Through her role as Mesa's new arts and culture czar, Cindy Ornstein is one of the few people who has found some encouraging news in this long economic slump.
Enrollment in fall classes at the Mesa Arts Center is up 40 percent over last year. Patrons are finally staying downtown after shows, occasionally in numbers so great that restaurants run out of certain items.
With fewer people taking faraway vacations, they're looking to treat themselves to things at home like a local comedy show or dramatic performance.
And Ornstein wants to build on all those things. She's looking for ways to engage the community more by expanding work with schools, the arts community, those who hold downtown festivals, patrons and merchants near the Mesa Arts Center.
"We really want the local community to understand that they own the facility," Ornstein said.
Ornstein began as Mesa's arts and culture director July 6, overseeing the Arizona Museum of Natural History and the Arizona Museum for Youth. She also heads the MAC, which is Arizona's largest arts campus featuring four theaters, 14 studios and five art galleries.
She said she's been encouraged at the interest in the arts and the quality of performance groups and various artists. But she sees the opportunity for many years of growth because the five-year-old MAC will continue to expand as more people become aware of it and recommend shows or classes to friends. Plus, it will become more of a magnet for arts around the Valley.
"Five years is young in the lifecycle of a cultural institution," Ornstein said. "Really, we're toddlers going into elementary school."
Ornstein sees the MAC as a major player in downtown redevelopment. She's looking for arts and culture to have a larger role in weekend events and festivals. Also, she wants to tie local businesses into events so people can go to shops and restaurants before or after a show.
"The idea is when people come out, they can keep that great feel you get from a great performance," she said.
Ornstein has worked to bring more smaller, emerging acts to Mesa by putting them in smaller theaters to reduce the cost. She also wants to do audience research and study what makes some shows successful or unsuccessful. But she wants to go beyond just having big-name performers who always sell out.
"We don't want to solely program what people ask for because that would eliminate the opportunity for discovery," she said.
Ornstein, 54, spent a decade at a much larger arts campus in Michigan as president of the Flint Cultural Center. It features an array of programs on a sprawling campus, a history museum, automotive gallery and Michigan's largest planetarium.
She previously headed an arts festival and then an art museum in Allentown, Pa., after other careers in acting, directing, journalism and public relations. She is married and has two sons.
Ornstein replaced Johann Zietsman, who won high praise after two years on the job. He created MACFest, the weekend events that have drawn people downtown for performances and artists who display and sell their work. The festival runs from fall to spring and is starting its third year.
Zietsman was recruited for a job in Calgary a year ago, triggering concerns that it would be hard to replicate his performance. Mesa's replacement search took longer than for some posts because the city wanted to be so deliberate, said Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh, a longtime arts supporter. Those who interviewed Ornstein were impressed with her track record in other communities, he said.
"I think there was a lot of confidence that she could continue on where Johann left off," Kavanaugh said.