In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Wesley Gentle, interim managing director and president of Arts Fort Worth, spoke with arts and culture editor Marcheta Fornoff about the mission of the organization and its search for a new leader.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Please listen to the audio file attached to this article to hear more.
Marcheta Fornoff: Thank you for sitting down and taking the time to chat with me.
Wesley Gentle: Thank you, Marcheta.
Fornoff: Can you remind people, after the rebrand and a couple of changes, about the mission and the scope of Arts Fort Worth?
Gentle: Arts Fort Worth was established as the Arts Council of Fort Worth back in 1963, and that was largely thanks to the leadership of Ruth Carter Stevenson, daughter of Amon Carter, whose namesake museum is just across the street from the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, where you and I are sitting right now.
The nonprofit was established to basically serve as sort of a federated giving. People pooled the resources to support the big performing arts organizations in Fort Worth: the ballet, the symphony, eventually the Cliburn, the opera. And over time, this organization continued that mission. In the nineties, it started to expand what it could do in terms of giving grants out to support the arts in this community. From that point, it started to look more (at) how we can serve our neighborhoods and get activities out of just the cultural district and institutions that they were associated with and into the places where people are living and working and playing.
In the early 2000s, the organization, as we now know it, started to emerge. That was thanks to a couple of things. The city of Fort Worth was launching its public art program, Fort Worth Public Art, and the Arts Council was awarded that contract. Around the same time, the building that we’re in right now, the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, formerly was the Modern Art Museum. The Modern moved to its current location and the Arts Council was given the contract to manage the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, which includes the Scott Theatre that has about 500 seats. Eventually we created a space called the Sanders Theatre and another theater space we’re calling The Vault. It also has multiple gallery spaces, office spaces for other nonprofit arts organizations, artist studio spaces and it’s kind of a multi-functional space for the community to create and engage with the arts. So that’s the long historical version of how we came to kind of be the organization we are today.
We recently rebranded as Arts Fort Worth. The term council evokes government and in some ways inaccessibility — we don’t see ourselves as (that) and are trying very hard to not be as an organization. Although we work very closely with the City of Fort Worth, we provide all the services I mentioned through a contract with the city. We want to reflect that we work with the city and partner with the city, but we serve the community in numerous ways and rely on our partners and donors to make that possible.
Fornoff: Karen Wiley, who helmed this organization for quite some time, recently decided to step down, and you’ll be filling in for her in the interim. Can you talk about what that will mean on a day-to-day basis? What will that job look like?
Gentle: I’ve been on the job for three days now (as of July 6), and I can tell you every minute of that has been different from the minute before. With all the programs, spaces and activities that I rambled through for the past minute there, each one, involves a certain amount of support from this position. We have a really awesome, talented and experienced team kind of managing each of those aspects. A lot of my job is just checking in with a lot of these amazing individuals who do really impressive and remarkable feats of arts administration, taking resources that we have or seeking resources, helping me in my fundraising capacity to understand what the needs are and connecting people who can help us bridge that gap. Figuring out what our artists need to succeed in their careers and take the next step, and figuring out where people in this community are not being reached by the arts and finding ways for them to see themselves and express themselves through the arts.
Fornoff: Can you talk a little bit about the search for that new leader and what that will look like?
Gentle: Karen let our team know that she had decided to retire completely from arts administration in order to pursue her own art. After much thinking, talking with her peers and some folks that she looks to for guidance, she decided to take that step back into her life as an artist and gave us a few months to give the board an opportunity to make some decisions. They appointed me to serve in an interim capacity, which from my end, I hope is very short.
They did start the process by beginning to pull together a search committee that will look at the options that we have for national firms who specialize in finding executives in arts administration, specifically those who may possess any number of the skills that we’ve identified as pertinent to public arts grants, management, arts, facilities management.
Fornoff: As someone who has been a performer in the arts community here and who is actively engaging with people across different disciplines, what needs or skills do you think are really essential for whoever will eventually land in that role?
Gentle: That’s a great question. I will say what I hope for is definitely contained to me and the board of directors is ultimately the ones running the search. I do have a non-voting role as president on the board currently in my interim capacity.
But I think someone who can fulfill the strategic plan or at least guide us through that, is the sort of candidate that we’re looking for from my lens as a performer, an artist, myself, someone who is friends with artists and cares deeply about their lives in this community. Someone who understands the life of an artist and you can’t say that as a blanket term — everyone’s experience is going to be different. But Karen was able to be effective in many ways because she herself had walked as an artist and had a passion for that. (It) certainly isn’t mutually exclusive to people who have been artists, but I think someone who carries that passion and that’s what drives them forward, I think is essential. It’s a big, strange, complicated organization that we have stewardship of and it’s very easy to let it wash over you if you don’t have that north star of why you’re doing it.
Fornoff: I want to kind of go back to that initial question of the scope of Arts Fort Worth and what it does. I wonder what you say to someone who maybe feels disconnected from the arts and they maybe feel a little bit removed from the reach of the organization. What would you say to that person and what do you hope that they can get from Arts Fort Worth being in the community?
Gentle: That’s an awesome question. There’s two parts to that. The first part is, I think with a little bit of time, almost anyone can figure out how the arts intersect with their life, whether that’s your kids painting something or taking a piano lesson. There’s the very obvious things, right? And then there are the less obvious things. The background music of your favorite TV show. There’s the illustration in the paper that helps connect a story for you. And there’s literary arts, experiential arts. I mean, there are things that people sometimes forget are arts that they encounter on a regular basis.
But I think if you set that aside and, you know, if the question is, why do the arts matter to someone who doesn’t want to hang out with cool people and discover new things about our existence on this earth? I think one answer is that there’s a huge economic proposition for our arts industry in this community, in this country.
We are in the middle of updating a national economic impact study called Arts and Economic Prosperity. This will be the sixth edition of that that we are sponsoring and conducting for Fort Worth in partnership with Americans for the Arts, the national body that’s conducting that study. The last time this study was done was in 2015 with results published in 2017, and we learned from that in Fort Worth alone, there was a $450-something million economic impact and I think it’s about 14,400 full-time employees were employed by nonprofit arts activities in that one year period.
We are currently working with our partners throughout the community to do surveys as well as provide other data points that help that study. And I think there’s a two-year turnaround on that report. So there’s certainly going to be a little bit of time before people hear the results of that. Of course, we expect with the growth Fort Worth has seen since 2015, that it’ll be substantial, even though the pandemic has been really tough for our industry. Arts and culture have a very real impact on quality of life from a personal standpoint, from an educational standpoint and civic standpoint. But they really have a major impact on our economy as an employer, as a driver of government revenue, and as an economic driver for business.
Fornoff: Thank you so much.
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.