Last Friday, as Vashon Center for the Arts prepared for a First Friday opening in the Koch Gallery, a new face moved among the busy staff and volunteers. Susan Warner, the organization’s recently hired executive director, advanced from meeting to meeting in her tightly orchestrated schedule that culminated with greeting the public that evening. It was day one for Warner, and, as she told The Beachcomber, she’s honored to step into the position and looks forward to building on the organization’s legacy.
“I was intrigued because I could see how VCA had history, had grown from a community culture and then made this rather significant leap into potentially being a regionally significant institution,” she said. “The quality of the performing arts experiences, gallery exhibits, education and instruction is just exceptional.”
After 30 years of arts management and museum education experience, Warner would know. With a background in curatorial management and art history degrees from Southampton University in England and Antioch University in Seattle, Warner has worked in art and education fields at the Seattle Children’s Museum, the Olympia State Capital Museum and Dayton Art Institute. She also knows what it takes to launch an arts organization from the ground up. For the past 16 years, Warner helped roll out and then lead the Museum of Glass (MOG) in Tacoma, first as education director, then as director of public programs, and finally as executive director and artistic director.
That seasoned perspective is an asset Warner brings to VCA. It’s also the reason why VCA Board President Denise Katz said that after an extensive search, which brought candidates from around the region and beyond, the board is “thrilled to have Susan as the new executive director.”
“She has extensive experience in successful leadership and program development,” Katz said. “Her vision, energy, commitment and sense of community will be a wonderful fit for our organization.”
Warner, who currently splits her days between the work of exiting MOG and entering VCA, will take the helm full-time on May 1. Former executive director Molly Reed retired at the end of March, after leading the organization through six difficult and exciting years that culminated in the opening of VCA’s 20,000-square-foot building. Late islander Kay White contributed $10 million, with donations and grant monies funding the rest of the $20 million price tag.
As for steering the arts organization into the future, Warner plans to spend her first months talking with and listening to islanders.
“I tend to be out and about,” she said. “I want to meet all the artists and cultural organizations here and listen because the history on the island is so deep. It’s really important to have that listening perspective. After that, we can decide where to go next.”
When asked if she knew about the controversy surrounding VCA’s new facility, the fear that it would create an exclusive arts club and higher ticket prices, Warner responded by citing her experience with a similar issue.
“What I would say is that whenever you build something new and wonderful, people worry that they won’t have access,” she said. “It happened with MOG, but we were able to put together all kinds of opportunities that ensured everybody had equal access to what the facility could offer. I am really committed to that for VCA. The center is not just for the arts people, it is for everybody. It’s the contemporary idea of arts center as community center, a gathering place for conversation and exploration of ideas, issues, problems. I think we play that role here and will expand on that. VCA is for everybody and everybody on the island should feel really proud of this organization.”
Katz concurred saying the board’s vision is indeed to broaden VCA’s identity from an arts-centered organization to a culture-centered organization.
“We will promote art and culture through increased exposure, experiences and education,” she said. “Our goal is to be responsive to the needs of the island and our community. The new facility creates many fabulous opportunities for our artists and audiences.”
Warner admits she has plenty of ideas for what might fill the new building, including fresh educational programming like “The Science of Art” program she created at MOG. There is a tendency to teach art and science separately, she said, despite the common approach that scientists and artists take to their work — experimenting, testing, observing, implementing and evaluating.
“In the natural world, you don’t deconstruct things, you experience them together,” she said. “In the glass process, for instance, the physics and chemistry of what you’re watching is right there, so if you tease it out, then you are teaching both of these disciplines together. I look forward to those kinds of explorations here as well.”
Furthermore, she said, contemporary research shows capacity in the arts is what will be needed in our technological, virtual-reality world.
“Artists are the people who are thinking outside of this box and making it all happen and a lot of companies are hiring artists. The artistic community is going to be central to economic development in the future,” Warner said.
With the Blue Heron Educational Center slated for renovation with upgrades to the building, Warner hopes to grow the strong programs, like dance, that are already in place, in addition to adding new programs.
As for an expanded curatorial landscape, Warner’s blue eyes sparkle when she talks about implementing the proposed sculpture park. As someone who grew up surrounded by the beauty and open spaces of Tanzania and Kenya, Warner has an affinity for the natural world. At her Tacoma house just four minutes away from the Pt. Defiance ferry, she dug up all the grass to plant an English country garden jam-packed with perennials and to create a benign environment for animals. Upon her arrival in 1991, Warner immediately recognized the grandeur of the Northwest, adding that “we are fortunate and need to take care of it.”
It is clear that Warner’s appreciation of nature and the arts goes beyond mere aesthetics. It encompasses the deep and abiding values they imbue in a community.
“I have a great love for all the art forms, visual and performing, and for those who create in whatever medium or through whatever vehicle they choose,” Warner said. “It really is the health, the heart of a community manifested through the rigorous nature of how the arts are cultivated and nurtured. I thoroughly believe that.”