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New director looks ahead to new chapter

Leslie VanHoten is incoming director for the Symphony in the Flint HIlls nonprofit organization. (Photo by Shelby Reynolds)

By Olivia Babin
Flint Hills Media Project

Everyone’s first week at a new job is stressful, but few end in event destruction and PR nightmare.

Leslie VonHolten assumed the role of executive director for the Symphony in the Flint Hills on June 10. Five days later, a weather disaster destroyed three years of preparation and caused the cancelation of the signature event. But her excitement never wavered.

“I knew I had made the right career move when I had been literally on the job 20 minutes before I had to go and lace up my hiking boots,” she said.

Leslie VanHoten is incoming director for the Symphony in the Flint HIlls nonprofit organization. (Photo by Amy DeVault)

Getting to know Leslie

VonHolten grew up in rural Franklin County. She went to the University of Kansas to study art history and English literature. After college, she moved to Chicago to work at the privately owned Newberry Library and taught a few classes at the University of Chicago.

After a few years of big-city life, VonHolten decided to come back home, and moved back to Lawrence to work as the director of programs at Humanities Kansas, an organization that works to disperse art, literature and history to the public. They bring in humanities scholars to give lectures and show art to people who would often not have that opportunity. VonHolten planned the programs and worked to collaborate with those scholars to share their programs across Kansas. She was able to work with the Symphony in the Flint Hills through this job because they applied for many of the Humanities Kansas grants and Humanities Kansas is a patron sponsor of the signature event.

VonHolten lives in Lawrence with her husband, Tim, and two children, Atticus, 20, and Beatrice, 17. Tim is an elementary school art teacher, Atticus is an art student at KU and Beatrice is a senior in high school. VonHolten plans to split her time between Chase County and Lawrence so her daughter can finish her senior year there. Once her daughter finishes school, she will most likely move to Chase County permanently. Till then, she will make the hour-and-a-half long trek every weekend to spend time with her family.

Leslie and the prairie

Spending most of her life in Kansas, VonHolten said she has always loved the tallgrass prairie.

“When I come to the tallgrass prairie to go hiking, part of the pleasure of that is to be out on the hills in solitude and to see the bison out there and to be surrounded by that quiet and that peace of the Flint Hills,” VonHolten said.

When she talks about the prairie, her passion and love for the area come through. From the rolling hills, the waving grass and the bison herds, it’s easy to see why. Hiking and beautiful horizons brought VonHolten to Chase County for the first time, she said, but the people are what made her want to move here.

“There are not many people in Chase County, but everyone I have met who is from here or who lives here just loves it just passionately and so that is a real thrill to get to know the communities that way, too.”

Leslie VonHolten, the new executive director of Symphony in the Flint Hills, talks with Bill Riley, SFH board member, following the press conference at the Cottonwood Falls office Wednesday, June 19. (Photo by Easton Thompson)

A vision for the Symphony in the Flint Hills

Through the collaboration between Humanities Kansas and Symphony in the Flint Hills, VonHolten saw firsthand the strength and passion of this organization. When Christy Davis announced she was stepping down as director, VonHolten knew this was her opportunity to move to Chase County.

“I felt like the skills and strengths that I could bring to this organization would be a good partnership,” VonHolten said. “Fortunately, the board agreed with that.”

VonHolten said she believes in the power of environmental humanities and environmental writing, art that has a dialogue with the land. She said she hopes to bring in more artists of different mediums — authors, musicians and sculpture, for example, to show the beauty and importance of protecting the Flint Hills. She hopes to expand the conversation about the tallgrass prairie not only through symphonic music but also visual art that is place-based, that gets people to experience the prairie hands on. She also hopes to implement smaller, more ad hoc programming year-round, hoping to engage more with younger people

Joining the organization only five days before the event was nerve-racking, VonHolten said, but she was ready for the challenge. Then, her first signature event was canceled after a storm destroyed tents and toppled chairs and tables at the site.

It was a scary week, VonHolten said, but there is always a silver lining. She points to the incredible staff, a board that is fiercely dedicated to the Symphony in the Flint Hills mission and major sponsors and patrons who have reached out to offer help is what gives her confidence that the symphony will survive this setback. The main thing she said she is worried about is what impact the cancellation will have on next year’s ticket sales.

She has seen the hard work, passion and dedication from the Symphony in the Flint Hills staff and said she is excited to begin this new chapter of her life.

“I look forward to getting to know Cottonwood Falls and Strong City and the communities in Chase County better to see how we are as partners and how we can all strengthen each other’s adventures.”