Wheeler to remain dark during COVID-19 crisis

Interim Executive Director Nancy Lesley stands outside of the Wheeler Opera House on Thursday, May 21, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

In any other spring season, the Wheeler Opera House team would be focused on booking performers for the winter, but these are not normal times.

“The world has changed; normal circumstances don’t apply anymore,” said Nancy Lesley, who was named interim executive director of the Wheeler in April.

She replaces Gena Buhler, who after five years, stepped down earlier this month.

Lesley, who also is the city’s director of special events and marketing, said last week that she’s been communicating with the Wheeler’s booking agency, and it’s a wait-and-see situation amid COVID-19 public health orders that currently limit the size of gatherings to 50 people.

Even if public health orders get to gatherings of 250 people, that would only fill half of the 500-seat venue, so booking performers for that kind of capacity presents a challenge as well.

In the meantime, the Wheeler is closed for construction so crews can work on a few projects to improve the city-owned historic facility.

The next event on the Wheeler’s calendar is the Aspen Mountain Film Festival in late August.

Whether that show goes on remains to be seen, as major events for the summer have canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.

Lesley said while she fills the role temporarily, she’s spending time in the community and talking about the Wheeler.

“I’m really kind of on a listening tour,” she said. “The health of our community is important, getting people here when the time is right and when we have safety measures in place, and how do we how do we utilize this community asset?”

Lesley also is integrating the staff from the Wheeler and the events department to work on what the summer and fall activities will look like.

“My favorite word right now is being nimble. … How do we be nimble, how do we respond to the needs, how do we support our community?” she said. “That’s really the focus now.”

The Aspen Chamber Resort Association is working with arts and cultural organizations to come up with smaller events that are designed to activate the community and economy.

Lesley said she is open to ideas on whether the Wheeler is a potential venue, but also is taking a cautious approach.

“I don’t ever want to say anything’s on the table or off the table but there’s so many factors that you need to look at and we’re under the public health orders,” she said. “We’re in the very infancy phases of what does the cleaning situation look like and sterilization.”

She said she plans to send a survey out to community members, users and staff to see what they want.

“A lot of this is going to be people-driven and how comfortable are people coming back,” Lesley said. “We want to be very responsive rather than being driven by an absolute schedule. And I think it’s far more important to listen to the community, respond accordingly than simply look at a calendar and how things were done in the past and say, ‘Just because this happened, this is the path forward.’ And I don’t think that’s appropriate right now.”

Wheeler board chairman Chip Fuller said the board of directors is ready to get the search process for the next executive director under way.

“The sooner the better, because it’s going to take a long time,” he said Thursday.

At its March 4 board meeting, which was just days before a COVID-19 outbreak occurred in Aspen, the board discussed the search process, noting that it took six months to find Buhler.

Some board members voiced support for creating two positions — an artistic director and a director of facilities — because it’s too much work for one person and requires very different skill sets.

“I think it’s something worth looking at,” Fuller said, adding there are potential flaws to having two leaders as well. “It’s a huge job for one person.”

It will ultimately be up to the City Manager’s Office to decide who fills the position.

There is no timeline for hiring a new executive director, according to city officials.

Newly hired Assistant City Manager Diane Foster will give the Wheeler board an update at its June 17 meeting.

Lesley didn’t indicate whether she’ll apply for the permanent position.

“I am right here, right now,” she said. “I want to give my best every single day for as many days as we possibly can, and that’s really taking all my energy.

“I’m really trying to get my arms around everything and the future will work itself out.”


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