Washington Center's new director eager to connect artists with audiences

Contributing writerJuly 4, 2013 

Jill Barnes is the new executive director of the Washington Center for the Performing Arts in Olympia. Barnes has arrived at an exciting time in the center's history with a large exterior upgrading project well underway.

STEVE BLOOM — Staff Photographer Buy Photo

Jill Barnes, the new executive director of The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, is just beginning to get to know her community.

With her husband, Nathan, and their three children, Barnes moved to Olympia last month from Idaho Falls, Idaho, where she was executive director of the Idaho Falls Arts Council, a nonprofit organization running a theater and arts center.

“We’ve had so much fun,” she said. “We’ve driven out to Ocean Shores. Our youngest child had never seen the ocean. ... We went to the Hands On Children’s Museum; they love it there. We’ve enjoyed Thai food and Indian food. We’ve enjoyed the farmers market. We picked strawberries at Spooner Farms.

“We want to take it all in.”

Barnes has lived in the world of the arts since her Wisconsin childhood: She grew up seeing art of all kinds — and participating, too — at John Michael Kohler Arts Center, a nonprofit art museum and performing arts center in Sheboygan.

“I’ve probably been preparing for this job my whole life,” she said.

Barnes remembers seeing the masked theater troupe Mummenschanz, among many others, at the Kohler Arts Center. “Looking back now, knowing that I saw this troupe as a child is pretty extraordinary,” she said. “I’d never seen anything like that before.”

She also participated in a summer theater program at the center — and after earning a master’s in arts administration at Boston University and working for a few years, she went to work at Kohler Arts Center as the performing arts coordinator.

“It was pretty extraordinary,” she said. “I went back to do the programming at the arts center that had such a profound impact on my life. It has impacted the lives of so many people in that region.”

She spoke in broad terms last week about her vision for the Washington Center, including its financial stability, strong partnerships with the 27 community arts groups that perform at the center, and varied programming — long a focus at the center, where staff chose the 2013-14 season with help from a survey of patrons.

“I can’t just book a season of things I want to see,” she said. “Our role and our opportunity is to bring in a variety of genres. And within each genre, I really try to bring in the best quality.”

Of this season’s lineup, Barnes is particularly excited about singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright — “I’m kind of crazy excited about that” — and physical comedian Tomás Kubínek, whom she brought to the Kohler Arts Center.

“He is hard to define,” she said. “He’s just enchanting. You fall in love with him within 5 minutes of watching him perform.”

Kubínek’s work is just one of many delights she’s encountered in her nine years of programming for performing arts centers. “I couldn’t even count how many shows I’ve contracted,” she said. “Hundreds of shows.”

Barnes has a good reputation in the field, said Tom Iovanne, the Washington Center’s former executive director. The center had been without a permanent director since Iovanne resigned in 2011.

“I called a few contacts in Idaho and got some really good reports back,” Iovanne said about Barnes last week. “They said things like she’s good at what she does, she’s smart, she has good artistic sensibility.”

Perhaps Barnes’s greatest passion as the Washington Center’s new director is to bring the people of South Sound the same deep connection with the arts that she herself has.

“How can we make the experience more meaningful?” she asked. “How can we make it more than a lovely evening at the theater?”

Her answer: Increase the interaction between visiting artists and the community.

“We bring artists from around the world into the center,” she said. “I’m looking forward to making more connections between the artists and the community. I want to get artists out into the schools or bring school groups in to interact with artists and learn about their culture.

“A lot of our artistic partners do outreach into the community and into the schools already,” she said. “It makes a huge impact on the lives of kids who are watching or participating.”

And arts education isn’t just for children, she said. “There are opportunities for adults as well. Maybe we have a talk back. Maybe something we’re doing is a really nice complement to something another arts organization is doing.”

The Olympian is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service