What do Mesa and South Africa have in common? Plenty, says Johann Zietsman, who three months ago assumed the role of the city’s arts and culture director, overseeing the Mesa Arts Center.
Plenty, says Johann Zietsman, who three months ago assumed the role of the city’s arts and culture director, overseeing the Mesa Arts Center.
As the state’s largest arts center heads into its third season, the Tribune talked with Zietsman, 52, about his youth in apartheid-era South Africa and his plans for the center — and how his bridging the gap between whites and blacks in South Africa might inform his ideas about reaching out to Mesa’s Hispanic population.
Q: You went from being a young man serving in the military against the African National Congress to, in the wake of apartheid, using your arts center in Bloemfontein to bridge the gaps between races and cultures. How do you characterize that shift?
A: Oh, dramatic, if not traumatic. I was lucky that my transition from darkness into light was softened by my exposure to the arts. ... For me, the bridge was understanding through arts — struggle theater, underground theater that I discovered in my late teens — the stories that existed that were pretty much invisible to a white Afrikaans boy growing up in a small town. The other half was around all the time, but we didn’t understand them, it wasn’t important to understand them. To understand their social issues, their joys, their fears, and that so much of that was similar to mine, was a pleasant wake-up.
Q: Your first major step as an arts organizer was a school in Cape Town for orchestral instruments. What prompts one to get into arts management?
A: That’s a good question. Nowhere in my career can I honestly say the choices I made were the result of deep thought and a well-laid-out plan.
Q: What was your first impression of Mesa and the East Valley?
A: My first impression was that it felt very much like home. And by that I mean a specific part of South Africa. ... That environment is semi-desert, very dry, very flat, dust storms. … And the people are very similar: They’re friendly, accessible, open, generous. So, you know, no big culture shock.
Q: We’re heading into your fourth month on the job, replacing someone (Gerry Fathauer) who had begun the arts program here in 1980 and had followed it through to the state’s largest arts center. What situation did you inherit, and what do you want to improve here?
A: A great facility. … But in a way the strong point is also the weak point. … At some point I would hope that we could get the citizens of Mesa to understand that the building is only a shell. It’s what happens inside that should start overpowering what’s on the outside. For a long time, I think the focus of everything here was the building, and people talked about the amazing building, and tourists would come to look at the building and not to see what goes on inside this place. We need to make sure that balance takes place.
Q: How do you see yourself affecting programming at the MAC?
A: I certainly would like to see the programming include some more challenging work. A theater series that wouldn’t simply be popular. It would be a series people would go to because they want to think a little bit and be challenged. I think there are people who would support that, who would enjoy that. Would it be financially successful? Probably not for a while. You build up those kinds of audiences.
Q: With the Tempe Center for the Arts coming online recently, people have been asking me quite a bit whether the Valley’s arts centers are in competition with each other.
A: I certainly don’t see them as competition. My competition is the movies and television. I want kids and parents not to spend all their time at home or going to the movies. I want them not to have canned experiences. I want them to have live experiences — whether that’s learning how to make jewelry or blowing a piece of glass or going to a live performance. Those experiences are so far superior to anything that’s canned.
Q: It’s been a chicken-or-egg situation between downtown restaurants and the arts center. People want some kind of night life here, but restaurants aren’t willing to stay open later until they know customers will come.
A: We’ve decided to blink first. We went out to the restaurants — we selected 20 of them to start — and we said, “If we give you a selected evening, and we sell tickets with a meal attached, will you stay open for that evening and will you offer a deal to our patrons that they could not get if they simply walked in the door?” And all of the restaurants said, “Oh my goodness, this is fantastic. We wanted to work with the center somehow all along but we couldn’t make it happen.” We’re going to make the total experience a reality. …
Q: I can see how those who hired you did a bit of comparison between what you were doing in South Africa — the idea of appealing to a new black audience while placating white audiences — and the idea of reaching out to Hispanic audiences here while placating white audiences. That awkward balance.
A: It is an awkward balance. And I guess it’s more awkward here than in South Africa. Because the challenge in South Africa was, forgive the pun, black and white. … It was clear. Here, we’re living in a country which is supposedly free of that, but communities have realities which play out. On a gut level, we know something has to be done. We know there are communities that are underserved. But can I tell you exactly who they are? No. Do you count people by the color of their skin? Definitely not. So we know, but we don’t know.
Q: Someone told me, “If he can do what he was able to do during apartheid, Mesa should be a piece of cake.”
A: Compared to the level of dysfunction that South Africa was in, I don’t think this situation here is nearly as dysfunctional. But … the challenges are very real. When you deal with people’s culture as expressed through the arts, you’re getting close to their hearts. You’d better know what you’re doing.