Donna Isaac of Scottsdale Public Art on Why She Surrounds Herself with Creative People

Meet Donna Isaac.EXPAND
Meet Donna Isaac.
Scottsdale Cultural Council

Every other year, New Times puts the spotlight on Phoenix's creative forces — painters, dancers, designers, and actors. Leading up to the release of Best of Phoenix, we're taking a closer look at 100 more. Welcome to the 2016 edition of 100 Creatives. Up today is 35. Donna Isaac.

Donna Isaac's path was no straight line. 

The 68-year-old director of Scottsdale Public Art thinks back on how she arrived at this point in her career. 

She studied art history and hoped to work in a museum. "However," she says, "my path took me elsewhere."

Always a writer at her core, Isaac became a journalist and worked in Canada, France, and the Netherlands, covering the arts and travel. "While in the Netherlands," she says, "I worked extensively in the Balkans both as a journalist and as a facilitator in public processes for the Nansen Dialogue Centers and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs."

Isaac came to Phoenix with the aim to delve deeper into the arts. She took on the role of public art manager for the City of Phoenix's Public Art Program. And for seven years, she worked in the field, moving on to be senior project manager and then associate director at Scottsdale Public Art, before she became the program's director. 

"Public art has brought together my career in public process with my background in the arts," she says. Now, Isaac oversees a staff of eight and spends her days planning and taking meetings — internal, City, community, and artist-driven. 

During her tenure at SPA thus far, Isaac says that two major accomplishments stand out. The first is the completion of the Soleri Bridge & Plaza, dedicated in 2010. "This was the largest public art project undertaken by Scottsdale Public Art," Isaac says. "It was an incredible project to manage, as we took the lead. I am also grateful that the project completed and was dedicated while Paolo Soleri was still with us and able to see the completion of his only constructed bridge."

Paolo Soleri's Soleri Bridge and Plaza (detail) at the Scottsdale Waterfront.EXPAND
Paolo Soleri's Soleri Bridge and Plaza (detail) at the Scottsdale Waterfront.
Lynn Trimble

The second is Canal Convergence, an annual art event that Isaac helped develop with Salt River Project. It brings the work of local and international artists — as well as some 50,000 people — to the Scottsdale Waterfront. (New Times got involved with the event in 2016, presenting a storytelling event called Stories with a Splash.) "Some are experiencing contemporary art through public art installations for the first time," Isaac says. "Canal Convergence allows us to support local artists, while bringing installations from around the world to Scottsdale."

Isaac finds her inspiration in the day-to-day elements of her life: creative co-workers, their ideas, new challenges, the work of local artists, and the beauty of the desert.

"My position is also to focus on the big picture," she says. "I work with other cities nationally both addressing our policies and our temporary programming, as well as the possibility for co-commissions. I also meet with national and international artists who have approached Scottsdale Public Art or who we have targeted for future installations."

Still, her way of arriving here isn't one she'd recommend.

"I would not suggest anyone else try to follow this path," Isaac says. "I believe my experiences outside of the arts in facilitation, mediation, cross-cultural discussions, and public processes have helped me enormously in my work in the public art field. My skills in project management were honed as a consultant and those skills proved to be pivotal once I took on project management in the field of public art."

A look at Canal Convergence 2016 from above.EXPAND
A look at Canal Convergence 2016 from above.
Courtesy of Scottsdale Public Art

I came to Phoenix being enamored by the Southwest.

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I make art because I am a writer and former journalist. My writing has always been art-based – art criticism and book reviews. I have worked in Canada, France, and the Netherlands as an international journalist covering travel writing and art. My current position focuses on administrating public art. Art and engaging community has been strong themes in my writing. As Director of Scottsdale Public Art, the two threads of public involvement and visual arts have come together. The role of public art in defining place making for a community and how public art supports a community’s efforts in revitalization, economic development, and tourism are all critical factors in engaging the public with contemporary art in new, playful, and often surprising ways.

I’m most productive when surrounded by creative people who challenge me and encourage me to think and move outside of the box. Chocolate also helps.

My inspiration wall is full of texts from the Tao Te Ching, Fritz Scholder’s New Moon, public art installations by Christo and others, postcards of places where I have lived and traveled, and images of my favorite works from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

I've learned most from Dr. Melvin Waldfogel and my first seminars in critical thinking; Dr. Mary Anderson who founded Collaborative for Development Action and mentored me during my first international projects; Steinar Bryn, Senior Advisory with Nansen Dialogue Centers with whom I worked in Macedonia and Kosovo; and Ed Lebow, manager of Phoenix’s Public Art program, which I joined in late 2005.

Good public art speaks for itself, bridging controversy, inviting public opinion, and aesthetically providing a sense of place. A good work of art is the basis for discussion, and can always engage the public. It is not above questioning. But good work will always encourage dialogue and challenge the viewer and participant to think, whether the focus is local with a community or neighborhood or issues facing us globally.

The Phoenix creative scene could use more encouragement. Phoenix is a lively art, film, and music scene that is exciting for all creatives, residents, and visitors. Artist live/work spaces within the downtown add a dynamic element that adds to this vibrant scene.

The 2016 Creatives so far:

100. Nicole Olson
99. Andrew Pielage
98. Jessica Rowe
97. Danny Neumann
96. Beth Cato
95. Jessie Balli
94. Ron May
93. Leonor Aispuro
92. Sarah Waite
91. Christina "Xappa" Franco
90. Christian Adame
89. Tara Sharpe
88. Patricia Sannit
87. Brian Klein
86. Dennita Sewell
85. Garth Johnson
84. Charissa Lucille
83. Ryan Downey
82. Samantha Thompson
81. Cherie Buck-Hutchison
80. Freddie Paull
79. Jennifer Campbell
78. Dwayne Hartford
77. Shaliyah Ben
76. Kym Ventola
75. Matthew Watkins
74. Tom Budzak
73. Rachel Egboro
72. Rosemary Close
71. Ally Haynes-Hamblen
70. Alex Ozers
69. Fawn DeViney
68. Laura Dragon
67. Stephanie Neiheisel
66. Michael Lanier
65. Jessica Rajko
64. Velma Kee Craig
63. Oliver Hibert
62. Joya Scott
61. Raji Ganesan
60. Ashlee Molina
59. Myrlin Hepworth
58. Amy Ettinger
57. Sheila Grinell
56. Forrest Solis
55. Mary Meyer
54. Robert Hoekman Jr.
53. Joan Waters
52. Gabriela Muñoz
51. ColorOrgy
50. Liz Magura
49. Anita and Sam Means
48. Liz Ann Hewett
47. Tiffany Fairall
46. Vanessa Davidson
45. Michelle Dock
44. Nia Witherspoon
43. Monique Sandoval
42. Nayon Iovino
41. Daniel Davisson
40. Andrew King
39. Michelle Moyer
38. Jimmy Nguyen
37. Tiffany Lopez
36. Kristin Bauer

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