David Rothman is as passionate about powder as he is about poetry.
The poet, educator and new president and CEO of the Center for the Arts got his first taste of mountain life while ski racing in Aspen, Colorado, during a semester off from Harvard University.
Between powder days the New Englander taught at the Aspen Ski Academy, edited the Aspen Anthology and helped run the Aspen Writer’s Conference. That summer he performed as a student in the Aspen Music Festival.
“That was my first taste of arts administration,” Rothman said, “helping to run this writer’s conference, being a ski racer, working in the ski shop and, you know, living the life.”
Though Rothman didn’t know it at the time, his life has more or less followed the precedent he set during his semester in Aspen.
Following Harvard, Rothman earned his master’s in English at the University of Utah, a time also tracked by deep learning and deep powder. He taught English in China for a year, then returned to Salt Lake City to teach and make a living playing jazz piano at the area’s ski resorts. A year later he moved back to the East Coast to get his doctorate from New York University, but he didn’t stay away from the mountains for long.
After receiving his Ph.D. in English with a concentration in poetry, Rothman took a job at Colorado’s Crested Butte Academy as director of academics. He was responsible for designing and implementing the boarding school’s first curriculum. The school’s emphasis on core academics and mountain sports is akin to Rothman’s personal curriculum.
It’s tempting to start rattling off Rothman’s extensive resume from there on out. He has helped start secondary schools, graduate programs, a literary magazine and a music festival. He has taught at the University of Colorado-Boulder, Western State Colorado University and the University of Denver. He’s a poet laureate of Colorado's Western Slope, a classical bassoonist and a backcountry skier.
Rothman’s experience, and its value to the Center for the Arts, speaks for itself. He has dedicated his life to both education and the advancement of the arts — mostly in Crested Butte, a kindred mountain town to Jackson Hole. Also an artist, he brings to the Center for the Arts a rare combination of leadership experience and artistic vision.
Becoming a bard
Rothman has always been fascinated by words.
Growing up on Smith College’s campus with parents who were faculty members, he was lucky to be born into a family of teachers who gave him a commitment to learning from a young age.
“I remember very vividly being shown the alphabet when I was 4 or 5 years old, and thinking, ‘Wow, this is amazing,’” he said.
The first story he ever wrote went like this: “One day, Pete went for a walk. Pete found a lost dog. Pete took the dog home.”
It’s just three sentences, but there’s a beginning, conflict and resolution — short, but a start. He grew up a voracious reader and dedicated student. At age 13 he read James Joyce’s “Dubliners” and “A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man,” digestible Joyce works for an early teen, and first thought about what it would be to make a living as an artist.
“It had a tremendous impact on me and made me begin to understand what the vocation of being an artist might be,” he said.
Rothman also took up the bassoon — “an instrument that one of the characters in a Fellini movie compared to a cross between a bedpost and a fart” — a typically eccentric move for the young artist.
At 16 he found himself studying with Emil Hebert, one of the world’s premiere bassoonists, who had retired in Rothman’s hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts. Hebert taught the teen what it meant to truly dedicate himself to the arts.
“I was getting a good education in any event, but this guy was of another order,” Rothman said. “This wasn’t about studying music; this was about being a musician, and that’s a different thing.”
Rothman still plays music. Notably, he started a chamber music series that eventually turned into the Crested Butte Music Festival, where he managed orchestras and opera workshops and ran a healthy six-figure budget for a nonprofit arts organization.
Still, words were Rothman’s calling. He enrolled at Harvard to ski race and study poetry, following a long history of poets like T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, E.E. Cummings, John Ashbery and Robert Lowell. Though he made words his medium, Rothman brought the ethic and sensibility from his musical background with him.
“My approach to poetry is completely affected by my musical training,” Rothman said, “both in education and in thinking about the art itself.”
Finding a dream job
Rothman has brought his artistic sensibilities to skiing. While living in Crested Butte for the past two decades he has written poems and books not just about the art of skiing but about the beauty of living in a mountain town.
“In my own ski writing one of the things I wanted to do was bring it up to the level of writing about surfing and rock climbing,” he said. “I didn’t want to just write about gear or turns or mountains.”
Instead he wants to write about love, death, occasionally dirty socks. He wants to tell the stories of people who happen to ski, not skiers.
“I’m going to go out this afternoon and go track skiing in this beautiful wilderness and hope I get to see a fox,” Rothman told the News&Guide in an interview before he moved to Jackson. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to come home and write about a fox, but it means that that’s what I’m doing, that’s how I’m living. And I believe that has a deep impact.”
Just last week Rothman moved from one mountain community to another, larger mountain community for a job he has dreamed about for more than a decade. He first heard about Jackson’s Center for the Arts when it was being designed by a Denver-based architectural firm he knew.
“I said, if the job of running that place ever opened, that would be one of the jobs which I would leave Crested Butte to do,” he said. “It was just so impressive.”
There are art centers all over the West from Denver to Los Angeles, but none quite rival the Jackson Hole Center’s combination of resources and impeccable location. In addition to a 78,000-square-foot campus the Center has one of the most inspiring natural arts facilities right outside its door.
When Rothman found out about the position last August he decided to put his money where he mouth is:
“It is literally my dream job,” he said.
The position of president and CEO is a new role at the Center. Previously the nonprofit was headed by Director Martha Bancroft and President of the Center Fund Jen Simon. For details on what Rothman’s arrival means for the organizational structure, see here.
Having Rothman on board will be a powerful asset to the Center and the Jackson community. In his first few months, he said, his most important job is to listen.
“There are probably 200 names I need to learn,” he said. “I want to go out to breakfast, lunch and dinner with people who have been involved with this from the beginning — the previous directors, like Martha Bancroft, who handed it off to me in such good shape — the board members, the donors, the editor of the newspaper, principal of the high school, superintendent of the schools, the Town Council members, the mayor, the volunteers, the staff.”
Ultimately he wants to know what Jackson Hole as a community wants.
Rothman moved here last week and had his first day at the Center on Monday. His wife, Emily Rothman, will join him in the spring once the youngest son graduates from high school. Rothman met his wife, a ballerina and modern dancer, in a ski lift line at Utah’s Snowbird Resort while both were coincidentally living a few blocks away from each other in New York City. It doesn’t get any more mountain town than that. ￼
Correction: In a previous version of the article, the ed. mistakenly wrote that Rothman was a poet laureate of Colorado; He is a poet laureate of Colorado's Western Slope.