From the West Coast to UMD, Martin Wollesen Brings Innovation and Culture to The Clarice

In the back left corner office of The Clarice’s central management office, the lights are dim and a large wooden desk is against a dark olive green wall.

Phrases including “Film Studies Loves The Clarice” and “Thank you Marty” are written on the wall in chalk.

The Clarice’s executive director Martin Wollesen uses his experiences in curating art programs and traveling, to focus The Clarice’s vision and have its target audience reflect the students and surrounding communities.

Wollesen, 53, a thin bald man with a welcoming smile, came to The Clarice in September 2013 and brought new ideas with him.

“Even though The Clarice is well established, I think there’s a lot to build and create here,” Wollesen said.

Wollesen created the NextNOW Festival, a four-day event centered on displaying different mediums and artists at The Clarice.

“The NextNOW Festival was a huge triumph,” said Sean Forsythe, a School of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies (TDPS) student and student electrician. He added that The Clarice had seen more young people in the center over those three days than it had seen in several years.

During NextNOW, projections were shown on the wall above the Kay Theatre. Wollesen hopes to transform The Clarice’s main lobby into an engaging experience by showing student projections and live tweets from performances.

His hope is “to continue to make sure that people are having conversation when they leave, not to just see something then walk away and let it go.”

As executive director, Wollesen said he enjoys that there’s no such thing as a regular day for him. Some days his schedule consists of more than 11 meetings and other days he meets with artists, donors and community partners.

He normally has events to attend four to five nights each week ranging from donor meetings to performances, he said.

Erica Lee Bondarev, associate executive director of The Clarice, said that Wollesen has extended the number of people making decisions about performances and has renewed The Clarice’s commitment to “building the future of the arts through the training, educating and presenting of the next generation of artists and creators.”

She said that early in his career at The Clarice, Wollesen defined the venue partnership among five equal partner including the Artist Partner Program, School of Music, School of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies, Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library and Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning.

“He’s made a very specific articulation of who our audience is, and that’s Maryland students and residents of an approximate five mile radius,” Bondarev said.


Wollesen wants The Clarice to intersect with all University of Maryland students’ college experience in some way. He said students are in college to learn, explore and discover new things.

“I want to provide more opportunities not just for students to come to performances, but learn how to curate and program … and to learn those skills regardless of their major,” Wollesen said.

Wollesen learned those skills through his childhood abroad and his work experience while in college.

He is a self-proclaimed “California native”  but lived overseas for most of his childhood with his father, who set up production plants in Southeast Asia. Wollesen attended elementary school in Singapore and high school in Manila, Philippines.

Throughout his upbringing, he also lived in Washington, D.C., New Mexico, Portugal, Egypt and Israel.

“We were always exposed to the cultural and artistic experiences there,” he said. “It’s part of being a foreigner living overseas, to explore the culture and the culture was always through the arts.”

He had seen Chinese opera on the streets and Shakespeare in the Philippines. He believes being engaged in the arts was part of his upbringing.


College led Wollesen on an unconventional path. He dropped out of George Washington University and worked for a lobby firm before spending time traveling through Europe.

“When I was deciding to go back to college, it was really clear to me that I wanted to go to college for what a university could teach me,” Wollesen said. “I didn’t want to go thinking about it as job training, I really wanted to just have a traditional liberal arts college experience.”

He ended up at the University of California, Santa Cruz, receiving a bachelor’s degree in sociology.

Wollesen said that when he attended UC Santa Cruz, the school did not give formal grades, and instead had an evaluation system. There were no fraternities, sororities or organized competitive sports teams either.

“It was a really alternative school,” Wollesen said. “I’ve always been a studier and I’ve always loved school. My motivation was always learning it was never about the grades.”

While in college Wollesen volunteered with the Santa Cruz parks department, later getting a job in the box office for the program’s civic auditorium where rock ’n’ roll concerts and events were held.

“That started me on the path that this [art programming and curating] is a field,” he said.


After traveling and teaching English for a year in Portugal for a Dutch shipping company, Wollesen got a job at UC Santa Cruz as a student activities coordinator. Wollesen also worked at Stanford University as an associate director of programming for Stanford Lively Arts.

Several years later, there was an open position at UC San Diego enabling Wollesen to create his own arts program.

He founded ArtPower!, a presenting arts organization, and served as the artistic director.

Five years later, Wollesen’s passion for movies led him to create FilmPower!, a series that screened student films.

Wollesen also created The Loft, a performance lounge and wine bar, on the UC San Diego campus.

He was awarded the Western Arts Alliance Vanguard Award for innovation in the arts in 2012 for The Loft, according to The Clarice’s website.

Wollesen said the most rewarding part of creating ArtPower!, was seeing the impact art made in the students’ lives. He said he knew the students were creative and producing original content, and just needed somewhere to perform.

“Marty’s enthusiasm for the arts was infectious,” said Molly Clark, associate director of artistic planning and education of ArtPower! “He got the students really excited about artists. He’s a huge consumer of the arts and a really gifted curator.”

She said his program presented artists who otherwise would not have visited San Diego and added that the program increased the university residents’ access to performing arts.

Wollesen was also a speaker at the 2012 TEDx America’s Finest City conference where he presented a talk on generation gaps within the arts, according to the conference’s website. Wollesen left the West Coast after nine years at ArtPower! to work at The Clarice.

For Wollesen, it’s simple.

“Maryland is an amazing place and the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center is an amazing place,” he said.

writersblocheadshots09Victoria Tanner is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at

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