February 28, 2019

Ent Center director works to raise profile of 'very robust' arts scene in Colorado Springs

by Bill Radford
The Gazette

Aisha Ahmad-Post had a clear and ambitious goal: to become the principal bassist for the New York Philharmonic. But years of practice toward that goal took a toll on her body. And when an injury forced her to abandon that dream, she set on a new career path — one that eventually would lead her from the Big Apple to Colorado Springs and a job as director of the new Ent Center for the Arts at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

The center is home to the university’s professional arts organizations, Theatreworks and the UCCS Galleries of Contemporary Art. It also contains four performing arts venues, rehearsal studios, classrooms, practice rooms and a cafe. When Ahmad-Post came town to interview for the job in 2017, the $70 million center was still under construction. But she saw the possibilities. "I just remember feeling there was so much potential."

A musical education

Ahmad-Post grew up in Tucson, Ariz., a city with a "similar arts ecosystem to Colorado Springs," she says. "There's a very robust youth symphony program, a robust professional symphony, a presenting series through the university." 

Her exposure to the musical arts came early; she started playing piano at around age 3. "My parents were very strict that we should all play piano from a young age through high school," she says. "There really was no negotiation on that front." 

Later, though, she was allowed to pick another instrument to play as well. She chose the double bass, the largest member of the violin family. She headed off to Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music as a double-bass performance major. But her years of practicing the bass had caused a muscular imbalance that, in turn, led to pinched nerve. She had to stop playing for six months while she underwent intensive physical therapy, and doctors warned her that the problem would become a chronic one if she continued to play at the same level. She switched to piano performance to finish her degree.

During her forced break, she also came to a realization. "I realized, you know, I really don't enjoy spending that much time in a practice room by myself. I like to talk to people. I'm very extroverted. I started thinking about what I liked most about being in the arts, and I realized it was really that half-hour before the show, the intermission and the half-hour after when I get to talk to the musicians and the dancers, and I get to see all the pieces come together and talk to the audience. I think that's sort of how I found my way toward arts administration."

She earned bachelor's degrees in piano performance and international relations, then went on to get a master's in music theory. After a summer working at the Aspen Music Festival, it was off to New York. She worked for a booking agency; after the business went insolvent, she grabbed a job as a paralegal on Wall Street, "doing international arbitration and Bernie Madoff-type cases and document review." She had once toyed with going to law school and her education in international relations helped her in her new role.

The job taught her at least two things. "I learned I can work 100 hours in one week and that I really hate document review."

From there, it was on to the New York Public Library as a producer — a job, she says, "that wasn't fully defined, but I sort of defined it." She produced "LIVE from the NYPL," the library's flagship cultural series.

"It was a wonderful opportunity," she says — and a challenging one as she chose the talent, oversaw marketing, implemented new ticket pricing and more. She found time for love, however, and got married.

She and her husband reached a point, Ahmad-Post says, where they had to decide if there were going to be in New York "for the long haul" or leave the big city for elsewhere.

They decided to move. During her job hunt, she came across the opening at the Ent Center. "And the rest," she says, "is history."

Those worried about the "Californiacation" of Colorado should turn their attention east, Ahmad-Post warns.

"Everyone in New York wants to move to Colorado. It was crazy how many people came to me, 'Oh my gosh, take me with you."

Colorado's outdoor recreation scene — she loves to climb, hike and ski — was a major lure for Ahmad-Post. She became involved in outdoor conservation efforts in New York and plans to continue her activism here; she has joined the board of directors of the Incline Friends, which is dedicated to maintaining and sustaining the Manitou Incline.

Big and Little Questions

Those outdoor interests had to languish as Ahmad-Post plunged into her new job. Her first months, before the Ent Center opened, involved "a ton of guessing, educated guesses about what the unknown unknowns might be." There were "big-level" questions: "Who are we and who are we serving and what do we mean to the community?" And then there were the more mundane but essential questions: "Where are we going to store the chairs and who was going to turn on the lights and who's going to run the box office?"

Those questions got answered and the center opened in January 2018. Ahmad-Post's duties include programming the center's performing arts series, overseeing the education and outreach department, building community connections and keeping on top of trends in the arts.

Drew Martorella, executive director of UCCS Presents, says the 33-year-old Ahmad-Post — who was one of the winners of the Mayor's Young Leaders Awards last year — "has proven to really be a game changer for our city. ... She has taken the lead in establishing a series the likes of which our city, our region, has just never seen before." He points to an appearance by the famed David Dorfman Dance company, which included not just a performance but also a series of classes by Dorfman, as among the highlights.

In first meeting Ahmad-Post, Martorella says, "I was overwhelmed by her passion for the arts and her love of the type of work that we wanted to produce. I knew her enthusiasm would translate into building a connection with important community members and the campus, and also building an audience."

Ahmad-Post has retained that enthusiasm as she has gotten to know the Colorado Springs arts scene. One surprise for her: "I learned that this is a good dance town, which kind of shocks everybody, because very few places are good dance towns. ... I've found a lot of energy and excitement around dance, and I'm excited to continue that conversation."

On the flip side, Colorado Springs is "not as much of a jazz town. But I am going to fix that," she says with a laugh.

There is a jazz audience locally, she says — what she calls "a small but mighty tribe." She wants to broaden that audience as she explores the role of jazz in American music. "So that's going to be a major theme moving forward."

Overall, she has found the local arts scene to be "very robust." 

"This center would not have been created if it were not for the fact that there was a robust arts scene here. So now it's about making that arts scene more visible to the general public."

At the same time, she's working to get the word out to performers about the gem that is the Ent Center.

"I think people are really eager for new audiences. There's so much opportunity in these regional performing arts centers. ... I think it's nice to be able to introduce the art world to Colorado Springs and Colorado Springs to the art world."