New deputy director for AZ Arts Commission brings nearly a decade of experience, passion

Alexandra Nelson, newly appointed Deputy Director for the Arizona Commission on the Arts, poses for a portrait. (Courtesy of Arizona Commission on the Arts)

After starting as an intern and rising through the ranks, few know the Arizona Commission for the arts as well as Alexandra Nelson, who will now bring years of experience to her new position as deputy director.

The Arizona Commission on the Arts named Alexandra Nelson as its new deputy director on Oct. 17 after she served in various other positions at the agency for the past eight years.

Nelson, 34, previously served as the Arts Commission’s Senior Director of Grants and Programs, but began working for the Arts Commission as an arts learning intern in 2009. The Arts Commission is a 50-year-old state agency that exists to make arts more accessible to all residents. The agency seeks to uplift the artistic communities across the state through partnerships, grants and programming.

Originally from Michigan, Nelson moved to Arizona to attend Arizona State University, where she graduated with degrees in both dance and French. While in college, a professor urged Nelson to attend Arts Congress, an annual day at the Arizona state capitol in which people express support for arts funding. Here, Nelson saw the both the opportunities and challenges of communities across the state.

“The arts and culture community is the reason that I stayed here post-graduation,” said Nelson. “There was opportunity here and a rich, growing community to be a part of.”

To this day, those same opportunities continue to inspire Nelson.

“It’s actually one of the things that’s exciting to me about this agency and the role we get to play, which is to work in support of all of our different communities,” said Nelson. “Lifting up their differences and following their lead in terms of how they want to move forward and address their own definitions of challenges and successes.”

Since beginning as an intern, Nelson quickly advanced in her positions at the agency. In 2009, Nelson served as the Arts Learning Coordinator as well as Arizona Poetry Out Loud Manager and was promoted to Director of Arts Learning in 2011. She oversaw the agency’s arts education programs, services and partnerships. Nelson then took on the role of Senior Director of Grants and Programs in 2016.

As Deputy Director, Nelson will work with the Arts Commission’s Executive Director, Jaime Dempsey. Dempsey has worked at the agency for 11 years and has worked alongside Nelson since she began as an intern.

“She possesses all of these disparate skills in one person,” said Dempsey. “She brings an artist’s creativity. She can look to the long term. She’s got great vision. She also has strong management skills and she sees skills and talents in people that they might not know that they have. She’s also great at building things from the ground up.”

In her time at the agency, Nelson has done exactly that. Among other projects, Nelson piloted two large programs, Strengthening Schools through Arts Partnership and AZ Creative Aging. Strengthening Schools through Art seeks to provide under-resourced schools with both funding and partnership resources. Likewise, AZ Creative Aging is a three-year initiative funded by the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust that provides resources to artists and arts organizations as well as aging and healthcare service providers to improve arts programs for older adults.

The core of Nelson’s work is establishing relationships. Steve Wilcox, the Communications Director at the Arts Commission, noted that her ability to shape new relationships between community partners, organizations and artists is what has propelled her career.

“One of the defining qualities of Nelson’s work over the past nearly a decade at the agency is her ability to establish, to form partnerships beyond the agency in the communities we’re serving and to strengthen those,” said Wilcox.

In the future, Nelson hopes to help create new programs and ultimately reconsider the role of an arts agency in the state in a way that better serves everyone.

“This has always been a place where people are really encouraged to be in deep conversation with the people that we serve, think about new ideas and try to work towards making new realities possible,” said Nelson. “I think I wouldn’t have stayed nine years if that wasn’t the case.”

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