By Brian Powell
From the time she was very little, Jaime Dempsey knew she was an artist.
She trained as an actor and in vocal music and graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in theatre. But while in college, a nonprofit leadership class and the pursuit of a social anthropology minor changed her direction.
“I realized my heart was in service as opposed to performance,” Dempsey says. “I believe in the power of arts and culture and wanted to harness creativity to grow opportunities for individuals and the communities where they live. My work allows me to do just that.”
Dempsey, a Flinn-Brown Fellow, is the executive director of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, leading the 50-year-old state agency that provides grants to arts organizations, artists and community groups, promotes public access to the arts, and leads statewide initiatives.
Dempsey, who had served as deputy director since May 2006 before moving into her current role last year, reports to a governor-appointed board and oversees a $4.25 million annual budget and $1.75 million private endowment.
A statewide reach
One initiative Dempsey is especially passionate about is the AZ Creative Communities Institute. In the first phase, teams from nine municipalities and neighborhoods are participating in a training program to learn how to leverage arts-based strategies in response to specific community challenges, she says.
Participating communities include Casa Grande, Douglas, Flagstaff, Globe, Tempe and Yuma, as well as the neighborhoods of South Phoenix, Eastlake in Phoenix, just east of downtown, and Barrio Anita in Tucson. Each local team is comprised of artists and non-artists, including business owners, education specialists and even a mayor. The projects vary from creating a community-engaged arts festival in Casa Grande to a Flagstaff plan to utilize artistic practices to address recidivism. In Yuma, residents will participate directly in the completion of a series of murals, focusing on shared values related to housing and the concept of home.
The program also features the involvement of five Flinn-Brown Fellows from Phoenix, Tucson, and Flagstaff as team members, mentors, and partners, including Dempsey.
“I have called upon the Flinn-Brown Network on several occasions to broaden the scope of our work,” Dempsey says. “So many of our programs benefit from the engagement of community leaders from across the state, and the Flinn-Brown Network is packed full of them. Their involvement helps us improve our understanding of community-specific issues and strengthens our geographic reach.”
The agency is also seeking input from all Arizonans as part of the NextAZ visionary planning initiative, which will create innovative activities and products, partnerships, publications, online tools and an agency plan. The commission also works closely with the state legislature by providing information about the economic and educational impact of the commission’s investments, while ensuring legislators are aware of projects in their districts.
As a community leader, Dempsey has served on a number of boards related to the arts, including the national board of directors for Grantmakers in the Arts, an association of public and private funders that places a priority on racial equity in arts philanthropy.
Over the years she has worked with Arizona foundations, including the Flinn Foundation, to bring to the state DataArts, formerly the Cultural Data Project, which collects and disseminates financial and organizational data to participating arts groups and funders. She has served on the project’s national board for several years.
Before joining the Arts Commission, Dempsey worked for the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University, where she oversaw a national writer’s conference and visiting-writers series, and led the staff effort to renovate the old President’s House to serve as the center’s home.
When Dempsey applied for the Flinn-Brown Civic Leadership Academy, the flagship program of the Arizona Center for Civic Leadership at the Flinn Foundation, she wanted to learn more about statewide policy and broaden her professional network.
“It was one of the most transformational opportunities in my career,” Dempsey says. “We wrestled with challenges that seemed insurmountable, and in the process, productive relationships were sparked.”
Dempsey says she is passionate about public policy, especially related to education, health care, and innovation, and is curious about people’s lives and challenges and how to make systems work.
Dempsey has stayed involved with the 300-strong Flinn-Brown Network, attending legislative preview and wrap-up sessions as well as the inaugural Flinn-Brown Convention in September 2017. The Academy will welcome 36 new members in March.
“We all want what is best for Arizona, and the Flinn-Brown experience forms bonds between people who may have little else in common but the fact that they recognize the extraordinary potential that lives within our communities,” Dempsey says. “For Arizona’s successful future, these relationships are not just nice. They are necessary.”