Wheeler Opera House announces new director

Lisa Rigsby Peterson comes to Aspen from Lone Tree Arts Center

Staff report
Lisa Rigsby Peterson will begin her tenure as executive director of the Wheeler Opera House on March 1. Courtesy photo

Lisa Rigsby Peterson has been hired as the new executive director of the Wheeler Opera House, the city of Aspen announced Tuesday afternoon.

Rigsby Peterson touts a career in performing arts leadership in Denver and the Front Range, most recently as the founding executive director of the Lone Tree Arts Center, where she served for more than 10 years.

Her first day on the job at the city-owned Wheeler will be Monday.

“Joining the city of Aspen to lead the team at the Wheeler Opera House ties together so many threads that have been important to me: leading a dedicated team to create exceptional arts experiences in a memorable setting, working in a community that is passionate about the arts and the impact they can make,” Rigsby Peterson said in the announcement. “And living in a place that most people only dream about. What an opportunity!”

Rigsby Peterson takes the reins one year after the resignation of executive director Gena Buhler, who oversaw a transformative period of growth for the historic theater’s programming and festivals from 2015 to 2020.

Nancy Lesley, the city’s director of special events and marketing, has served as interim executive director since Buhler’s departure. The theater has been dark since March 2020 and the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Six people, representing 50% of the Wheeler team, left their positions at the historic theater between February and November 2020.

A consultant’s taxpayer-funded analysis of internal operations at the Wheeler concluded last year that its staff is underpaid and overworked, recommending more positions be added and salaries be increased. But a second study, commissioned after Buhler’s departure, cast doubt on those conclusions. Buhler had pushed for better compensation for herself and her staff.

Rigsby Peterson’s starting salary will be $138,000. Buhler’s starting salary, in 2015, was $97,500.

Rigsby Peterson’s hire comes after a national search conducted by Arts Consulting Group, including over 140 candidates, with input from the Wheeler Advisory Board, city of Aspen staff, and members of Aspen’s arts community.

“Lisa differentiated herself from a strong pool of candidates with her depth of experience with a similar venue and a strong educational background in the arts,” said Diane Foster, assistant city manager. “At a time when we are navigating the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 on programming opportunities and repair work to the facility, Lisa brings a wealth of arts management leadership to help us restore Wheeler as the community treasure we know it to be.”

Rigsby Peterson will be responsible for reopening the Wheeler when public health restrictions allow, along with staffing, programming and capital improvements. The historic theater has a roughly $30 million endowment, funded by a real estate transfer tax.

The city announcement touted Rigsby Peterson’s innovative approach to strategic artistic partnerships and programs in Lone Tree, where she helped identify unmet needs in the community. These programs include sensory-friendly performances to engage those with autism or intellectual/developmental disabilities, programs for those with Alzheimer’s or early memory loss, and extensive youth, school, and family programs.

Before the Lone Tree post, Rigsby Peterson worked at The Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Opera Colorado, Curious Theatre Company, the Colorado Children’s Chorale, and Phamaly Theatre Company.

She attended the University of Colorado-Boulder and grew up in Evergreen. Since the 1970s, Rigsby Peterson has regularly made camping visits to Maroon Lake and attended Aspen Music Festival performances, according to the announcement.

She holds a Master of Fine Arts from Yale School of Drama in Theatre Management.

“The idea of bringing my work experience and passion to a new community, and particularly one which has had a special place in my family’s history over three generations, is exciting to me,” added Rigsby Peterson. “I relish the opportunity to be a part of the great legacy of the Wheeler.”


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