New BreckCreate CEO talks about his love of theater and the organization’s role in the community
BRECKENRIDGE — Matt Neufeld saw 20-ton blocks of snow outside his window on his second day of work at Breckenridge Creative Arts. The new president and CEO of the nonprofit officially joined in January in the midst of the International Snow Sculpture Championships after Robb Woulfe stepped down in July to peruse other projects.
“It’s just been a great ride since (January),” Neufeld said in March. “There’s incredible potential, and I’ve encountered an incredible openness and willingness to explore and think about what we can do, both within the organization and also throughout the community.
“The feeling of welcomeness and inclusion hit me right from the get-go. … You have the best of both worlds. You have this wonderful small town, because we are a small town, and we have this incredibly diverse, broader community that feels almost equally invested.”
Neufeld is only the second to helm the organization that was founded in 2014. Also called BreckCreate, it is the driving force behind festivals such as WAVE: Light + Water + Sound and the Breckenridge International Festival of Arts, along with smaller exhibitions and workshops that involve hands-on activities like ceramics or woodworking.
Neufeld had been to Breckenridge only once before getting the job, but he fell in love with the place instantly, he said. He and his wife came in the summer two years ago to hike in the surrounding mountains and enjoyed the weather better than the humid climate in his old home of St. Louis, Missouri. It’s where he grew up and where he lived most recently, but in between, Neufeld also studied and worked on the East Coast in New York and Connecticut.
Neufeld was bit by the acting bug at an impressionable age after seeing an unique production of “Beowulf” that had a rotating pyramid-shaped set. “It would turn on its side, and all of a sudden, you’re in the great hall. Then it’s turned upside down, and they’re slow motion fighting with quarterstaffs. … It was incredible.”
Since then, he wanted to bring that same feeling to others.
“The arts hit you; they hit you right here,” Neufeld said, gesturing at his heart. “A good artistic experience, you should feel something. Hopefully, it’s something that moves you positively. I’d rather have it move you negatively than just indifference. … I think we could make a smart arts experience that activates both your mind and heart.”
After a year at the University of Kansas, he went to conservatory at New York University and also studied abroad in Dublin. Yet he wasn’t fond of memorizing lines, preferring the freeform nature of improvisation, and he transitioned to directing and producing new plays with a theater company he created with fellow alumni. Around the same time, he became involved with the Howl! Festival in Manhattan’s East Village. It exposed him to the world of permitting, logistics, communications, accounting and other disciplines not taught in acting school as he worked to set up various street fairs.
Neufeld enjoyed it but found it and consulting with other projects exhausting, and he wished to be at just one organization, like the Hartford Stage regional theater in Connecticut. Over three years there, he was part of a capital endowment campaign, adult improv program and theater renovation in addition to working with a board of about 60 members.
He then became the managing director of Metro Theater Co. in St. Louis. The theater specializes in family- and youth-oriented programming, and Neufeld used the arts to discuss STEM, anti-bullying, public health and more. For instance, they turned the play “In This Corner … Cassius Clay,” into a platform to discuss race relations during the time of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri.
“Over five weeks, we had 10,000 people come see the show, and three out of every four of them was a young person,” Neufeld said. “So when I think about what opportunities are presented within an organization like BreckCreate, where we have incredible artists on staff and amazing resident companies that live and work in our spaces and a broader, nonarts community that really wants to work together.”
Eventually he returned to consulting but realized he wanted to be back at a larger organization, which led him to apply for the BreckCreate job. He sees the administrative role as a form of directing and doesn’t really miss the stage.
“A lot of it is all about getting the right people in the room — the right artists, the right collaborators, whatever that is,” Neufeld said.
Neufeld is fortunate that BreckCreate was a healthy and stable organization when he joined. Instead of righting a doomed ship about to hit an iceberg, his first major task was facilitating the absorption of Breckenridge Music under the BreckCreate umbrella.
“This is the perfect time for our organization to have a moment to check in and say, ‘Here’s what we accomplished. What do we want to do next?” Neufeld said. “Where do we think we want to go, and what’s our role as an arts organization and arts leader in the region?’ That’s a conversation I was really exited to have, and we are having with the new organization board. …
“There’s a lot to be said about the current mission and ethos of this current organization, so I don’t know if that’s going to change drastically.”
He has some ideas for new and interesting projects, but Neufeld is keeping them close to his chest for now as he doesn’t want to change too much too quickly. Rather, he is taking time to meet government officials, local artists and other community members — even taking field trips early in the year to check out the Lake Dillon Theatre Co. or Dillon Amphitheater — to learn how BreckCreate can better serve the town as a whole.
“You want to respect and honor the work that has happened because there has been some really good work, but I think any time you have a new leader come into the organization, that’s an opportunity to test these values and really look at the direction we want to go,” Neufeld said.
Some values that Neufeld wants to focus on are community involvement — such as the collaborative “Woven Spaces” exhibit that is constantly evolving through participation — education and tapping into Coloradan’s love of sustainability.
“If we were going to implement (environmental) change based solely on logic and facts, we probably would have done that 30 years ago,” Neufeld said. “There’s always obstacles that have stopped us as a nation from embracing some of these changes, but if you want to look at social and behavioral change, I think that’s where the artist’s tools come into play because they help tell that story in a way people can understand and feel the impact.”
Last May, Woulfe discussed the organization switching its mission to prioritize classes and activities for residents over crowd-drawing events, but Neufeld isn’t nixing festivals right out of the gate. Visiting artists and commissions for this season’s upcoming shows were previously locked down by Woulfe, and Neufeld is now planning for 2021’s festivals and beyond.
“I don’t see it being one end of the spectrum or the other,” Neufeld said, adding that he hopes people will plan their trips to the mountains around future festivals while giving locals a way to engage with the arts. “… There’s a mix, and I think if we do it right, they feed one another. Finding where that balance is is what we’re going to work on and what I’m going to work on for the next couple of years.”
So far, WAVE and other events through the end of April are canceled because of the novel coronavirus. The Breckenridge International Festival of Arts is still scheduled for late June and August. Visit BreckCreate.org to stay up to date on cancellations.
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