job is very outward-focused, building relationships in the community and raising awareness around the Lone Tree Arts Center.

• Fun fact: To focus my attention during the pandemic, I pursued my 500-hour yoga teacher training certification.

Carrie Glassburn

Cultural Director, Parker Arts

• Born: Littleton. I moved to unincorporated Douglas County when I was 11. Apart from college, I have lived in various spots around Douglas County ever since.

• Previously: Assistant Cultural Director of Parker Arts overseeing communications, box office, development and outreach

• Predecessor: Elaine Mariner, who retired in July 2020

• What can we expect? My initial goal is to get Parker Arts back up and running as we continue to recover from the impact of the pandemic. After that, I plan to work on building strong partnerships with artists, musicians, actors, historians, organizations and businesses around the area.

Parker cannot become the premiere cultural destination that it has the potential to be without us all working together and building each other up.

• What does your appointment tell us about the moment we are in? It was important to Town of Parker leadership to have someone in this position who understands the role that the arts play in the economic vitality of a community, and in the well-being and overall satisfaction of its citizens.

• Fun fact: I have a background in both art and music. While I was never onstage growing up, I was often in the orchestra pit or backstage painting sets for theater productions.

Ben Raanan

Artistic Director, Phamaly Theatre Company

• Born: Skokie, Ill. My father is an Israeli immigrant, and my mother was raised in Milwaukee.

• Most recently: When the pandemic hit, I was in my final semester at DePaul, graduating with my MFA in directing. At that point, with my thesis canceled and no end in sight, I moved to Cincinnati, where my partner works for Proctor & Gamble.

• Predecessor: Regan Linton, who is relocating to Washington D.C. after directing Phamaly’s current production of “Alice in Wonderland,” opening Aug. 14 at Su Teatro

• What can we expect? Artistically rigorous theatre with, for and about those with disabilities. I believe in my disabled community as artists, but also as valuable members of our society. At Phamaly, we have the ability to drastically shape the landscape of not only the American Theatre, but our community as a whole.

However, this change will only happen if we intentionally look to break free of the very narrow box that society has stuck us in.

By definition, all of Phamaly’s shows are inherently political. I want to push the expectations that this beautiful community has for Phamaly and its artists.

• What does your appointment tell us about the moment we are in? Phamaly was started when five disabled artists couldn’t find work in the theatrical realm, so they created their own theatre company.

While the fight for inclusion and accessibility has largely stayed the same, the methods of activism have

changed. This country, and in turn our audiences, are asking for more guided and systematic change that plays less on manners and more on direct action.

For too long, many in our community have inadvertently curated the emotions that disabled people are allowed to experience. Throughout 2020 and into 2021, our community has made a clear shift, focusing on what can be done now to combat injustice, rather than a 20-year plan. In essence, our community wants people who are going to shake (bleep) up. And that’s my full intention.

• Fun fact: I have a (somewhat unhealthy) infatuation with dinosaurs.

Lisa Rigsby Peterson

Executive Director, Wheeler Opera House

• Born: New York, N.Y., the city so nice they named it twice

• Most recently: Executive Director of the Lone Tree Arts Center

• Predecessor: Gena Buhler, who resigned in 2020

• What can we expect? I have the privilege of following in the footsteps of great directors whose work made this cultural treasure so beloved by everyone in Aspen.

With a great team, I’m committed to honoring the Wheeler’s place in our community by welcoming area artists and cultural partners, and by programming diverse and artistically exciting programming for our audiences.

Many of the hallmarks that I established at Lone Tree, including a focus on accessibility and community-impact programs, will find a new home with me here at the Wheeler.

• What does your appointment tell us about the moment we are in? My appointment isn’t emblematic of the sea change that is underway. Instead, I think I’m just one of so many theater leaders who battled through the most difficult year of our professional lives and made it through to the other side. That we didn’t give up, and instead maintained our passion and commitment to the central role the arts have in healing people and communities, proves the old song is true: “There’s no people like show people.”

• Fun fact: I met Gordon MacRae, star of the movies “Oklahoma” and “Carousel,” when I worked at the World’s Fair in New Orleans. It was a teenage girl’s dream come true.

Pirronne Yousefzadeh

Producing Artistic Director, Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Theatre Company

• Born: Iowa City, Iowa

• Previously: Associate Artistic Director and Director of Engagement at Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, N.Y.

• Predecessor: Scott RC Levy, now Deputy Director of the Green Box Arts Project in Green Mountain Falls

• What can we expect? I plan to bring to the Fine Arts Center a highly collaborative, community-centered and inclusive approach to programming and civic engagement.

The FAC will invite participation, galvanize us to collectively imagine a better world through the power of story, and welcome any and all as a vital part of our ongoing cultural conversation.

• Fun fact: My birthday is the summer equinox, the longest day of the year.

Denver Gazette contributing arts columnist John Moore is an award-winning journalist who was named one of the 10 most influential theater critics by American Theatre Magazine. He is now producing independent journalism as part of his own company, Moore Media.





The Gazette, Colorado Springs