What do you do when you are thrust into the belly of a crumbling organization? You buckle up, knuckle down and get cracking on what needs to be done. This requires fearlessness in arts administration and management, and fearless is exactly what Shelley Youngblut has proven to be.


As the CEO and Creative Ringleader of Wordfest, Youngblut, having come to the organization from outside the non-profit arts world, has taken Wordfest on a resounding journey.


It is this journey that makes Youngblut this year’s celebrated recipient of the 15th Annual Rozsa Award for Excellence in Arts Management. Created in 2003 to honour the philanthropic efforts of Drs Ted and Lola Rozsa, the Rozsa Award for Excellence in Arts Management is unique in Canada, celebrating outstanding arts administrators and providing additional professional development benefits to the recipient and his or her organization.


Shelley Youngblut has worn many hats through her career, she was the founding editor of the award-winning Swerve magazine, as well as Calgary alternative music magazine VOX, and has created magazines for ESPN, Cosmopolitan, Nickelodeon, and The Globe & Mail. She also produced three sports books for Hyperion in New York. She was the 2008 recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Western Magazine Awards, as well as a 2010 Lion Award for Heritage Advocacy from the City of Calgary. A fierce advocate of emerging talent, she has mentored writers, illustrators, photographers, editors and art directors.


The 20th anniversary of Wordfest marked a transformational leadership change for the organization with the appointment of Shelley Youngblut as General Director in May 2015. Since then, the last three years of her tenure have seen Wordfest radically reinvent itself and thrive against all odds. Youngblut made a pivotal bet on a company that was on the brink of closing its doors, just as it was about to celebrate twenty years as a festival.


At the time, Wordfest was grappling with a downward trend in attendance, declining community support (both financially and in terms of goodwill from partners), back-to-back years of budgetary deficits, a burnt-out staff and volunteer crew, and an organization constrained by two decades of legacy assumptions about its limited potential as a "literary arts festival."


Under Youngblut's leadership, Wordfest has survived these challenging and fast-changing times, having attracted for the first time in the organization's history A-list speakers such as comedian Mike Myers and musician Robbie Robertson in 2016. It then filled the 650-seat Bella Concert Hall in 2017, landing exclusive Calgary stops in the international book tours of YouTube sensation Lilly Singh in the spring, and spoken-word performer Rupi Kaur in the fall. Both headline artists introduced younger, diverse audiences to the company.


By the end of 2016, Youngblut diagnosed and addressed another major challenge that had severely limited Wordfest's capacity for growth over the years — its lack of a permanent home, both for hosting performances and in terms of affordable office space. Youngblut lead the organization into a mutually-supportive new partnership with the Calgary Public Library, signing a five-year agreement that would see the company move its operations to the 2nd Floor of Memorial Park Library, and begin curating and producing live arts experiences for the first time as a resident company with its own 120-seat performance space, dubbed the "Wordfest Engagement Lab."

The result of Youngblut’s calls to action and focused attention to Wordfest in 2016 led to a full year of programmatic experimentation in 2017, producing on average 4-6 staged author events per month in addition to its main October festival — expanding its artistic output to 180+ events annually and attracting audiences exceeding 20,000, while at the same time earning enough revenue to replenish the operating reserves that Wordfest had drained before Shelley had assumed leadership of the company. Shelley Youngblut has done the unthinkable, the unimaginable and today, in partnership with the Calgary Public Library, she is transforming Alberta’s oldest library into a vibrant arts and culture hub.


The Rozsa Foundation wishes Shelly Youngblut and Wordfest a mighty congratulations on being the 15th recipient of the Rozsa Award for Excellence in Arts Management.


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