Diana Martinez continues success with the MAC

Alison Pfaff, Managing Editor

In Diana Martinez’ career, she has worked with acts ranging from Jay Leno and Reba Macintyre to Michael Buble, before he was THE Michael Bublé. Despite all the success in her 31-year career of creating events people talk about long after the curtain falls, her most rewarding and challenging performance may be in the job she landed 10 minutes from her house. As the Director of the McAninch Arts Center, Martinez is on the verge of pulling off arguably the biggest and most famous art exhibit in the history of DuPage County.

Martinez began her career as the director of entertainment and marketing for the Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles. After directing dinner theater shows, Pheasant Run expanded its entertainment options by opening the Mega Center. The 3300-seat venue proved to be a bigger stage for both the resort and Martinez.

“While I was at Pheasant Run, I produced and did all the marketing for the shows and oversaw the whole department.” Martinez said. “I learned a lot. We started doing big concerts and booking in big names.”

Those names included George Strait and Dana Carvey.

Martinez’ enthusiasm for the arts and being project oriented helped her land those higher-profile acts.

“That was really exciting, to figure all of that out,” Martinez said.

Martinez also directed and produced Kenny Rogers’ Christmas Tour for over 10 years, completing six seasons.

Despite reservations about leaving the job at Pheasant Run, when Martinez was given the opportunity to apply for a position at the Aurora Civic Center Authority, she took it.

“It’s a lot more focused than directing, producing and marketing, which was a lot,” Martinez said. “It was a big opportunity “As hard as it was to leave directing, I did it.”

Working in Aurora, Martinez and the Civic Center board ran a capital campaign to raise $6.5 million for an expanded lobby at the Paramount Theater. She envisioned an events center with a cafe, a gallery and more bathrooms, where people could have events, including post and pre-show events. They did just that.

“I loved it. I loved working in a community, and I loved working with the city,” Martinez said. “It was about how can you stimulate economic development and bring people into the town and build that.”

After eight years in Aurora, Martinez was offered a position at Second City. Founded in 1959, The Second City launched careers of various comedic icons, from Stephen Colbert to Bill Murray.

After meeting with the owner Andrew Alexander, a fellow member of the League of Chicago Theaters,  he asked her to help plan and produce the 50th anniversary gala for the company. All Second City Alumni were invited. Martinez and the team were overwhelmed by the response, with over 2,000 former Second City members attending.

“From Stephen Colbert, all the way to Martin Short and Alan Arkin. All those people who have gone through there over the years,” Martinez said.

The gala expanded to three days worth of festivities, including speakers, reunion shows and red carpet events.   

“It was the most incredible experience because the people that you are working with are creative and collaborative, and then the stars that you are helping coordinate this event for are exciting and fun and unique,” Martinez said. “It was just such an incredible opportunity. I was just really immersed in the culture after doing that event.”

After the anniversary event, Martinez was promoted to the president of Second City, where she worked for four years. She immediately started work on new ideas and business plans, one of which was working to make a new brand for Second City, creating  the “Up Comedy Club” and incorporating improv comedy.

“It’s funny how life takes you from one opportunity to the next and what you learn from that,” Martinez said.

That next opportunity was right in Martinez’ backyard. The College of DuPage’s McAninch Arts Center needed a fresh start. Not many people even knew the MAC existed, a problem exacerbated by a 16-month period of dormancy to allow for a major renovation. College officials believed Martinez, a Glen Ellyn native, was just the right catalyst to put the MAC on the entertainment map.  

“It was reopening this new space after they did this $35 million construction project and helping to reopen, rebrand and develop the MAC,” she said.

Her goal is to give the community diverse programming with an educational flair. While some programs do better than others, she wants smaller audiences who attend lectures to experience something memorable. Her goal is to create a deep connection between  audience members and the artists performing and presenting.

“It’s a constant worry as a presenter because it’s all about ticket sales and finding the market.” Martinez said. “Some of the most quality programming, which is really good for the community, maybe doesn’t have the name recognition or the mass appeal, but it is a show that people talk about for years. But it’s not the popular, easy sell.”

Mike Rezendez, from the Spotlight Team at the Boston Globe who broke the story of sex-abuse cover ups in the Catholic church, gave a lecture at the MAC in 2017. The year before, the movie based on this, “Spotlight” won best picture at the Oscars.

“He came and talked about being a journalist. How do you verify and research and it was an incredible story for journalism students and an opportunity for the public to meet him and ask questions.” Martinez said. “ And yet, it was a hard sell even though the movie was a number one hit. But the people who came to the show left thinking it was fascinating to find out what a writer and a reporter goes through.”

As the director of the MAC, Martinez now faces the task of her biggest feat yet. A Frida Kahlo exhibit, displaying 26 original paintings at the College of DuPage in the summer of 2020. The paintings are worth over $100 million.

Like so many of her prior accomplishments, Martinez landed the show after making personal connection with a key person. She had lunch with Alan Peterson, a regular patron of the MAC who embraced Martinez’ efforts. Peterson has his own personal connection, Carlos Philips, the son of Dolores Olmedo and long time friend who has the artwork. While the artwork is owned by the Mexican Government, Philips still runs the foundation.  Alan Peterson knows Philips from running a homeowners association for the past 35 years.

“I was like, is this even possible? I couldn’t believe we were having this conversation,” Martinez said. “I thought, we have to play it out. It’s such an extraordinary opportunity.”

Peterson’s son, Mark, and his wife Marcie have helped with the logistics of making sure the project follows through. He praises Martinez for her passion for this project.

“I knew from the start that Diana was almost the perfect person to do this, just from knowing her and working with her over time on MAC events and I think both my wife and I would say the same thing,” Mark Peterson said.

With the popularity of the event and value of the art, the Cleve Carney art gallery will undergo an expansion to accommodate the highly anticipated event. Community members, as well as the College of DuPage Board trust Martinez with the

“Diana just jumped on it, and she, her excitement I said well okay, yeah we can do this.. Sure! So were pushing forward and I think it’s an interesting thing because the logistics of this is it’s almost like everything Carlos always told us first of all said “well it’s very expensive to have this, and it also brings in in major cities a half a million visitors in 90 days. And I just started to go *COUGH COUGH* you can’t put half a million visitors through the Cleve Carney in 90 days!” Mark Peterson said.

While the Cleve Carney gallery will not be able to house that many people, College of DuPage Board members approved the $1.9 million northern expansion of the Cleve Carney art gallery for this exhibit in January.

“The trustees trust Diana implicently and she had this whole slide deck ready to go to justify this whole thing she got like 3 slides in and they started asking questions and they were totally on board,” Mark Peterson said.  

Justin Whitte, the Director and Curator of the Cleve Carney Art Gallery, says this expansion opens up the gallery to doing larger scale shows in the future.

“It is obviously a type of show that is definitely different than what we have traditionally done with the space and that we’ve done… [most of the] shows have been contemporary art, this is very much a museum show,” Whitte said. “Because of the scale of this show, we’ve had to use all the resources and the staff of the MAC so you know, there’s a great staff there, a really hard working with a really positive attitude about approaching challenges like this, that includes Diana. I think there’s been on everybody’s part a learning curve.”

Mark Peterson remembers fondly the launch event that took place in November 2018, as happy attendees listened intently about the new exhibit.

“One thing when we were on the stage at the kick off launch party, you looked out at the people in the seats, and everyone was smiling,” Peterson said.

Martinez hopes her time at the MAC is remembered by helping others to find their passion in the arts. In the future, her dream performances at the MAC include Michael Bublé and Sting.

“I guess I want to be remembered as someone who was very passionate about what I did, but I think more so I want people to feel as though they got more connected to the arts because of the work I was involved in. That they found a love of music or theater, and the love of the arts carries on.”