Rebecca Petersen

Fellowship: 20 Years Out

Rebecca Petersen (BF’97) has long believed that arts organizations can have an enormous impact on the communities they serve. She has spent the bulk of her career proving that notion; it was a Bush Fellowship that started her leadership journey.

Prior to her Fellowship, Petersen was involved in a $1.2 million campaign to reinstate Fergus Falls, Minn.’s Orpheum Theatre as “A Center for the Arts.” Over the course of the campaign, the Orpheum received a grant from the Bush Foundation, piquing Petersen’s interest in its work.

Rebecca Petersen illustration
Illustration by Allegra Lockstadt

Until you reach beyond what’s tangible, the impossible just isn’t possible."

With the Fergus Falls project behind her, Petersen applied for a Bush Fellowship. She wanted to study two performing arts groups and how each incorporated educational programming into their respective work. One program was at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts in St. Paul; the other at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vt. Her initial goal was to adopt similar best practices into new programming for the Fergus Falls School District. However, after receiving feedback and connections gleaned from the Bush Foundation, Petersen changed directions. 

Thanks to the flexibility a Bush Fellowship affords, Petersen adjusted her original plan and began shadowing Artspace. The nonprofit supported artists by providing places where they can live and work. Over the course of three years, Petersen spent time with Artspace in Seattle, Minneapolis and St. Paul and worked on various projects.

Through the experience, Petersen saw how different arts organizations operated and learned how her work as an arts administrator could have great impact on any community of which she was a member. “My work with the Bush Foundation helped me see the value that arts organizations have on communities at a grassroots level,” she explained.

My work with the Bush Foundation helped me see the value that arts organizations have on communities at a grassroots level."

As the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra’s executive director for the past six years, Petersen’s Fellowship experience continues to influence her. “The symphony orchestra world is really challenging right now,” she explains, adding that the audience base for classical ensembles is dwindling across the board.

In response to this decline, community orchestras like hers are finding ways to engage new audience members — in a word, she says, they are exercising “flexibility,” a skill Petersen became very comfortable with during her Fellowship.

Petersen says the Fellowship gave her the courage to take on new things. She recalls donning a wolf costume for a performance of “Peter and the Wolf.” “Someone commented that I was so brave,” Petersen says. “I laughed and said, ‘I run a community orchestra — it comes with the job.’ ”

Thinking back on her Fellowship, Petersen is both humbled and encouraged by the immense possibility inherent in the program. She advises current and future Bush Fellows to redefine what is possible and think beyond the readily accessible.

“What is actually possible?” she challenges. “Until you reach beyond what’s tangible, the impossible just isn’t possible.” 

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The Fellowship is a recognition of extraordinary achievement and a bet on extraordinary potential, with up to $100,000 to invest in leadership development.