How a rebranded Arizona Arts Live used the pandemic to spark a renaissance
It has been almost two years to the day since it was announced that I would be joining the University of Arizona as the executive director of what was then UA Presents. While I wasn't planning on a career change at that time, the opportunity to imagine the future of Southern Arizona's premiere performing arts presenting program was exciting on too many levels to pass up.
I was excited about the University's plans to elevate the arts and about the development of the Arizona Arts division, under the leadership of Andy Schulz, vice president for the arts. And I was excited to provide new direction and purpose to an essential arts organization.
After arriving in Tucson in August 2019, I spent months getting to know the people, places and traditions that shape the culture of our community. This will be no surprise to many: I fell in love with Southern Arizona and the University of Arizona. But as much as the community was winning me over during this time, I also observed that UA Presents was not doing enough to win over the community.
Our regular patrons were representative of only a fraction of our diverse community. And we weren't bringing in programming that was nearly as inspiring, evocative or challenging as it could be. That is the beauty of great arts experiences – to push us to new ideas and perspectives by lighting a spark within us.
Members of the UA Presents staff also expressed interest in change and were ready to move forward with purpose. We wanted to curate programming with a dramatically different mentality, expanding our reach to a greater number of audiences, including exploring new spaces outside of Centennial Hall, which had been the primary venue for UA Presents.
To reflect this dramatic shift and reimagining, we felt we needed to hit the reset button and start fresh with a a new attitude and a new name: Arizona Arts Live.
There was no doubt in my mind that there would be many challenges. But I never imagined what the last year would bring.
Throughout the pandemic, our programming plans changed daily. Rather than repurposing past performances, we made it a point to work with artists who were creating work for the times we were living in. We commissioned new pieces of theater developed for pandemic life, many experienced over platforms that had become part of our daily lives, like video conferencing, and some over tried-and-true platforms, like a telephone. And we developed and brought to the community adapted in-person experiences like Craig Walsh's "MONUMENTS," which honored three local heroes with projections in the trees of campus; physically distanced concerts with XIXA and Ryanhood at the MSA Annex; and vertical dancing with BANDALOOP on the sides of the Psychology and Meinel Optical Sciences buildings.
We also found ourselves in a position to support our local musicians through The Tucson Studio, originally a toolkit for musicians that quickly morphed into a virtual concert series that we release each Thursday on our YouTube channel, facilitating online donations that go directly to the artists. Then, earlier this month, we took what we learned with The Tucson Studio into the kitchen, highlighting the amazing culinary talent in town for a new series called "In the Kitchen." This program allows audiences to preorder a meal from a chef before tuning in on YouTube that evening to learn about the preparation and importance of the food.
We commissioned a group of local artists to create Renaissance-inspired murals around the city to lift our community's spirits and give us a sense of hope during these difficult times. Throughout history, the arts have repeatedly sparked cultural renaissance that has helped provide hope and unity. After a year in which we faced one of the most significant challenges of our time, we are sure that Tucson is #ReadyforRenaissance.
And the world noticed. We have been featured in major newspapers and media outlets around the world. Artists have been performing to sold-out audiences, and the industry has held us as a model.
As we look to the future, we are excited to build on this year's unexpected successes. At the same time, we cannot wait to get you all back into the theater to witness some of the greatest artists from around the world on our Southern Arizona stages.
Arizona Arts Live invites you to join us in experiencing the extraordinary and the unexpected.
Chad Herzog began serving as executive director of Arizona Arts Live in August 2019. He oversees all aspects of the program, provides a creative vision for the organization, curates programming for the annual season and provides programming with the extended university community.