May 28, 2020
Hartford Courant: New Haven’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas, in the midst of one of the biggest leadership transitions in its 25-year history, has named Shelley Quiala as its next executive director. She starts in July.
Quiala joins Arts & Ideas, currently happening now online, just as the festival has begun to demonstrate a new adventurousness and flexibility. The festival’s abrupt and ambitious overhaul to adapt to the coronavirus was overseen by current A&I co-directors Tom Griggs, and Liz Fisher, both of whom announced last year that they will be stepping down after the 2020 festival.
A nationwide search returned Quiala, who comes from Minnesota’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, where she has held several positions over the past 17 years, most recently vice president in programming, education and community engagement.
She is bilingual, speaking English and Spanish, and committed to equity in the arts, which she defines not just as creating opportunities for artists of diverse cultural backgrounds but creating access so that audiences can broaden and grow.
“Local is also global,” Quiala says. “There’s a way to celebrate global and also be community oriented.”
“I’m always thinking about equity, about socioeconomic access," and says she wants to make the festival more accessible to New Haven’s large Spanish-speaking population. The programming needs to be accessible to all communities. New Haven is one city, but the experience of living in that city is not a singular experience.”
Quiala is in a tradition of A&I leaders who see the unique cultural qualities of New Haven as a major factor in the ongoing success of the festival. Over the years, the festival has created widespread community gatherings on the Green, put local artists on its main stages alongside the international talents, and run satellite festivals in various New Haven neighborhoods that have taken on a personality of their own. From the earliest years, offerings have included works inspired by local history and highlighting social issues of special importance to the region. Local jazz artists and the New Haven Symphony Orchestra have accompanied global superstars in concerts on the Green.
“The work I was a part of at the Ordway was incredibly multifaceted,” Quiala says. “That’s the world I lived in.” She sees a similar breadth and diversity here. “I’m looking forward to knowing New Haven.”
The Ordway Center resembles The Bushnell in Hartford in the way it hosts national tours of Broadway shows, books lots of one-night concerts, houses a symphony orchestra and has more than one performance space. Where the Ordway compares with the International Festival of Arts & Ideas is in creating community-oriented programming geared to the unique cultural qualities of its home city, and by bringing in international artists, often with experimental leanings, that the more mainstream arts presenters haven’t discovered yet. Artists who’ve played both Arts & Ideas and the Ordway Center include Canadian punk-style Inuit throat singer Tanya Tacaq, the Connecticut-based modern movement troupe Pilobolus and the theater circus troupe Cirque Mechanics.
“Like Arts & Ideas, the Ordway is committed to artists at the top of their craft. There’s a lot of overlap,” Quiala said in a phone interview on May 21. She says she first learned about the job when she was approached by the group conducting a national search, Arts Consulting Group.
Quiala says she expects current director of programming Bobby Asher to stay on. “Tom and Liz leaving gives us an opportunity to make some changes, but we will continue to need strong managerial chops and fundraising ability.” She says the festival is “in a very good place financially, on a sustainable scale. It’s the best kind of situation to walk into as a new leader."
State funding of the festival has diminished over the years. Even before the coronavirus, Arts & Ideas had to deal with increasing difficulties in arranging visas for artists traveling from other countries. The festival has compensated by highlighting the multicultural aspects of Connecticut itself.
The International Festival of Arts & Ideas has always meant “international” to suggest not just the artists it brings in from other parts of the world (which have included Russia, China, Africa, Australia and especially Europe) but also the diverse cultural community of New Haven itself. The festival likes to point out that dozens of different languages are spoken in the city.
Quiala visited New Haven while interviewing at the festival, and is now looking for a place to live in the city. If she’s able to travel then, she may return as soon as July. In the meantime, she’s attending Arts & Ideas virtually. “I signed up for the ‘Make a Dance’ workshop."