By Julie Anderson
For Gerd Wuestemann, having grown up in a small town in Germany, Arizona might not have seemed like the obvious choice to find his home and inspiration.
But with a last name that translates into “desert man,” it looks like his path to leading Scottsdale Arts was destined.
Wuestemann became the CEO and president of the nonprofit arts organization in March 2018. The multifaceted institution, based in Old Town fronting the lawns and fountains of Scottsdale Civic Center Mall, includes the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Scottsdale Public Art, and the Scottsdale Arts Education and Outreach programs.
Since 2016, the Flinn Foundation has supported Scottsdale Arts with a pair of grants under its Initiative for Financial and Creative Health, designed to strengthen alignment between the organization’s creative products and financial capitalization.
During his first year, one that he describes as “fast, furious, and exciting,” Wuestemann’s efforts to unify the organization’s four elements topped his goals and included boosting the visibility and significance of the education pillar.
He also began laying out vast plans for the future of the organization: building an “iconic outdoor venue” at Scottsdale Civic Center Mall, creating a “front door” to the Scottsdale Arts campus by installing a marquee to advertise programming, building a connecting air bridge from the performing arts center to the museum, as well as developing programming focused on modern dance, which Wuestemann hopes will put Scottsdale Arts on the map as “a center of modern dance presenting in the Southwest.”
The performing-arts center attracts international, national,
and local musical, theater, and comedy acts to its 853-seat Virginia G. Piper
Theater. The center also has a second, smaller theater for lectures, films, and
other events that Wuestemann would like to see better utilized by local artists.
SMoCA, which opened in 1999, is a museum devoted to contemporary art, architecture, and design. Meanwhile, Scottsdale Public Art oversees exhibitions, art installations throughout the city, and cultural events.
“What I’m particularly proud of for the public-art program is that we do a lot of temporary art installations. Not everything is meant to sit there forever, and maybe the most significant outcropping of that is Canal Convergence, which is headed into its 10th year next year,” Wuestemann says.
A world-class musician discovers Arizona
Wuestemann’s passion for arts education stems from his early life. He is a classically-trained musician who started playing and performing at a young age. This led him to pursue not only an education in classical guitar, but a career. He has recorded and toured as a professional musician.
He initially came to the United States to attend graduate school for his second master’s degree in San Francisco. But when the time came for him to choose a doctoral program, a visit to the University of Arizona campus in Tucson proved to be a life-changing experience.
“I remember I went to check out the program in April; it was getting pretty warm, but I was absolutely mesmerized by the landscape. I’d never seen southern Arizona and I thought it was just magnificent. And I felt that the perspective you gain in this environment—you can see forever, there’s this incredible intensity of light, and sort of this sparseness of desert landscape—I thought it was extraordinary,” Wuestemann says.
Wuestemann says he chose UA because of the prominence of the guitar-performance program, the package he was offered, and the amazing environment.
“I have to say, the three years I spent in Tucson I think changed me and my life more than anything. I really find the desert incredibly inspiring.”
He later moved to Louisiana, where he accepted a university position as a guitar professor. But after a pair of accidents that shattered his wrist and shoulder, Wuestemann found himself unable to play or perform guitar for two years.
From artist to businessman
It was during this unexpected crossroad when Wuestemann made a life-changing decision.
“I thought to myself, I’ve always had a bit of an entrepreneurial bug, so I’d like to try my hand at business,” Wuestemann says.
Wuestemann helped build a company that made carbon-fiber guitars, providing him with a newfound business expertise.
“As part of that team, [I] learned how to build a company, and learned how to read a balance sheet, and mange cash flow … and how to build a team that works together in manufacturing,” Wuestemann says.
“It was like going to business school for a few years without having to pay for it.”
After that company sold, he became the executive director of Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette, La., where he remained 10 years before moving to Scottsdale. It was there that all of Wuestemann’s talents seemed to coalesce. He built not only a brand for the organization, but also programming and an arts center with multi-use performance spaces.
“I really came from a life in the arts, and an arts education, to entrepreneurial experience, to taking over a small arts nonprofit and growing it. That led me to here,” Wuestemann says.
His hiring by Scottdale Arts would bring him back to the Arizona desert, a place he says he always hoped to return. Wuestemann’s goal for his first year at Scottsdale Arts was not only to unify all sectors of the organization, but also its internal and external relationships.
“It meant our board evolved as well. We brought a lot of new board members to the organization, [which] generated some new excitement there. [We then] laid out a vision that really brought all of us together,” Wuestemann says.
Another focus during Wuestemann’s inaugural year, he says, was managing Scottsdale Arts’ relationships with other Arizona-based arts-and-culture groups, resulting in new collaborations and improved connectivity across the Phoenix area.
A grand vision for the Scottsdale arts community
Wuestemann’s ultimate vision for the future of Scottsdale Arts would bring the spirit of collaboration that he has fostered within the organization to a citywide scale.
“I do feel a strong sense of responsibility to represent all of culture in Scottsdale with this organization, so we said, ‘So what happens if we can build out this culture mile?’” Wuestemann says.
The idea is to create a corridor through Old Town from the Scottsdale Arts campus west to Marshall Way and north to the Scottsdale Waterfront, including attractions such as Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West and the Scottsdale Artists’ School.
“You have galleries and private arts entities; you have great public art facilities, and museums, and concert spaces—hopefully soon an iconic outdoor venue—and you have bars, restaurants, hotels, all within three-quarters of a mile of easy walking. And public artwork peppering the entire thing,” Wuestemann says. “So, if we can connect this entire corridor, I think it would be an extremely powerful thing.”
Learn more about Scottsdale Arts