Long a big deal in Utah’s arts community, Victoria Panella Bourns has just been named director of the Utah Division of Arts & Museums – a very big deal, indeed.
She’s one of those maddeningly brilliant right brain and left brain people who readily switches from a Mac at home to a PC at work; creates and appreciates art but also competently writes grants for any variety of public art projects; has excellent artwork in her home by Utah artists and, about 17 years ago, also put together (with Hikmet Loe serving as editor) a catalog she’s very proud of to accompany the Salt Lake County Art Collection — so that most everyone could appreciate work by the state’s artists — what a concept, right? (High time for a new catalog, Mayor McAdams?)
An influential arts administrator, Panella Bourns has directed the Salt Lake County Zoo, Arts, and Parks (ZAP) program for 12 years. Funded by a publicly voted-on sales tax, ZAP distributes some $14 million annually to more than 170 arts and cultural organizations.
“I think what I’ve done with ZAP is brought a sense of fairness and equitable process. Whenever you have people involved it’s subjective. But we have really done our best to create as objective a process as possible. We talk about how you might not like modern dance. You might not like this particular type of art. But our goal is to find as many things to serve as many people . . . It funds the all-volunteer groups that maybe get a couple of thousand dollars to the fully professional Utah Symphony/Utah Opera. And the amount of money ZAP gives those professional organizations has helped stabilize them through the difficulties, even through the recession and that was tough because everybody lost a lot of donations and donors but it kept them going so that now everyone is in a much better place as the economy starts to improve.”
She takes up her new position later this month. “We are looking forward to having Vicki lead the office of Arts &Museums,” says executive director of the Department of Heritage & Arts Jill Remington Love (herself a relatively recent appointment). The Division of Arts & Museums is one of six divisions within the department. “Her expertise and understanding of the needs of this community will help us better serve arts and museums organizations throughout the state. Vicki is well respected and has spent her entire career supporting and building awareness for arts and culture.”
That leaves a lot of years unaccounted for, and we planned to sit down at her home in the 9th and 9th area to discuss them. She has been involved in pretty much everything that matters culturally, so it promised to be a long conversation.
Lost and late, I experienced one of Panella Bourns’ most disarming traits – taking much of the blame herself for another person’s screw-ups. “I must have given you the wrong address,” she says (knowing full well she hadn’t – simply not her style).
The intruder into this lovely but unpretentious home (with computers seemingly everywhere) is immediately but cautiously checked out by charming family cats Belle and Dewey (who apparently give their approval, then stalk off) and greeted by husband Robert Bourns (a potter and creative stoneworker who manages the couple’s properties). We are, however, accompanied only by a tape recorder as we talk.
A lithe and petite woman, dressed in jeans, comfortable blue shirt and close-fitting jacket; wearing bright silver jewelry of obvious significance to her, one is not surprised to learn that Panella Bourns left her hometown of Detroit to study modern dance at the University of Utah, where she received her BFA in 1980. She went on to earn an MFA in theater and arts administration from the U in 1983 — and she still is here with us.
That may be in large part due to a teaching position in dance (modern, ballet, folk, ballroom, improv . . .) at Snow College in 1986, where she truly fell in love with the state. She recalls calling her husband because she was so excited to see sheep climbing a hill outside her window. “I was a city girl,” she recalls. “I didn’t even know where Utah was on a map.”
Grant writing is where she started but she says her forte is making connections, building partnerships, strategic thinking, envisioning. “I think that I am good at the big picture but I understand the details that have to be completed in order to get to the goal that you want to get to. And I think all the jobs I’ve had up until this point have built upon my skills for this new role.”
Previous jobs include working at Repertory Dance Theater, KUER, and Salt Lake Acting Company. She served as treasurer for the Performing Arts Coalition during the planning and implementation of the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. She helped turn the Utah Citizens for the Arts into the Utah Cultural Alliance and served as treasurer for the State Arts Advocacy League of America where she played a role in its transition into the Americans for the Arts State Arts Advocacy Network.
She also founded Panella Consulting, which provides organizational management expertise to public and nonprofit sectors and boasts some well-known clients.
And she takes a lot of classes, where she has been fortunate in her instructors. She took a watercolor class from Ann Day and a painting class from Maureen O’Hara Ure (see our profile here). “I did some bookbinding. I like working with my hands.” She even studied electronic music composition under the renowned pioneer of that form, Vladimir Ussachevsky.
Maybe as a result of her exposure to painting, her home boasts work such as an early Rebecca Campbell from a show she did at the Salt Lake Art Center; a magical Bonnie Sucec; a little collection “of the mini prints they do at the U,” a really nice print by Blanche Wilson.
She grew up in a large Italian Catholic family. “I had four brothers, one sister. We were in a tiny, tiny little house with lots of people coming and going and lots of great food. I had no idea how good our food was until I went to an Italian restaurant here in Salt Lake City,” she says with a laugh. Her grandfather had a catering business “and all of us kids worked in it from a really young age.” Panella Bourns started out putting cheese on platters “and you got to the point where you were roasting chickens and cutting them up. I think in those days there were a lot of family businesses and people grew up working – and you don’t see that now. And it makes such a difference.”
An appreciation for the arts started when her aunt began taking Vickie and her four younger siblings to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s children concerts. In high school (she attended parochial schools for 12 years), she studied music theory, art history, dance, and applied visual arts.
“We love this state,” she says, “and I really love the idea of helping to strengthen the cultural community, of either being able to give them the tools or the resources, a little bit of money – I know that the grants money for the Division of Arts & Museums is a lot smaller than the one I’ve been used to managing at the county. So that’s a challenge, to try to spread that money throughout the state when it’s such a small pool. I think the program has done a really good job in the past . . . I really hope that I can get a couple of years, (well, a year), to sort of listen, find out what’s going on, see how we can strengthen the current programs, see if we need to rethink how we’re engaging with the community so we can have a bigger impact in whatever we do, but I do have a lot of respect for the staff and I really want to listen to them and get their feedback. It wouldn’t surprise me if they have a lot of ideas that they would like to implement and maybe they just need the resources and support to do that.”
One idea Panella Bourns has is to integrate the arts to improve people’s lives “in very specific ways. Like Art Access has their program with Veterans, and using the art as therapy, both mental health and physical. I think we’re just starting to hear about it. I think it’s been happening for a long time, but maybe it isn’t something that the Division has focused on though I’m sure they’ve funded a lot of the groups who are doing those things. It would be nice to share them, to tell those stories. I don’t think we always do a great job of letting the general public know the value of arts and museums and culture. It would be nice to get those stories out and support the people who are doing that.”
She notes that the governor put an additional $500,000 for grants into the budget this year. “So I think that bodes well for his support for the organization and the legislature did fund it – they funded $250,000 ongoing, and that’s a really good thing to get ongoing funding because there are so many competing interests up there.”
But, she adds, “We also do not know what’s going to happen to the federal budget this year and those dollars have a big impact on the state budget in all different areas.
If something happened with the NEA, the NEH . . . that will affect the Division of Arts and Museums because a large chunk of the grant budget that is distributed by the Division comes from the NEA. . . There is definitely concern. What I worry about is that we can’t fight against each other . . . we have to recognize that our sister agencies will be harmed just as much as us. And we all have to stick together and focus on what is the best budget for all of us.
“So it’s going to be challenging but it’s a great opportunity, too.
“I’m optimistic; I’m always optimistic,” she says firmly.
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.