Following a successful career dancing around the globe and fundraising for the arts in New York City, Naples native Elysia Dawn returned two years ago to shake things up in her hometown’s cultural scene. As the new executive director at United Arts Collier (UAC), the county’s 43-year-old, state-designated arts agency, the dancer-turned-nonprofit-leader has the vision to unite local art forms, marrying culinary, visual and performing arts for stellar collaborations. The mission was clear from the organization’s relaunch in February, with the Love for the Arts event at the UAC’s new home base, Cambier Park’s Norris Community Center. The mixer showcased artwork from four distinct painters, a performance by violinist Daniela Shtereva, a film by Lori Ersolmaz projected on the Norris’ facade and bites from Olde Naples Chocolate and Seventh South Craft Food + Drink.
And she’s already infusing UAC’s programming with fresh air, informed by her world-class familiarity with the arts and her open-minded, erudite charisma. Since taking over in November, Elysia has updated the organization with a new name (though with the same, longheld UAC acronym), an updated logo and a fitting motto: All the Arts for All of Collier. “We are not an altogether different organization—we are just evolving,” Elysia says. Longstanding partnerships with institutions like Collier County Public Schools and the Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center remain, and she’s honing the nonprofit’s focus as a central arts resource for Collier County. “If you want to know anything—from ‘What show do I want to go see tonight?’ to ‘What grants are available to me as an artist?’—I want you to be able to come to us,” she says.
Nurturing artists is vital to Elysia. After Love for the Arts, Lori’s film, Cyanotypes—with its dreamy kaleidoscopic imagery—was featured as a public art installation at the Norris Center to amplify Lori’s art. “We want to help draw attention to the work local artists and arts organizations are doing,” Elysia says. “We’re spreading opportunities around so that we can stimulate new ideas and collaborations.”
Elysia credits her Naples roots—including her parents, grade-school art teachers and first dance instructor, Deborah Clementi (who coincidentally co-founded the UAC in the ’80s)—for nurturing her creative impulses. After starting dance classes as a tot, she ventured to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts for advanced training in classical ballet before transferring to the Miami City Ballet School to learn choreographer George Balanchine’s athletic style. She danced professionally from 17 to 27 until an acute injury kept her from dancing full-time.
Inspired by a fellow dancer returning to school, Elysia enrolled at Columbia University and graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s in art history and a concentration in business management. An internship arranging performing arts events at New York City’s The Frick Collection led to a another internship-turned-full-time-job at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
She took advantage of The Met’s scholarship program to get a master’s in nonprofit management from Columbia, and working in The MetLiveArts department, she quickly learned to fundraise. The Met did not have consistent dance programming, and Elysia stepped up to the challenge, growing the sector into a robust calendar. Without a “single penny” in the dance budget, she was charged with securing performances three years out. During the pandemic, she helped organize performances for online audiences. One such project is Songs from the Spirit, with New York City Ballet alum Silas Farley. Silas and six other dancers, vocalists and a cadre of musicians performed the ballet—which he formed around the question, “What does freedom mean?”—throughout the Met’s encyclopedic galleries. “That’s part of my ‘all the arts for all of Collier’ idea,” she says. “Seeing how all the arts interact and inform one another—I want to stimulate that here, too.”
Meanwhile, living alone in her city apartment during the pandemic, Elysia yearned to be closer to family in Naples. She moved home in late 2021 and had a lightbulb moment when she saw the listing for UAC’s executive director position. Soon after starting in the role, she got with the board and assessed the organization’s mission and challenges, familiarizing herself with UAC veterans and bringing new faces into the fold. She’s also been going into the archives and talking with longtime members to catalog the organization’s history, combing through boxes holding decades’ worth of meeting notes and pamphlets.
Starting in the aftermath of a once-in-a-century hurricane brought its challenges. And, rather than rebuild the organization’s battered rental gallery on Fourth Avenue North, she and her team let the brick-and-mortar go to create satellite locations throughout the county, like the UAC’s current pop-up exhibition space at The Collective in Naples Design District (and, she’s in talks for 10 other locations).
Elysia’s also brainstorming potential programming for the Norris Center’s outdoor bandshell. “I performed on that bandshell stage when I was maybe 4 or 5, so I have a fondness for that space,” she says. Growing up as a fledgling ballerina in Naples, Elysia understands the importance of sharing arts and culture in your backyard: “Something that was always implicit in UAC, but that is good for us to be sure that we communicate, is the positive impact that the arts have on the community.”