Out Of South Africa

There are many routes to becoming executive director of the Westport Arts Center.

Peter A.H. Van Heerden’s started in South Africa, and ended with a woman.

The Cape Town native spent over a year flying across the Atlantic, as a romantic relationship bloomed.  During visits, he discovered the WAC’s Friday night programs.

In early March, he moved here permanently.  Around the same time, the arts organization advertised for a new executive director.  It was perfect timing — and a perfect fit.

Peter Van Heerden (Photo: Helen Klisser During)

Van Heerden — who takes over officially on July 1 — has 14 years of experience in the performing arts.  From 2004 through 2010 he was founder and artistic director of the Erf 81 Cultural Collective, a Cape Town nonprofit where artists, performers, historians and architects developed and produced creative projects in theater, art and new media.

Previously he served as a senior lecturer in live performance and a development director, also in Cape Town.

He has a BA degree in drama and classical civilization from Rhodes University in South Africa, and a masters in theatre and performance, cum laude, from the University of Cape Town.

Westport, of course, is not South Africa.  But Van Heerden has spent plenty of time — both before he knew about the job, and after getting it — understanding his new town’s artistic heritage.

“I’ve read quite a few articles, and heard many stories, of how this was an arts colony,” he says.  “I know it was an artists’ bohemia.”

The WAC  attempts to leverage that history, 21st century-style.

“It seems there’s always a lot going on there,” Van Heerden says.  “It’s a lively place.  People don’t just look at art.  There’s a film component, community outreach — it’s a very interesting way of presenting art.”

The new executive director calls himself “a strong advocate of using art as a vital tool to integrate culture and heritage.  I try to break down walls, so art can be discussed and understood, socially and as a community.”

He is a firm believer in life-long education.  “Adults can always learn — and they can learn from kids,” Van Heerden notes.  “The Westport Arts Center is a place where adults and children can learn together.”

He looks forward to “nurturing, growing programs, and helping the staff do their jobs well.”

Van Heerden says the WAC currently serves the youth and older demographics well.  He hopes to engage the middle population — “people who work in New York, or spend a lot of time working hard around here” — as well.

However, he’s not talking about specific initiatives just yet.  “I’m just starting to get set, so I’ll keep quiet for the moment,” Van Heerden says.

“But there are definitely ideas cooking in my mind.”

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