After a nearly two-year hiatus brought about by COVID-19, the Atlanta Ballet is coming back to the stage with a new executive director.
After a five-month-long national search, Atlanta Ballet has named Tom West as the organization’s new executive director. West has experience in arts management spanning more than 20 years that started with a childhood passion for the arts.
“I have been in love with the arts from the time I was a kid, and I don’t come from an arts family,” West told Georgia Voice. “I have very Southern parents, and I was this oddball kid loving theatre, loving dance, loving music, and they did not know what to do with me! The arts have always been a passion.”
West studied acting and directing as an undergrad before going back to school to get a master’s degree in arts administration from American University when he was around 30 years old. Since then, he has performed leadership roles at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, and most recently the American Film Institute.
“Tom’s extensive experience in successful fundraising, board development, and governance combined with his knowledge and understanding of the benefits that the arts offer our community are invaluable,” Atlanta Ballet Artistic Director Gennadi Nedvigin said in a press release. “He has a kind and calm demeanor yet has the ability to inspire an energetic and productive atmosphere with his fresh, dynamic leadership approach based on the collective experiences of everyone in the room. I look forward to merging his distinguished professional background and valuable connections with our existing strategic vision to expand our reach within the digital world, the metro Atlanta area, the state of Georgia, and beyond.”
Along with being a longtime lover of the arts, West is also an openly gay man — two parts of himself that are connected.
“If you can understand what is really beautiful to someone and really terrible and heart wrenching to someone, then you can start to connect with them as a person – and the arts do that,” he said. “Growing up gay in the South in a very religious household — with, by the way, very accepting family — the sense of otherness was something I grew up with and carried through a lot of my early professional career. When you can start to convey that [emotion] onstage in a way that people feel emotion and can start to relate in a different kind of way than the labels we put on each other, then people actually have a chance of coming together. That’s what I think the arts do: they make us better. They help us understand each other better, they help us come together, they shock us by seeing parts of the world we don’t see.”
While working with the Atlanta Ballet, West plans to combat the exclusivity that can be common in the arts world by prioritizing diversity and equity.
“There are and have been a lot of obstacles to participation in the arts,” West said. “Thankfully, over the last five years, the arts community has come to recognize that diversity and equity and inclusion should be core values. If you’re only seeing one perspective on stage, we’re not connecting people from different cultures. We’re not doing the things the arts are supposed to do.”
The Atlanta Ballet combats these obstacles with initiatives like “Decade 2 Dance,” which supports the next generation of Black and Brown dancers by offering young performers training, mentorship, and academic support.
“One of the things that the arts struggle with is the perception of exclusivity, but dance is for everybody,” West said. “Everybody, regardless of cultural history or ability, has the opportunity to feel the power of the expression of dance and to dance in their own way. When you get to come and see someone do it at a level that is so excellent — these dancers are superhuman, it’s incredible — people can start to come together and hopefully see themselves reflected on the stage. That’s something that’s really important to us.”
Not only is Atlanta Ballet coming back from the pandemic with new leadership, they also have an exciting lineup of performances returning to the stage, including “The Nutcracker” from December 4 to 30, “Snow White” from February 4 to 6, “Firebird” from February 11 to 13, and “Giselle” from March 18 to 20.
Overall, West says he’s excited both for the future of Atlanta Ballet and his future in Atlanta.
“”I’m excited to be here, and I’m excited to get to know the broader community and the gay community here,” he said. “I want the LGBTQ community to know that the ballet is a place where we want everybody to feel welcome.”