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2022 Day in the Life: Leslie Forrester

April 18, 2022

Posted online

For Leslie Forrester, executive director of the Springfield Regional Arts Council Inc., morning coffee comes at 9:30 a.m. with a dollop of strategic planning.

She’s busy in the weeks leading up to SRAC’s signature event, Artsfest on Historic Walnut Street, and there aren’t a lot of minutes to spare.

But today, Forrester has good company at Mudhouse Coffee, where whimsical landscapes full of monsters by local painter Chad Woody line the walls.

Forrester is meeting Mary Kromrey, executive director of Ozark Greenways Inc., and they are talking about the art found along 110 miles of multiuse trails. They’re thinking a map would be useful to pinpoint the locations of sculptures and murals throughout the system, and they’re discussing possibilities for new art to be added to the collection.

It’s the kind of thing Forrester does in her job as the region’s head arts honcho. SRAC’s mission is to transform lives and enrich the community through the arts, and Forrester does the practical work of making it happen.

Though nature is her main interest, Kromrey loves art.

“I just want more art everywhere,” she tells Forrester. “I’ve been thinking it would be neat to do a public art walk on the trails. We’ve got some great little hidden murals out there.”

Forrester and Kromrey wrap up their conversation, each with notes for urgent follow-ups.

Anyone who thinks the arts just happen in a community could not be further off the mark.

At 10 a.m., Forrester is off to her next engagement. She’s meeting Rusty Worley, executive director of the Downtown Springfield Association, and together they walk down the section of Walnut Street where Artsfest is set to take place May 7-8.

Artsfest is a big deal for the SRAC team, and for the Downtown Springfield Association, which helps to pull it off. The Artsfest website says 20,000 people attend each year.

Worley points out locations for the kids’ activity area, stage and temporary toilets.

Forrester has a few suggestions, but the two seem satisfied with how things are shaping up.

Worley says he’s expecting a big crowd, as downtown has been experiencing a surge in visitors.

“They’re excited to be back,” he says.

For Forrester, the event means long days, but she relishes them.

“We see a lot of old friends who are artists, and there are always new friends to bring into the fold,” she says. “It really fills the cup up.”

Forrester is off to her office at The Creamery Arts Center next. It’s no surprise that art is all around her, but it’s a sweet surprise that the most prominent work on display is by her daughters, CJ, nearly 2, and Evie, 5.

The day began at 5 a.m. with an early wakeup by CJ, Forrester says. Both girls need to be at school by 8:20 a.m., and she and husband Phil, lead music instructor at Ozarks Technical Community College, hustled to get everyone ready.

Forrester says she usually makes it to her office by 8:45 a.m. but says she learned during the pandemic about the importance of flexibility for her staff of five.

“We don’t punch a time clock, and work can be very much not 9 to 5,” she says. “We can’t provide the level of pay and benefits that a traditional corporation can provide, but we can hopefully be accommodating and flexible in people’s actual lives.”

Forrester also knows the value of the arts to people’s lives and to the community.

“There are how many other Springfields around this country?” she says. “The ways that we can set ourselves apart come in the form of arts and culture. We have to invest in them.”

This day has Forrester mostly out of the office, but during her time at her desk, staff members pop in with questions or messages.

Forrester has been with SRAC for eight years, but her entire staff is new as of last year. That means Forrester is the sole source of institutional memory – but she says her team has learned the ropes quickly.

Forrester has scheduled lunch with Phil – it’s a thing they like to do on days without work conflicts – and after, she plans office time and a staff meeting. But then at 3 p.m., she’s off again, this time to visit Geoff Steele, executive director of the Gillioz Center for Arts and Entertainment.

They sit at a table and chairs Steele has set up on stage, but the next day, the alternative metal band Primus – the folks who do the “South Park” theme song – will occupy the very same space. The soft rock duo Air Supply will bring a completely different vibe to the Gillioz in May – part of a head-spinning lineup that includes a variety of genres and styles.

Steele and Forrester are discussing the Arts & Economic Prosperity Survey that Gillioz volunteers will help distribute.

The last survey, conducted in 2015, found that the arts contributed $26.9 million to the economy and generated $2.3 million in revenue for local and state governments.

Steele understands the economic importance of the arts. During the pandemic, the nonprofit Gillioz lost 91% of its revenue – but managed to survive, whereas many event venues did not.

The good news is that the venue has made a comeback, with 2022 on pace to crush 2019’s totals.

Steele agrees with Worley: People are ready to be out again.

From the Gillioz, Forrester heads to Fresh Gallery, a project of SRAC that serves 22 artists.

Cheryl Vowels, a glass artist, says the downtown juried gallery opened about 14 years ago.

The artists staff the gallery and host events. Forrester says SRAC provides back-end support, like bookkeeping services.

Vowels says Forrester and other SRAC staff are a familiar presence at the gallery, checking in and making sure everything is running smoothly. Forrester says Fresh Gallery artists really care about the space. That’s how it is with the arts in Springfield, she says – there are many hands involved, all working to offer something beautiful or meaningful.

It’s Forrester’s last meeting of the day before heading off to pick up her daughters. Phil typically makes dinner, and she cleans it up. Afterward, it’s an hour or two of work before turning in.

SRAC’s vision statement says community is a place where the arts are essential, and this seems true, whether they’re hanging above a table at a coffee shop, playing hide-and-seek on a nature trail, rocking out at the Gillioz or politely awaiting onlookers at a gallery.

And Forrester is one of the people who works quietly behind the scenes to make the arts happen.

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