A fresh crop of concerts, theatrical productions and art exhibitions aren’t all that’s new at Mesa Arts Center this season. The 5-year-old complex has a brand-new director, Cindy Ornstein, a New York native who worked for the past 10 years as head of the Flint (Mich.) Cultural Center Corporation, a nine-building campus with a 2,000-seat auditorium, history museum, automotive gallery and planetarium that hosted Broadway shows and music, dance, theater and education programs.
Ornstein, who moved to Mesa from Michigan, also oversees the Arizona Museum of Natural History and Arizona Museum for Youth as the city’s arts and culture director. She started the job July 6.
Here, she answers a few questions about the direction MAC is heading under her leadership.
Q: What made you feel that Mesa was a place where you could have an impact on the arts and culture scene?
A: There is a strong sense of commitment to arts and culture here. From the mayor on down, it’s impressive how many people really value the contribution that arts and culture can make to the community. That was very important to me. Also, the fact that there was already such a high-quality program and venue here. There was a foundation to build on to make something even more vibrant, and that was a wonderful opportunity to come into someplace that had so much good already.
Q: What is your vision for Mesa?
A: Historically, the arts have had barriers — real or imagined — that make some people perceive the arts as not being for them. One huge goal of mine is to create a sense of real ownership of the arts by the whole community. So, reaching out to involve the community in the planning of events and activities, increasing awareness of the resources that are here to serve the community, and reaching out more broadly into the community and into the schools — those are all components of creating a sense that the arts are a critical anchor for the community’s revitalization and development as a place where people want to live, work and play.
Q: Mesa Arts Center has a history of presenting both big-name artists and obscure acts that a lot of people have never heard of. What kind of lineup is ideal for MAC?
A: Well, you have to remember that the acts have to do, in part, with what size venue you are and, therefore, what kind of acts you can accommodate. And one person’s household name isn’t another’s. In a home where there are country music fans, Vince Gill is a huge name. If you’re a classical music fan, you really don’t get much bigger than Lang Lang or Joshua Bell. For jazz fans, Jazz at Lincoln Center and Wynton Marsalis are big. Occasionally, we have things that are household names for everyone, but that doesn’t happen that often because, with the largest venue we have being under 1,600 seats, we’re not a baseball stadium. Huge rock acts aren’t going to come to a 1,600-seat house.
But what we do is deliver really high-quality in a wide variety of art forms, so there is something for everyone. We really want to mix mainstream entertainment and things that allow audiences to discover and experience something new. You need to have some well-known names to attract the people for whom that is their principle interest, and hopefully those people will want to come back even if they aren’t fans of jazz or Indian music or blues or country or many of the other things we have going on. Hopefully we create an audience that’s receptive to trying something new, something outside their comfort zone, because whatever it is, they know they’re going to get a high-quality experience here.
Q: Who are you looking forward to seeing this coming season?
A: I have very broad taste myself. I’m really, really excited to see Nikki Yanofsky. She’s not a household name to most people, but before ever knowing I would take this job, I was bowled over by her performance in the closing ceremonies of the Olympics. Ravi Shankar. He was the one who introduced Indian music to the Beatles. He’s a huge international star and was probably the first formal concert I ever went to; I saw him at the age of 12 at Lincoln Center with my family, and I haven’t seen him since. Savion Glover. He’s probably the preeminent living star of tap dance. He’s had hugely successful solo shows on Broadway, and he’s incredibly brilliant. He takes the art of tap dance to a whole new level and does such innovative things with it. He’s a percussionist with his feet. I’m also really excited to see Lang Lang, the superstar of classical music. He’s supposed to give a wildly amazing virtuoso performance, and I’ve never seen him. The Aluminum Show. You may not have heard of it, but if you go to YouTube and put it in, you’ll see what a wild, diverse, entertaining show it’s going to be, where it’s all about aluminum — dancing aluminum, acrobatic aluminum. It’s a big spectacle, like “Stomp” or one of the Cirque shows.
Q: Will programs like “Shop Mesa, Get the Arts” or dinner-and-a-show package deals continue this season?
A: Absolutely. One thing people can do to try something new with less financial risk is the Mesa Bucks program. They can shop anyplace in Mesa, and use their receipts to get discounts on tickets. (For information on the Mesa Bucks program, call the Mesa Arts Center box office at  644-6500.)
We also want to grow the opportunity for package deals and discounts. We want to work with the restaurants to make sure they’re open before the shows, which is when most people are going to want to have dinner, and also try to create opportunities for staying afterwards and having fun. When I came during my interviews and saw Keb Mo, it was a Second Friday night. I went to Second Friday beforehand, and when I came out, De La Cruz (Bistro) had a jazz group, and the place was packed with people who had been at the show. It was really fun.You come out full of energy, and you want to keep having a good time, so we’d like to work with merchants to make sure there are places where people can do that. We want to create that sense of vitality that comes from having multiple things going on at once, and we want to work toward that to make sure local merchants are at the heart of it.