Robyn Nelson, who directed the Utah Arts Festival through some of its toughest changes, died last week at age 56.
"She loved everything odd, and odd people," said Babs DeLay, the Salt Lake City real-estate agent and a friend of Nelson's since college. "She loved art. She loved anything that would surprise her."
Nelson, a Salt Lake City native, started as a volunteer with the Utah Arts Festival and was its executive director from 1989 to 2006. During Nelson's time in charge, the June festival moved to three Salt Lake City locations, said Patrick Burns, UAF's current assistant director.
The festival left the Triad Center after 1999, as construction on The Gateway began, and spent two unhappy years at the Utah State Fairpark a move that cost the event 40 percent of its audience, Burns said. In 2002, it relocated to the Gallivan Center downtown, a stopgap measure until the completion of Library Square, which has been the festival's home base since 2003.
"Once we tried the Fairpark, we knew we wanted to move to Library Square," Burns said Wednesday. "We just had to wait for that to be built up."
Burns, who worked with Nelson, called her "a powerful leader" and "a person who knew what she wanted and knew how to get what she wanted." But she also was someone with a great sense of humor. "She saw the festival through a lot of change and a lot of movement," Burns said.
DeLay said Wednesday that Nelson was a great supporter of the arts and "always bought some of the art" from the festival every year.
The UAF board of directors fired Nelson in July 2006. The board's chairman said the directors wanted a "fresh approach," according to a Salt Lake Tribune story at the time.
"It was the most devastating thing that ever happened to her," DeLay said, adding that she worked for a time as executive director of the Dogwood Arts Festival in Knoxville, Tenn.
Nelson was an alumna of East High School, Westminster College and the University of Utah, where she earned B.A. and M.F.A. degrees.
She is survived by her brother, Grant, nephew Ben, niece Sara, uncle Reed Merrill and her partner of 24 years, Sharon Strickler.
DeLay is organizing the memorial service, which is set for 4 p.m. Sunday at Pierpont Place, 163 W. Pierpont Ave. in Salt Lake City. There will be a cash bar. In lieu of flowers, friends are asked to donate to any nonprofit arts organization.