Powering Pablo: Female leaders are the new arts center’s not-so-secret weapons

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth

Pablo Center Staff Members (Left to Right): Brenna St. George Jones, Elaine Coughlin, Rose Dolan-Neill, Brianna Hotchkiss, and Amy O'Connor.
Pablo Center staff members (left to right): Brenna St. George Jones, Elaine Coughlin, Rose Dolan-Neill, Brianna Hotchkiss, and Amy O'Connor.

When the curtain rose for the first time at the Pablo Center at the Confluence on Sept. 22, it wasn’t just a big moment for the performers on stage: It was a fulfilling, emotional crescendo for those who have been working for months to open downtown Eau Claire’s new arts center.

Although they may have been watching from the wings or the audience that night, the Pablo Center’s staff was in the proverbial spotlight, too.

I couldn’t be prouder of standing next to four other women every moment that I do this.– Brenna St. George Jones • Director of Artistic Programming • Pablo Center at the Confluence

“We feel it – the weight of that expectation,” explained Brenna St. George Jones, the Pablo’s director of artistic programming. “There was a moment at the end of the performance where the firebird rises, and the orchestra stands, and the timpani are going, and I don’t think there was a person among us who wasn’t just like” – she imitated fighting back tears – “because it felt exactly like we felt,  this great moment of ascension and power.”

St. George Jones is part of a core group of women in leadership positions at the Pablo. She previously was a senior director for an arts center at Columbia University in New York, and at the Pablo she oversees multiple performance series, gallery spaces, literary and visual arts events, and education and workforce programming. “The sum is I come up with all of the crazy ideas that everyone else is forced to help me make happen,” she said, eliciting laughter from her four colleagues gathered around a table on the Pablo’s third floor. The lounge offered a breathtaking vista of the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers – not that these women have much chance to sit around and admire the view.

“As we’re a small staff, we’ve all kind of done a lot of everything,” Brianna Hotchkiss said. She’s the Pablo’s sales and booking manager, but she has been called upon to use the production management skills she developed during a previous position at the Pablo’s predecessor, the State Theatre. Two other Pablo staffers – Elaine Coughlin and Rose Dolan-Neill – also worked at the State, which closed in August after more than 30 years as the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center.

While in some ways the Pablo is an extension of the State, it’s more accurate to look at it as a startup, said Coughlin, the Pablo’s marketing and business development manager. “It’s a really big startup business, and it takes a lot to start a business,” she said.

“We are all working very, very hard,” Coughlin added. “This is a huge passion for all of us, and we completely understand what the community wants from us. We know how high their expectations are, and we don’t want to disappoint them.”

When you have a career in the arts, St. George Jones said, you’re sometimes told you don’t have a “real job” – a critique that the women of the Pablo find laughable, especially when their workplace hosts five simultaneous events, as it did on a recent Friday evening. “There is no more real job in the world,” St. George Jones said. “The hardest deadline in the world is an opening night. At 7:30, there will be 1,200 people there and the curtain is going up and you better be ready. There is no, ‘Oh, by the way.’ ”

While it’s been open less than a month, the Pablo has already been the site of moments that staff members will remember for the rest of their lives. Dolan-Neill, the Pablo’s visual and literary arts manager, said she feels great responsibility being the curator of the Laurie Bieze Permanent Art Collection, which is named in honor of a late, legendary local artist. She said she wanted her first act in the building to be installing artwork in the building’s Graham Avenue Walking Gallery, include a beautiful stained glass piece by Bieze herself. “So it was late at night, here I am all alone except for the cleaning crew, in that beautiful hallway, it’s semi-lit, putting that nail and that hammer to that wall for the first time,” she recalled. “It’s both irreverent and emotional. I’ve been watching these walls being constructed and painted, and I’m pretty sure that part of the wall was at least $100.”

While hanging artwork may be a solitary experience, most of the work at the Pablo isn’t. Staff members said they’ve gelled tightly as a team. “I know it sounds corny, but we are better as a group, and able to do more as a group than any one of us would be able to shoulder alone. And it is a uniquely cooperative group,” said St. George Jones, eliciting murmurs of agreement from the others. “So when we’re doing things like stacking 400 chairs, you think, ‘Well, I wouldn’t be stacking these 400 chairs with any other group of people.’ ”

Having a professional environment populated with other women has felt “easy and comfortable,” St. George Jones added. To the credit of the board and (Executive Director Jason Jon Anderson), there’s not been any, ‘Oh, now ladies,’ ” she said, adopting an exaggerated tone of masculine condescension and prompting more laughter. Having worked in the arts for years in male-dominated situations, St. George Jones was accustomed to having to fight to have her voice heard, sometimes amid a “deeply broken” work culture. “Here we’ve got to depend on ourselves, we’re all pretty much battle-hardened veterans. We talk amongst ourselves, we look out for each other,” she said. “I couldn’t be prouder of standing next to four other women every moment that I do this. … I think it’s good that the students, the ushers, the people who work here see that this place … isn’t Mad Men and we’re not just the secretaries.”

And as exciting and empowering as opening the Pablo has been, its staff is even more excited about what the facility will mean to the Chippewa Valley in the coming years as grows into its role as an center for arts, culture, and and economic development. Amy O’Connor, patron relations manager and assistant to the executive director, said she believes the Pablo Center can help pull the community together. In a polarized political climate, she said, art can help foster dialog, which sometimes seems like a thing of the past. “When you have a piece of art to discuss, then it’s not about, ‘You think this and you’re wrong, and I think this and I’m right,’ it’s about, ‘This character said this, and it made me feel this way,’ ” she said. “It gives people something to discuss that is both very, very real but not as real perhaps as how you’re voting in November.”

The others agreed that they are intent on making the Pablo Center open to all, hosting shows that are both familiar and surprising. Hotchkiss, the sales and booking manager, noted that the Pablo is presenting two familiar genres – jazz and country music. However, one of the jazz performers, Ganavya, infuses her music with South Asian traditions, while the country lineup includes standout women performers. “One of the things that I’ve been saying at the State Theatre for years is that there are portions of our community that never have come through our doors,” Hotchkiss said, “and how much of a problem that is, and there was never anything done to address it over there.”

“Right now in the arts community in Eau Claire, not everyone who lives here participates,” St. George Jones added. “It’s very segmented. (We’re) using this place as a catalyst to help crack that nut open a little bit.”

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