Jiji Saunders, an island visual artist known for founding and directing VALISE Gallery, has been busy in the past few weeks, learning the ropes in her new job as executive director of Open Space for Arts & Community.
Saunders’ appointment to the post, at the end of January, came after a national search following the departure, last summer, of Open Space’s former director, Amanda Westbrooke. The organization was run in the interim by Amy Wigstrom, a consultant who worked under the direction of Open Space founders David Godsey and Janet McAlpin.
Saunders, McAlpin said, is a perfect fit for the post.
“Open Space has been led by artists in service to our community,” she said. “Jiji is an island artist so she fits right in with our mission and purpose. We understand each other.”
But Godsey and McAlpin also explained that they were impressed with other experience Saunders brought to the job. Her resume includes degrees in economics and environmental planning and management, and jobs working as the executive director of a conservation organization in Sun Valley, Idaho, and leading an environmental planning group for a consultancy in Denver.
She also has volunteer experience on the island that includes stints as a former board member of the Harbor School as well as a member of a citizen’s group that helped inform and advise on King County’s Community Service Area Plan for Vashon. Saunders, 51, moved to Vashon in 2003 and founded VALISE Gallery, an artist’s collective, in 2009.
She is still a member of the collective, and until 2017, was responsible for many aspects of its operations. While at VALISE, Saunders helped lead a decision-making process that determined that the gallery should be operated as an LLC business, rather than a non-profit.
Open Space is also set up with a similar structure, run as a private business that uses a fiscal sponsor to facilitate tax-deductible donations for some of its programs. Godsey described the model as being that of a “social investment” — where community enrichment was seen as the ultimate goal.
Saunders said she had long admired Open Space — a place that has hosted hundreds of arts and community events, productions and classes since it opened in 2008.
“There is a certain level of kindness and positivity here,” she said. “It feels like the answer here is always ‘yes,’ and I love that.”
Still, Saunders alluded to her background in planning and economics, indicating she planned to keep a careful eye on the finances of the organization to ensure the sustainability of its operations.
“The great things about numbers is that they don’t lie, and that will inform our business model,” she said.
Following an extensive renovation of the 23,000 square foot space unveiled in late 2017, activities have recently ramped up at Open Space, with McAlpin estimating at least a 30 percent uptick in bookings at the venue.
The venue currently produces burlesque shows, outdoor and indoor aerial performances, an increasingly full calendar of concerts by local and nationally touring artists, and other arts and community events for all ages.
Last summer, the renovation made possible “Festival 25: Catch Us While You Can,” sponsored by Vashon Island Visual Artists — a month-long celebration that included contributions of visual art and music by more than 100 people who have resided on the island for 25 years or more.
Arts groups currently in residence at Open Space include the UMO Ensemble, the UMO School of Physical Arts and Civic Rep Theater. Yoga and movement classes also are offered year-round. The venue is also available for rent for community gatherings, weddings, workshops and retreats, and fundraisers for local nonprofits.
In June, the 10 acres of outdoor space surrounding Open Space will be the site of the first-ever Blues and Brews Festival, presented by the Vashon Rotary, and other major theatrical and community events are also in the works.
One of Saunders’ most immediate responsibilities will be overseeing the staffing up of Open Space, with two positions for part-time staff currently listed. One of the jobs is for a salaried, half-time youth programs coordinator, and the other is for a house manager. Currently, six people fill full and part-time positions in the office of Open Space.
Saunders said she is excited for the future of Open Space — and particularly eager to see the organization play a bigger role in being a destination for island youth, something she sees as fulfilling a critical need.
“We’re really honing in on the youth programming direction,” she said. “There is a concentration of youth on the island who have fallen through the cracks, and their numbers don’t even show up. We are passing on limits, not opportunity. We want to listen to youth.”