Wheeler Opera House director Gena Buhler resigns after 5-year run
Wheeler Opera House executive and artistic director Gena Buhler resigned from her post this week, ending a five-year run at the helm of the historic theater.
Buhler had led the city-owned theater since 2015, overseeing a transformative period of growth for its programming and festivals.
“The Wheeler has grown in so many ways under her leadership,” Wheeler board chairman Chip Fuller said in the announcement, “from increased programming for all members of the community to major improvements to the building and audience experience. Gena has been wonderful to work with and will be very tough to replace.”
Buhler will remain at her post until May 22. She also has proposed to contract with the city beyond that, continuing to book events in the interim before her replacement is hired.
Buhler has accepted a new job in the entertainment industry that will keep her in Colorado, she said Friday. Due to a nondisclosure agreement, she said, she could not give specifics about the new post, which she said will begin in July.
“The opportunity was there in front of me and I had to take it,” she said.
Buhler submitted her resignation to acting assistant city manager Scott Miller on Tuesday, and told the Wheeler’s board of directors Thursday. A Wheeler spokesperson sent the announcement Friday morning.
Miller and city manager Sara Ott were unreachable by phone Friday.
“My only statement for now is that we wish Gena well on her new endeavors,” Miller wrote in an email Friday evening. “The city is evaluating our next steps with the Wheeler, but in the meantime the dedicated staff will continue to provide great programming.”
Buhler ramped up the programming at the Wheeler during her tenure, booking some 300 events per year — up from about 200 before her tenure — with a mix of family-friendly entertainment, music and comedy. She also partnered regularly with Belly Up Aspen to produce concerts and coordinate schedules.
“We’ve done quality and quantity,” Buhler said Friday. “Making sure what we’re booking makes sense for this community, becoming a year-round presenting and producing organization.”
Buhler oversaw a major renovation of the Wheeler in 2015 and added a slate of summer programming, making the August Mountainfilm in Aspen event (now known as the Aspen Mountain Film Festival) a major late-summer event. The Wheeler main theater is used for Aspen Music Festival and School’s opera program through most of the summer, but Buhler added Wheeler-produced summer events to the calendar by hosting intimate shows in the theater bar.
Under her leadership, the theater also began bringing back some of the world’s biggest comedians to the Wheeler stage for the Aspen Laugh Festival. The 2020 edition last weekend included a headlining set from “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah. The five-day Laugh Fest sold out nearly all of its shows, both at the Wheeler and smaller venues.
Along with the big names and new events, Buhler said she was proud of the improved quality of customer service at the theater.
“It’s a high quality that matches what you’d expect from Aspen,” she said, “and less of what it used to be, thinking ‘Well, this is how we run a municipal building.’”
The Wheeler is funded through the 0.5% real estate transfer tax that voters originally approved in 1979. It has roughly $32 million in an endowment, which in 2018 Aspen City Council considered asking voters to appropriate elsewhere, though the council eventually opted not to.
Before her departure, Buhler said she expects to go to Aspen City Council seeking supplemental funding for more staff at the theater, where a team of 12 has helped carry the load of the accelerated event schedule. A new ticketing system also is expected to launch in May.
Leaving in May means Buhler will not see to conclusion the Wheeler’s feasibility study on whether the Wheeler can or should build more performance space, with consultants expected to report to city council later this year.
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The City of Aspen has tapped Lisa Rigsby Peterson as the new director of the Wheeler Opera House.