Performing Arts President Reflects on 25 Years in Des Moines

DES MOINES, Iowa -- The man in charge of bringing the top Broadway plays, musicals and artists to central Iowa is celebrating a career milestone this week.

“I wasn’t sure that I’d last the first year,” jokes Des Moines Performing Arts President and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Chelesvig. “But no, I had no idea how long it would be but it’s kind of astounding to me.”

A lot has changed in central Iowa since 1995.

“I remember when I came here 25 years ago, downtown had just a handful of restaurants. Coming downtown was, I wouldn’t say it was scary, but it was not as inviting. It seemed like people left at five o’clock and it was very quiet,” recalls Chelesvig.

But today, “The dream that [the Civic Center] founders had that this being the beginning of the downtown renaissance is really happening.”

That means there are more options for people coming downtown for a show. Plus, it helps attract some of the country’s top talent.

“Members of the touring companies really do love coming to Des Moines,” says Chelesvig.

The Belmond, Iowa, native’s leadership has Broadway producers jumping at the opportunity to bring their shows to Iowa.

“I spend a fair amount of time in New York and in London and meeting with producers and booking agents,” says Chelesvig. “The face-to-face is really important and I think it is something that has served us well.”

“Making sure that we’re one of the first cities to see shows is important for the region,” said Christine Lauridsen Sand, chairwoman of the Des Moines Performing Arts Board of Directors.

But Chelesvig and his team do more than present stage productions.

“Especially through education, we are reaching the entire state,” says Lauridsen Sand.

“I think the creation of our education series is one of the things I’m most proud of,” says Chelesvig.

DMPA’s Applause series for students reaches 50,000 kids each year. The Iowa High School Musical Theater Awards has grown to include 86 schools from across the state. But some of the most impactful programs are interactive experiences.

“We do a lot of camps and master classes so that students can interact with professional performers. It is really very valuable,” says Chelesvig.

As for what’s next, DMPA wants to have an education center downtown.

“So many of the activities that we do we weren’t doing when the building opened in 1979. We didn’t have studio space or rehearsal space or classroom space. We’re doing a lot of activities in various places around the metro,” says Chelesvig. “So our dream is to have a place downtown where we can do many of those activities and not be all spread out.”

With a performing arts career spanning decades, Chelesvig is well respected in the industry. He leads national boards, votes for the Tony Awards and has earned his own recognition, such as the Broadway League’s Samuel J. L’Hommedieu Award for Outstanding Achievement in Presenter Management.

So what keeps the Iowan here in his home state?

“Why not Des Moines? We sometimes have a little bit of an inferiority complex in Des Moines. We think that we’re not an important city, when we really are!” exclaims Chelesvig. “I just think we are in a wonderful time right now in the performing arts world with new ideas, new performers, it’s a really cool thing.”

“Twenty-five years is just phenomenal” says Lauridsen Sand. “We hope to have him here for another 25 years.”

“I don’t know what I’m going to be here another 25 years, but I still love coming to work every day and I love the people I work with and I love Des Moines,” says Chelesvig. “So I’ll be here for a while.”