Utah Arts Festival director leaving after 14 years; assistant director will take over

(Scott Sommerdorf | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Lisa Sewell, seen here during the 2010 Utah Arts Festival, is stepping down as the festival's executive director, a job she has held since October 2006.

Lisa Sewell is stepping down as executive director of the Utah Arts Festival after 14 years of leading Salt Lake City’s biggest open-air arts event — and after having to cancel the 2020 edition because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There comes a time to step aside and allow a new leader to imprint their artistic vision, direction, and leadership onto the organization,” Sewell said in a statement issued by the festival Monday. “I believe I have served out my tenure in that role and look forward to supporting the new director as they take us into our next chapter.”

Sewell will hand over the job to her assistant director for the last two years, Aimée Dunsmore, who has been the festival’s development director for 11 years. Sewell’s last day is Friday; Dunsmore will take over on Monday.

In a statement, Dunsmore called 2020 “a year of tremendous change and growth for our whole team. We learned a lot and ultimately, I believe the Utah Arts Festival is coming out of 2020 stronger and more determined than ever to evolve, adapt, improve and continue our work to bring the community together through art.”

Aaron Garrett, chairman of the festival’s board, called Dunsmore “a tremendous leader who will provide the Festival with the stability and vision we need to take the organization into the future.”

The Utah Arts Festival regularly draws some 70,000 art lovers to listen to live music and spoken-word performances, try different forms of street food, and look at and buy paintings, prints, sculpture and other artworks. This year’s festival was one of the many cultural events canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sewell started in the director’s job of the arts festival in October 2006, under difficult circumstances.

The festival’s board fired her predecessor, Robyn Nelson, after a 13-year run during which the festival was held in four locations — the Triad Center, the Utah State Fairpark, the Gallivan Center and its current home, straddling Library Square and Washington Square.

Sewell worked for the festival for 11 years of Nelson’s tenure, mostly doing fundraising for the nonprofit event. She worked as assistant director for four years, from the Gallivan years, starting in 2002, until she succeeded Nelson.

In her 25 years at Utah Arts Festival, 14 as its director, Sewell helped bring in such innovations as the Urban Arts programs for teens, the Fear No Film Festival of short films, and the Maker Faire demonstrations that merged art with do-it-yourself technology.

She often found artists who did unusual things with the City Library building. In 2005, she helped bring in Bandaloop, a dance troupe that performed sideways on the library’s multistory window; she brought them back again in 2013 and 2018. In 2008, artist Bill Close turned the library’s curved wall into a 700-foot “Earth Harp.” In 2010, she got Richard Elliott, the principal organist of what was then still called the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, to play John Phillip Sousa’s “Liberty Bell March” (aka the “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” theme) to rattle the library atrium’s acoustics.

Before working with the arts festival, Sewell was membership director at Salt Lake City public radio station KUER and development director at Travelers Aid Society.