Jen Simon

Jen Simon is continuing her work for valley nonprofits as the Center Fund’s new president. She oversees the private fundraising arm for the Center for the Arts.

A familiar face has joined the Center Fund.

Jen Simon, new Center Fund president, has been a member of the Jackson community for over 20 years and has worked at various nonprofits in the valley (among a few other high-profile roles), most recently as vice president of the St. John’s Hospital Foundation.

As Simon settles into the new role of managing the fundraising arm of the Center for the Arts, the News&Guide caught up with her to discuss fundraising, the Center and what the arts mean to Jackson.

Q: What is your background in Jackson?

A: Like so many other people, 20 years ago I came for the activities and stayed for the community. I’ve been so fortunate to participate in this community in a meaningful way over the years, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else, long winters notwithstanding. Jackson provides so many opportunities for creative engagement, and that’s enabled me to do everything from volunteer with Teton Youth and Family Services to co-found Womentum to run political campaigns to step into a leadership role in the arts.

Q: You’ve worked at several nonprofits. Why have you stayed in that field?

A: Nonprofits are the lifeblood of our valley. Look at how robust the sector is, how much economic impact the organizations have and how nonprofits here really reflect the community ethos. They keep us connected and embody the values we have about living in community and caring for each other.

Q: What role do you think the Center for the Arts has in the community?

A: The Center is the hub of our creative community. The Center was conceived and built by the community, for the community. This grassroots inclusivity comes through in our mission.

The Center is the heart of the valley’s artistic, creative and cultural activity. Last year the Center hosted 194 events. An event every other night of the year on our campus, and 94 percent were produced by nonprofit organizations and open to the public.

Q: How do you think the Center’s accessibility has improved over the years?

A: The Center has worked hard over the years to do more collaborative work to ensure there are free and low-priced events available to the community. And that work has paid off as ticket prices continue to come down year over year.

More than that, there is a whole generation of kids and families who know and love the Center. The activity bus drops off here every afternoon. [Dancers’ Workshop] and the Art Association continue their long legacies of engaging kids from toddler age on up — and since they’re all under one roof, it means that the Center has become the place that these kids and their families experience as the hub of their creative lives.

Q: You can’t talk about the Center without talking about money. What role does or should philanthropy play in the arts scene of any given community? Do you think that by art being funded by the public it makes it more accessible?

A: There is an important balance between public funding and private philanthropy.

The Center is a unique example of how this balance has played out.

In other communities, performing arts centers often receive public support. Here in Jackson the Center is fortunate to be on public property — owned by the town and county. The facility itself — operations, maintenance, programs, concerts, open spaces, galleries, classrooms, all of it — is maintained by private philanthropy.

We are entirely unique in this model. And since Jackson was named one of the nation’s top 10 arts vibrant small communities we must be doing something right with the public-private partnership we’ve developed here.

Q: Talk to me about the Center Fund. We previously talked about donating to a specific resident versus donating to the fund. What’s the difference and does it particularly matter if you give to one resident versus the Center as a whole?

A: The simplest way to explain is that the Center is its own 501(c)(3) nonprofit, as are the 18 arts and education residents who make their home in the Center.

We strongly believe two things: that philanthropy is not a zero-sum game, so when our organizations are vibrant and doing great mission-driven work there are resources out there to support that great work. Which means that we also believe the adage: “high tide, all boats rise.”

Giving to the Center enables us to maintain the facility, keep rents low for residents, create more collaborative opportunities, develop innovative programming and increase the number of free and low-cost offerings. Giving to individual residents enables those organizations to provide high-quality programming in the arts in their specific discipline or field. We’re better together.

Q: The Center just launched a giant endowment campaign. What are the long-term goals for that money?

A: To build on the point about the public-private partnership, the town of Jackson just confirmed a 99-year lease with the Center. This marks an exciting public commitment to sustaining the creative heart of our community. And that made clear that now is the time to build the financial resources — using private philanthropy — to match that commitment and to ensure the long-term viability of the Center. Our job is to ensure that all those kiddos who get dropped off by the activity bus every day can be confident that, in the future, their kids will have access to the same thriving resource.

The campaign’s focus is to broaden and deepen support for The Center, and we’re excited that significant funds toward the $10 million goal are already coming from a broad range of people. This is a community effort, just like the original idea of the Center. People feel personally invested in the Center as a community resource and are excited to be part of the plan for its future.

Q: How much do you think the arts are tied to the overall economic health of a town?

A: The arts are an investment that delivers both community well-being and economic vitality. Without getting too nerdy about the arts and the economy, which anyone who knows me knows I am always happy to do, I’d highlight a few data points from Americans for the Arts’ Arts and Economic Prosperity report, which clearly demonstrates the ways in which, both nationally and locally, the arts are good for business.

That same survey drilled down into the local picture here in Jackson and found that the nonprofit arts and culture sector (not including things like galleries, commercial photographers, or any for-profit arts ventures) is a $51.2 million industry. In the town of Jackson that supports more than 1,000 full-time equivalent jobs and generates over $5 million in local and state government revenue.

And then there are the transformational components of the arts. When I was a researcher at Vanderbilt’s Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy, we ran a creativity boot camp that highlighted the role of creative thinking and artists in daily life. For example, actors taught improv workshops designed to help business people bolster their negotiation skills.

Through those workshops and interactions, you could start to experience the value of the worldview of artists. 

Contact Isa Jones at 732-7062, or @JHNGscene.

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