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The Meistersinger

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A classical guitarist by training, Gerd Wuestemann orchestrates the completion of a world class arts center. By Mary Tutwiler

No one would ever suspect Gerd Wuestemann of being a Cajun. Below the shiny dome of his head, sleek red and black glasses bisect his face. His dimpled chin is sometimes clean shaven, often chicly stubbled. Pinstripe suit jacket, bespoke shirt, jeans, Italian shoes: The look is Via Veneto meets spaghetti western. But the voice is pure Schumann, as lyrical a German lilt as the lieder he loves to sing.

When the board of the Acadiana Arts Council announced its choice of a new executive director in 2008, a lot of people in Lafayette were stunned. In a town that tends to elevate its own, Wuestemann, 46, is a consummate outsider. German born and bred, a child prodigy on classical guitar, Wuestemann spent two decades playing concerts worldwide before settling in Lafayette in 1997 to teach at UL. In 2003, a potentially career ending accident shattered his left wrist. A controversial figure at the university, he had left academia and was working as a management team member for now-defunct guitar company Composite Acoustics when he was tapped to take up the baton. Few thought he was the right man to rescue the art center from impending disaster.

For several years, the Acadiana Arts Council board had been struggling as the group attempted to transition from overseeing the operations of a small cramped building on the corner of Lee and Main to the Acadiana Center for the Arts, a 25,000-square-foot center that included major galleries, workshop spaces, offices and plans to double the space with a state-of-the-art theater. The city of Lafayette received an approximately $3 million capital outlay grant from the state in 2001 to build the first phase of the art center. Stage one, the renovation of LBA Savings Bank into galleries and offices, was completed in 2004. Stage two, the theater, went out for bid in 2007.

20101103-cover-0102While the bid process played out, the board had its hands full. Utilities and maintenance costs in the new building, unfunded by the city, had spiraled to $10,000 a month. Meanwhile, intended partners in sharing office spaces — PASA and the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra — found other quarters, and art expert Herman Mhire turned his attention to construct the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum. Then hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit with the consequence that building costs skyrocketed, driving construction projections from $6.4 to $11.7 million. The first of three bids on the theater failed; in its wake, the executive director of the arts council, Buddy Palmer, resigned.

Attorney Ed Abell was the chairman of the board when the search committee launched a nationwide hunt for a new director. “I was telling the board if we don’t get this thing under way, plan B is a doublewide trailer in Scott,” he jokes.

“I urged Gerd to apply,” says photographer and current board member Philip Gould. “Gerd has tremendous abilities to see the larger picture, to see what should be. In Europe governments support the arts; they know it is important. This is Gerd’s experience with the arts, it’s in his DNA.”

“We interviewed about 19 people,” continues Abell. “There were some really good folks we talked to, but he kind of blew them all away. He had the vision and energy and enthusiasm for the job to be the face of the art center and make the public understand what we were doing.” Abell says choosing an artist over the more conventional choice of a businessman was a bit of a gamble. Not every board member was happy with the decision. Wuestemann’s ego and assertive personality can put some people off. “He has some great fans and some great detractors in this community,” says Abell. “I talked to every one of them.” But by that point, Abell was squarely in Wuestemann’s court.

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ACA staff left to right: theatre manager Blake castille, Wuestemann,
business manager Johanna Devine and media Coordinator Kate Waxley

Wuestemann’s first day on the job was May 19, 2008. “There was a strong mandate from the board to find the money to complete a successful bid,” he says. “I was a bit blue-eyed about it. My second week on the job, I went to Baton Rouge with the architectural team to lobby for the money. It was mostly dumb luck and perseverance, but by the third month on the job, I had it.”

In part, Wuestemann’s hire was because of his classical training. “I’ve spent my whole life as a performer, in the arts,” he says. “I began playing the guitar at 5 years old, I had my first agent when I was 12. I’ve toured around the world many times, studied for both my master’s and doctorate in the music field. I’ve lived in small theaters for a long time.”

That training came in handy in building a small theater with world class acoustics. “I don’t know who else could demand the kind of perfection we needed to make it a great place to perform,” says Abell. “He understood the kind of construction detail we needed.”

“I recognize I do things a bit differently — there’s something Germanic in my ways,” says Wuestemann. His perfectionism inspired The Lemoine Company, general contractor on the theater, to meticulous standards. There were multiple re-dos, from rehanging the grey tile interior wall because the grid wasn’t perfectly aligned, to hand stuffing insulation 10 inches deep into the expansion gaps between the giant concrete slab walls to achieve the sound rating Wuestemann required for the theater.

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Grand opening acts: Anna Netrebko in
the met's production of Don Pasquale;
Lyle Lovett; rhythmic circus

Wuestemann’s second mandate was one of branding. He was hired as executive director of the Acadiana Arts Council. What he discovered was that the arts council had five separate identities, a confusing face to present to the public. “We were the arts council, we operated the Acadiana Center for the Arts as the arts council, we had Crossroads, one of our big brands, but most people didn’t understand that it was just one of our departments. We had education, and those who worked in education didn’t understand that was part of the AcA, and we have significant grant maker and community development opportunities from the state. We funnel approximately $400,000 into eight parishes every year.”

All these identities were unreconciled. “We had three home pages to our website at the time,” says Wuestemann. “‘I said what’s with this identify thing?’ Everybody chuckled and said, ‘We know we have kind of a problem there.’” Wuestemann recognized that when he visited donors, or called on city government leaders to ask for support, they didn’t understand. “They just think of the AcA as this building, and they’re not sure what we do, so we needed to consolidate all this,” he says.

It took 15 months to stitch all the legal entities into a single tapestry. As of September 2009, the organization became recognized solely as the Acadiana Center for the Arts. While the board and staff still function as an arts council, the name change to AcA gave the organization a physical identity as the building grew into a cultural hub for Acadiana.

With the money in place, the two-year construction window allowed Wuestemann to refine his thinking about what the art center should become.

“Over the last two decades around the world, we’ve seen a huge amount of new art spaces being built. It is a really attractive pitch to commit money to, and a lot of new museums have been created in particular. But often times they end up being these candy boxes that are not really related to the community. So you have a beautiful box with not much in it and not much activity happening in it, which is really problematic. Often times, the community at large has an entrance hurdle — where you go to this severe arts temple and you’re intimidated.

“Certainly, Lafayette is a big culture town,” he continues. “But you have to understand your community, and when you understand Lafayette and Acadiana as a community, it’s a grass roots culture town. It’s not New York and the Metropolitan Museum. You come together and talk about the visual arts. You have a lively exchange about things. You go to see a show, and it can be everything from classical music to jazz to zydeco, but it has to be all of that for us to bring it together.

“And once I began to understand that, it reshaped my vision for this place. I don’t think of this just as an art space anymore. I think of it as public space or a cultural public space in the best of senses. You want to reach out to everybody, and reach a very broad swath of your community.”

As the building readies for its grand opening, on Nov. 4, the last pieces of that vision have begun tumbling into place.

In July, Wuestemann and City-Parish President Joey Durel unveiled a funding model for the AcA. The AcA will receive $515,000 annually from Lafayette Consolidated Government, in part for arts and culture grants, and also to pay the center’s LUS bill for electricity, fiber and phone service.

“I’m thrilled to see the great change in attitude in art and culture between the business community and the city leadership and city council,” says Wuestemann. “People have begun to understand that the art and culture piece is a hugely significant economic engine. You’d have to live under a rock in Acadiana not to get it.”

About a month ago, attorney and music lover Ben Blanchet received a call from Wuestemann. The theater, with its high definition projection and audiophile sound system had nearly all the capability to screen the Metropolitan Opera, but lacked the equipment to hook up to a satellite feed. “There had been attempts in the past to bring [a simulcast of] the Metropolitan Opera here,” says Blanchet. “Gerd needed $5,000. I called the former Acadiana Symphony executive director Geraldine Hubbell. She and [her husband] Gerald made a sizable contribution, sent out a letter to the opera nuts, and within a week, we had the money.” The first opera of the season, Boris Godunov, was screened in the theater in mid-October.
Three weeks ago, Wuestemann inked a deal with the French Press restaurant to operate a café within the art center. The location is up front and center, with only a glass curtain separating the café area from the plaza in front of the building along Vermilion Street. Wuestemann is delighted with the implications of the highly visible café.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity to bring people in here,” he says. “The business community might come in and have a cup of coffee, and then might take a stroll through our galleries, which is wonderful right?”

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More than 400 images fill the large gallery in the Tom
Secrest retrospective.
That Wuestemann is so clearly able to articulate his vision has been key to fundraising, the most difficult long term aspect of the directorship. “I’ve seen him countless times giving incredible tours, walking very prominent people through construction rubble,” says Gould, “Gerd talking as if it already exists. He is able to maintain complete focus.”

That focus paid off Friday, Oct. 29. Wuestemann announced to the board that the naming rights for the theater had been purchased as a generous gift by oilman and patron of the arts James Devin Moncus. The investment, $1.5 million, will go straight into an endowment, which will pay for programming.

“Isn’t that phenomenal?” gushes Abell. “It lends credibility to what we’re doing and leads other people to participate. And here we are, with a big piece of what we were hoping to do. And it’s just a start.” Other naming rights patrons include Sharon Moss, Coca-Cola Bottling and Paul Favaron, and James S. Mallia. Allen & Gooch, IberiaBank, The Lemoine Company, and Moss Motors/Mercedes Benz joined in as underwriters for the opening events taking place Nov. 4-11.

Wuestemann says he still has to pinch himself at times, to believe it’s finally all coming together.

“If you had asked me two and a half years ago if I could build a $20 million arts theater, I would have said, ‘Not in your dreams.’ I’m sure there were plenty of people who, when I was appointed executive director of the AcA thought, ‘What does he know? He’s a guitar player for God’s sake.’ Fair enough,” Wuestemann says. “The guitar is not the center of my life anymore, but I feel like I have so much a greater platform, and I can contribute in a broader way and reach out to many more people than my guitar playing would have. I still am a performer. I play a few concerts a year. My practice time is very limited,” he continues. “I work about 70 hours a week. Perhaps I should keep a guitar here, steal a little time for myself, sneak off and practice in the theater when nobody’s watching.”

 


AcA GRAND OPENING — NOV. 4-13

Rhythmic Circus/Ribbon Cutting
Thursday, Nov. 4 (6 p.m. ribbon cutting; 7:30 p.m. performance)
Friday, Nov. 5, 7:30 p.m. performance
$15-$20

Lyle Lovett and His Large Band
Saturday, Nov. 6, 8 p.m. (doors open at 6:30 p.m.)
$250 all inclusive
Family Performance Series Poetry Alive!
Wednesday, Nov. 10, 6:30 p.m.
$4-$6

Louisiana Crossroads: Dylan LeBlanc
Thursday Nov. 11, 7 p.m.
$10-$15

Met Opera in HD: Don Pasquale
Saturday, Nov. 13, 4-8 p.m.
$12-$16

Southern Review 75th Anniversary Readings
Saturday, Nov. 13, 6:30 p.m.
Free

Southern Circuit Screening: Burning in the Sun
Saturday, Nov. 13, 8:30 p.m.
$5-$7

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