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Gary Peterson on his new leadership post at Southern Theater

Gary Peterson, the beleaguered Southern Theater’s new executive director, is no stranger to the Twin Cities arts community, nor its diverse, thriving dance scene. He is an insider, unlike the Southern Theater’s previous executive director, Patricia Speelman — an Ohioan installed after the Board of Directors ousted founding artistic director Jeff Bartlett (who has since landed at the Shubert as dance-community liaison) amidst tremendous controversy and community tumult.

For more on the Southern’s travails see articles here and here, and, on the new dance curator, here.

Through his many-decade career in the Twin Cities, Peterson’s been executive director of several dance companies, including James Sewell Ballet. Since retiring from that post, he’s been an arts consultant. He also manages and writes his own blog, Minnesota Mist, where he insightfully and incisively ponders whatever interests him — which is a lot.

So, on the eve of entering a new office and new position, two quick questions:

MinnPost: Why step into this position, which has been fraught with controversy?

Gary Peterson: Why do anything in life if only to avoid controversy? How productive and exciting is that?

People and organizations ebb and flow with dynamic currents. Sometimes, currents bring things together in ways that could not have happened in the past, or that might not happen again in the future. This seems to be one of those times.

An organization with deep roots in the community, and its longtime leader, also with deep roots in the community, had a difficult parting of the ways. I truly hope that the Southern and its pioneering, longtime leader will be characterized by their strong records of creativity and accomplishment.

Ultimately, all of us do things because we want to make a difference in whatever way we can. That’s why I am stepping in here. I get to keep working with dancers and choreographers, but also get to broaden my personal embrace to include aspects of theater and music. I have a wide variety of enthusiasms, and the Southern offers a vehicle to explore and express them, in concert with its staff and board, and to find ways to continue serving — and, hopefully, better serving — artists and audiences.

That’s about personal and organizational growth. The recession has led every household and enterprise to question assumptions, search for efficiencies, and focus on core values and meaning. As I said for the press release, we have an excellent moment in hand to plan for economic recovery and build the future.

MinnPost: How do you hope to restore the Southern’s standing in the local arts community?

GP: Years ago, a longtime ballet mistress advised me to “focus on the knitting and don’t worry about what other people have done or are doing.” That seems to apply here.

The Southern building has been standing in the community for 100 years, and the current organizational structure has been in place for something like 30 years. As a 501(c)(3), the Southern operates through its staff, board, and artists on behalf of the community that provides the resources for it to do its work. The Southern and the community are woven together. Occasional strains in the fabric are inevitable.

For sure, significant segments of the dance community experienced strained relationships with the Southern; many of those relationships are on the mend. Out of that pain, however, has come new opportunities for people in theater and music, with continued opportunities in dance.

Hopefully, all of us keep learning from everything that we experience in life and art.

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