Ambassador of Art

San Diego’s Civic Center Plaza is hardly the place you would expect to find anything having to do with arts and culture. Its exterior is standard governmental gray concrete, and after a trip up its shabby elevators and down the long, drab hallways, I’m met by a waiting room straight out of Twin Peaks—empty chairs, dim lamps, and a single beige telephone sitting on a small table. A card instructs me to dial the receptionist, who appears momentarily and guides me along to the office of Dana Springs.

Springs’ office, however, is where the world of government ends and the world of art begins. She stands in stark contrast to the building she occupies, wearing a bright, colorfully printed dress and greeting me with a warm welcome and a beaming smile. Her office is like a mini-museum, with eclectic artwork covering the walls and whimsical trinkets on her desk. She’s outspoken and poised, with a larger-than-life personality and a passion to be art’s greatest advocate in San Diego. Being the translator between creativity and bureaucracy isn’t an easy job, but Springs, the executive director for San Diego’s Commission for Arts and Culture, says it’s her favorite kind of problem solving. Every day she’s tasked with understanding, communicating and resolving issues related to arts and culture—from determining the art that will be placed in public spaces, to managing all the art owned by the city, which includes both loaning and borrowing paintings.

With a degree from UC San Diego in visual arts and a minor in dance, Springs seems naturally suited to her career, though the path she took to get there was not so obvious. After counter sales at Nordstrom following graduation and a brief stint as an advertising agency receptionist, Springs was swiftly promoted to be the agency’s account manager, acting as the contact point between the client and the creative department. “That’s when I started this relationship of being a kind of translator between creativity and business,” she says.

Dana Springs takes center stage at The Old Globe Theatre, introducing the opening night of Plays by Young Writers. And yes, that’s a copy of Triton magazine in her hand. (Photo by Geri Goodale/Reminisce Photography)
Dana Springs takes center stage at The Old Globe Theatre, introducing the opening night of Plays by Young Writers. And yes, that’s a copy of Triton magazine in her hand. (Photo by Geri Goodale/Reminisce Photography)

Although Springs was in that role for just a year, it was formative to her career path. She recalls one day overhearing the following said to a client: “If you don’t let us provide solutions to your problem, then you’re wasting your money; you don’t need us.” It’s a concept she draws on to this day, as the liaison between artists and government officials. With so many naturally conflicting interests, Springs must be straightforward in how she communicates to each party, so that those in government can understand the art they’re putting a stake in, while the artists can understand their work’s place in the community.

This philosophy stayed latent in the years after the agency, as Springs explored the arts and culture that San Diego had to offer. While visiting local theaters and museums, she began to notice the Commission for Arts and Culture logo and grew curious about the organization. Out of sheer curiosity, Springs picked up the phone, called the Commission’s office, and asked if they had any job openings. It was a bold move, but she was in luck—four months later she started as the public art program assistant.

A decade and a half later, Springs is now leading the organization she decided to call out of the blue. She is now responsible for managing not only the Commission’s reputation, but also its relationships with constituents. But the transition from managing projects to managing people wasn’t easy, Springs says. “I’m still figuring out the best way to prioritize my duties,” she admits, yet through a career of transition, her enthusiastic attitude and commitment to art prevail.

A large part of Springs’ job includes entering the local community to attend art openings and performances. As the face of the Commission, she’s a public figure who must be “on” when out in the world, a facet of her job in which her education in performance proves extremely helpful.

This is where I meet Springs again—out on the town where she is truly in her element. She has come to speak at The Old Globe Theatre for the opening night of Plays by Young Writers, a program by the San Diego Playwrights Project. As we walk into the Globe, Springs scopes out the crowd and all the young playwrights, no doubt assessing how representative they are of arts and culture in San Diego. And indeed they are—throughout the night, we see four different productions by young playwrights, all reflective of their own cultures and journeys. During a brief intermission, I have to relinquish Springs’ attention to the crowd of people who have gathered to chat with her—from the principal of a local high school to an artist pitching an idea for a new project.

According to Springs, it’s this kind of enthusiasm that lets San Diego occupy a distinct place in the art world. It’s a city that’s cosmopolitan enough to be interesting and dynamic, but still casual enough to be comfortable. The unique nature of San Diego, with its nontraditional work lifestyle (think anti-9-5), allows for greater creativity from local innovators.

The fact that San Diego offers amazing arts and culture that we can all enjoy in a relaxed, beautiful setting is our signatureDana Springs

A special reward of her role occurred when her connection with UC San Diego came full circle. While a student, Springs studied under dance professors Patricia Rincon and Jean Isaacs, as well as then-teaching assistant Roman de Salvo. She relished the chance to work with them all again, this time in her governmental role, when they all received funding from the Commission for their local dance companies.

Springs credits her UC San Diego education for shaping her career trajectory, but not in the way most people think when they hear of her degree in visual arts. “I couldn’t paint something if I wanted to,” she admits. “But I could talk to you about art all day long. I can translate the concepts and ideas that need to be translated to certain audiences. It’s an unusual combination: the teaching about ideas, then the ability I learned in the advertising agency to balance business interests with creative interests.”


 

Dana Springs tells all…

Get the inside story behind some of San Diego’s public art installations, including those iconic blue chairs at the Central Library.


 

For others from UC San Diego interested in pursuing a career in the visual arts, Springs offers two bits of advice: be a good writer and learn how to manage heartbreak. “When you’ve worked hard on something and then something about it fails, you have to develop the skill to not become bitter or closed,” she notes. “It really comes down to being resilient. There’s a million ways to be resilient if you have strong creativity.”

It was that resilience and boldness that put Springs where she is today—from center stage of The Old Globe to the office downtown that she has turned into an expression of herself—all of it in service of bringing art to San Diego.

“There is more drama going on in this office than there is in any movie theater across America,” she says. “I have never been bored at my desk, not one time. I have some interesting, bizarre new problem to solve every day. The fact that the problems are related to arts and culture makes it that much more rewarding.”

Top image: Photo by John Durant, ’77