By Dedra Cordle
As the executive director of Summer Jam West, Patti Von Niessen scarcely had the time to take a moment and enjoy the non-profit organization’s largest undertaking.
On the day of its annual music and arts festival, she could either be found picking up litter at the park in the early morning hours, escorting vendors to their reserved location and helping to set up their displays or hopping in the ‘Grape Escape’ in order to pick up last minute goods.
Then, as the crowd would filter in at Westgate Park for a day of relaxing fun, she could be found welcoming attendees, complimenting children with newly-painted faces, taking pictures of all the activities and attending to any issues as they would arise.
Afterwards, she could be found helping vendors take down their displays, cleaning up litter and lamenting the fact that she didn’t get a chance to peruse the work from local artists or really listen to that band playing some good tunes.
“There was never any time for that,” she said. “There would be lots of little fires that would spring up and need to be put out.”
When the festival rolls around next year, however, Von Niessen will not be found running around the park grounds and attending to any problems that come with this massive undertaking. Instead, she will be found looking through the artwork, sitting in the grass enjoying the music or joining her husband and old friends in a family friendly activity.
“It will be different but very nice to experience,” she said.
Earlier this month, and in conjunction with her and her husband’s retirement, Von Niessen announced that she will be stepping down as the executive director of the non-profit organization she founded.
“I am sad to be leaving but I know that I am leaving it as a healthy organization that is in good hands,” she said. “I believe that change is good and you have to have fresh blood to bring in new ideas. The last thing you want is for something you love to become stale.”
As someone who is passionate about music and the arts, Von Niessen said she was inspired to create an organization that brings public and permanent displays of art to the community she fell in love with.
“When I moved to the Hilltop with my husband in 2009, there were not any festivals or public art installations to enjoy in the immediate area,” said the native of British Columbia.
“Then when we went to the music festival at Goodale Park, an idea started forming in my brain.”
Having no knowledge of the steps necessary to form a non-profit, let alone how to write a funding request for it, she decided to just “go for it” and see what happened.
“I had very low expectations for this little grassroots organization,” she said with a laugh. “I just crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.”
With the help of area businesses, friends and volunteers, the first annual music and arts festival was held in 2014.
“I think we had about 800 people show up, and that was if you crossed your eyes and saw double,” she joked.
But with persistence and the sharing of her vision, more businesses started to invest in the organization and more public interest started to sprout up.
In the seven years since its establishment, SJW has commissioned four major art murals (the latest, ‘Color Your World Green,’ was publicly unveiled on June 25), two major art sculptures and five art panels. The attendance at the festival has grown too: Last year, more than 6,000 guests came through the park to experience the music and arts festival.
This year was expected to draw an even larger crowd, but it was cancelled due to public health concerns.
Von Niessen said it feels bittersweet to say goodbye to the organization she founded and the community she adores, but is confident those left in charge will continue to expand upon her vision of adding public and permanent art to the Hilltop.
“Most of the people on the (SJW) board have been here since the beginning,” she said. “I know they are just as committed to fulfilling the organization’s mission.”
Westside resident Danny Peterson was recently named the president of SWJ. He has been with the organization for five years and said he has learned much under Von Niessen’s tutelage.
“She is very dedicated,” he said. “She has and has had such a vision and it’s been inspiring to see someone so focused on getting results for the betterment of a community.”
Without Von Niessen, Peterson said the board will have to split more duties in order to be able to pull off the festival and related major artwork each year.
“She put in hundreds of thousands of hours to get everything organized and ready for the community,” he said. “You really can’t replace someone like her.”
However, Peterson said he and the board are up for the challenge.
“We will continue to build upon the legacy that Patti has left,” he said.
He added that though the festival was cancelled this year, the 2021 festival will be all the more special.
“We were saddened and dismayed to have to cancel the festival this year because we wanted it to be a nice sendoff for Patti,” Peterson said. “But that has given us a lot of motivation so that we can put on a stronger festival in 2021.”