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Chief Arts Instigator

Orange County’s arts leader Terry Olson tells us what to look forward to at this year’s Fusion Fest.

If you’re involved in Orlando’s arts scene, then you know Terry Olson. Besides being director of the Orange County Arts and Cultural Affairs Office, a position he’s held since the office was created in 2001, Olson is well known for having had a hand in creating some of Central Florida’s most venerable arts institutions including SAK Comedy Lab and the Orlando Fringe Festival. He also had a role in launching the Orlando Theater Project, which ran for 25 years; and he chaired the Central Florida Theater Alliance for many years until it merged with United Arts of Central Florida.

Olson is from Minnesota and moved to Florida in 1982 after Disney invited the theater troupe he co-founded, SAK, to provide entertainment for the Italy pavilion of its newest park at the time, Epcot.

Olson grew up with a sense that he wanted to be a part of the theater. In grade school he remembers getting together with neighborhood kids to put on plays in the front yard. (“Some of the bad neighbor kids threw tomatoes from across the street at us,” he recalls.)

Although he started out as a math and science major in college, an early morning calculus class and a feeling of being unfulfilled led him to switch his major to theater, setting the stage for his long career in the arts.

Noting his influence on the local arts happenings, the Orlando Sentinel once called Olson the “cool dad” of the Orlando art scene. For his part, Olson says he loves the inclusive nature of the city.

“What I love about Orlando is that it’s kind of like an adolescent as a city and you’re really welcome to help parent it, to move it along,” he says. “From the time I arrived here, I felt like anyone that wants to step up and help shape things is welcome to do so. It’s not rigid and clique-ridden.”

One of Olson’s most notable projects as director of Orange County’s Arts and Cultural Affairs Office is FusionFest, an annual showcase for the various cultures that coexist in Central Florida. Now in its 3rd year, the free, two-day festival takes place the weekend after Thanksgiving Day at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts’ Seneff Arts Plaza.

Although this year there will be some new provisions in place to inhibit the spread of the coronavirus, FusionFest will still feature much of what it has in the past, which is the music, dance, food, visual arts, spoken word and spectacles characterizing the diverse cultures that intersect here in Central Florida.

Before the festival officially kicks off, Olson sat down with Orlando Family Magazine to tell us about being, as he puts it, “Orange County’s Chief Arts Instigator,” the challenges local arts organizations are facing because of the coronavirus pandemic and what to expect from this year’s FusionFest.

What do you do as the director of the Orange County Arts and Cultural Affairs Office?
There’s a bunch of hats that I wear. One is ambassador to and for the arts within the county. One is the administrator of our program, which involves funding. The county invests $6 or $7 million a year in our arts organizations. And the county commissions art for new government buildings or renovations. And then I’m a connector. One of my biggest assets I’d say is that I’ve been around a long time in the area so if someone wants to do something, start a theater company, I am here to say, “Oh you should talk to this person,” or “Here’s a resource for you.” And … bringing new things to life, like Fusion Fest.

Our arts and culture organizations are facing a lot of challenges with the coronavirus pandemic. Can you talk a little bit about those challenges and what you think needs to be done to help these Central Florida institutions survive?
Well certainly the biggest challenge is not being open. And the county just passed $5 million of CARES Act funding for COVID safety related things to get our public facilities back open. Earlier there was PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] money that many of them got to keep staff on for a while. Now that’s ended and you know, everyone’s holding their breath there might be another act that would give them relief. Our troupes have been very creative in figuring out ways to be doing things online, but a live performing arts experience is different than something on a screen. The biggest challenge right now is safely getting back open to have our arts groups be able to perform and do what they do.

A lot of people have postponed their events but you all have decided to go ahead with FusionFest. What will you be doing at the festival to keep people distanced and stop any spread of coronavirus?
It’s well known that the two most effective things are wearing a mask and keeping a distance. And it’s much safer outside than inside. Well, Fusion Fest is an outside event and we are creating spaces that will kind of enforce that distancing. The Dr. Phillips Center itself is working on some plans and, either through their plans or our plans, we’ll have little seating pods or areas in front of the stages that are separated from the others. And everyone will be required to wear a mask [and] take temperature checks as well.

How has FusionFest changed from when it was conceived to now?
I think we’ve learned immediately that everyone is delighted to be able to participate in something that honors their heritage. Everyone has a heritage and it is whatever you say it is and the point of Fusion Fest is to respect that, whatever your heritage is, but also then to explore how we’re influencing each other, now that we’re here together in Central Florida creating our own identity together. How does all this background, all the past that we all have make for a more interesting, exciting and innovative community? From the first year, about 7,500 people attended to the second year, which doubled that to about 15,000 people, to this year which will have, how many people? I don’t know! We will have limited, only 1,500 people be allowed in the festival site at a time. … We were going for 20,000 [attendees] this year until the pandemic hit and now I don’t know that we can handle that many, but there seems to be great pent up demand for getting out in a safe way. … And we can do that with FusionFest. A festival like Immerse, that’s very hands on, and more people crowded together, I can totally understand that they did not have a festival this year. Our festival, we think we can showcase cultures, even if you’re far away from us. Even if you’re not close to other people.

Fusion Fest is held the weekend after Thanksgiving. Was that a conscious decision or just a happy accident?
It was a conscious decision. The question was if we were to have an iconic event, when would be a very memorable time to have it? That was the first question. Well, Thanksgiving weekend. … It’s much easier than saying it’s the second Saturday of a certain month. … But it also really fits in with what Thanksgiving is, about giving thanks for the cooperation of immigrants and people who are here. Thematically it sits very well. Also, it’s great weather that time of year here in Orlando and there’s not a lot of other things, other than football on television, going on that weekend.

We’re living through a pretty divisive time with a lot of “us-versus-them” mentality. In that respect, do you think FusionFest is even more necessary this year?
Yes. We met about a month ago with Mayor Demings to say, “We’re still in a pandemic but we feel like we should do this festival and we have all these safety measures in place.” … He agreed with us that, because of the times, it’s even more important. And if we can safely gather together and explore learning about each other and respecting each other, it’s a great thing for us to be doing.

What FusionFest event are you really excited for this year?
Well, there will be, on Friday the 27th from 4 to 8 p.m., there will be a virtual preview version of FusionFest. People will be able to go on to a [web]site, have a little avatar, walk around the map of the place, encounter people [and] have real time conversations. …  It’s a very cool thing that is kind of a preview to the live event, although it will actually have at least one experience you won’t have at the festival where you can enter a Puerto Rican rainforest experience.

One [other] new aspect this year is an area called Celebrations, Cultures and Faiths. Throughout the days we’ll be celebrating different holidays from around the world and learning a bit about different faiths and celebrations from different parts of the world.

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s November 2020 issue.