Esther Jacobsen Bates brings the Elverhøj Museum into full flower for Solvang’s Centennial.
Cover Story — It’s June 5, 1960. Four-year-old Esther Jacobsen is up early this morning, too wound up to sleep. After breakfast, she puts on her special Danish outfit and steps outside to gather a small bouquet of flowers from the garden. Then she and her mother, Elisabeth, hop in the car and drive from Solvang up windy Refugio Road.
It’s a short ride, but Esther can barely stay still in her seat. A couple of more turns, and she will arrive at a palatial estate to meet Crown Princess Margrethe (now Denmark’s queen), who is visiting Solvang.
“It’s one of my favorite childhood memories,” says Jacobsen (today Jacobsen Bates). “I was so excited and a little nervous. I had been practicing how to curtsy and greet the princess for days.”
Fast-forward to November 2010 and Bates is sitting behind her desk in a sunlit office on the second floor of Solvang’s Elverhøj Museum of History & Art, of which she has served as Executive Director for seven years.
Through her job, Bates is still meeting dignitaries from around the world, and particularly Denmark. She has traveled to the Scandinavian nation several times as well as to the Danish embassy in Washington, DC.
In fact, last June, when Bates visited the embassy for its 50th anniversary celebration, she had the opportunity to meet Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik, whom she found “personable and easy to speak with.”
Bates didn’t bring flowers for the prince this time. Still, one can’t help but feel as if things have come full circle for the Danish-American girl who once set out to meet a princess on Refugio Road.
“It continues to surprise me that I have a wonderful job that draws so strongly on my Danish heritage and my lifelong interest in art and history,” says the director.
A Santa Ynez Valley native, Bates grew up in what she describes as a safe and friendly place where everybody knew one another. Her father, Knud Jacobsen, came to Solvng from Denmark in 1952 to work at an uncle’s dairy farm. Here, he met and married Elisabeth, Esther’s mother, born in Iowa to Danish immigrants who spoke very little English.
“Danish was my first language,” says Bates, “but now I struggle with the conjugations.” After high school, Bates spent a few years studying social sciences, journalism and art at Santa Barbara City College. She married Mark Bates in 1977, and together the two set out to explore Denmark and other parts of Europe.
At age 21, Bates landed a job at one of the area’s first wineries, an experience she says she treasures to this day. “I got a great education and developed a nice palate for wine.” Not only has Bates seen the Valley transform from a rural farming community into world-renowned wine-country, but she’s watched it evolve into an impressive center for art and culture.
“Growing up, we marked our calendars for upcoming events often scheduled months apart,” she recalls. “Now we pick and choose from an amazing array of cultural activities, including art openings, concerts, dramatic performances and many different workshops.” Bates has contributed to Solvang’s extraordinary cultural outlet in more ways than one. After raising her and Mark’s two children—Kristen, 30, and Jacob, 24—she worked for seven years in program development for Arts Outreach. As part of her job, she brought in professional artists to hold workshops in all local schools, and organized multiple public events, including an annual music festival benefit with David Crosby.
She was asked to apply for the Executive Director’s position at Elverhøj in 2003 and has never looked back.
“Being able to combine my appreciation for art and culture with my Danish background, was a rare and wonderful opportunity,” says the director, adding that what she loves the most about her job is the interesting people she meets and works with, from the volunteers, museum members and visitors to the artists and international community.
Just two years into the job, Bates met Denmark’s ambassador to the U.S., Friis Arne Petersen. He invited her to join the Cultural Frontrunners—a networking group formed by the Danish embassy to promote modern Danish culture, values and issues in America. On Bates’ invitation, Petersen visited Solvang last July. A private reception was hosted for him at the Elverhøj that included more than 150 local Danes and officials.
Naturally, Bates’ strong relationship with the Danish embassy has earned Solvang and Elverhøj notable recognition, while her community outreach has increased public awareness of the town’s heritage and doubled the number of visitors to the museum.
Part of the draw is Elverhøj’s increasingly diversified art exhibitions and the fact that the nonprofit under Bates’ leadership has come to serve as gathering place for the local art community.
The director has introduced new activities and events, including classes that correlate with exhibitions and workshops on topics like open-face sandwich making, conversational Danish and Scandinavian crafts. Plus, the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission uses Elverhøj as its halfway point for meetings.
“If people come to the museum, the rest just follows,” says Bates. “Just being here expands your appreciation for art, community and history.”
The list of significant accomplishments doesn’t end here. Bates helped facilitate the transfer of museum ownership from City of Solvang to Elverhøj’s Board of Directors and—despite today’s depressed economy—has helped develop a stable and sustainable economic base for the nonprofit.
“We have a very loyal group of members and donors. But to maintain this organization, we needed to expand that base by broadening the demographic of our supporters,” she explains. Fans of the museum and its director seem to be everywhere. Former Elverhøj board member Bent Olsen of Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery says that Solvang couldn’t ask for a better person to run its museum.
“She’s well-educated and very knowledgeable about this town. Plus, she’s a pleasant person. We’re lucky to have her.”
Tracy Farhad, Executive Director of Solvang Conference & Visitors Bureau agrees. Farhad has worked on numerous projects alongside Bates, and says she finds in her a great colleague who always has the town’s best interest in mind.
“She’s taken the museum by the horns and brought a contemporary element to the history and heritage of Solvang,” Farhad notes. “She’s highly respected by so many organizations here.”
Farhad points out that Bates was instrumental in having Solvang designated as a federally recognized “Preserve America Community.” The award, signed by First Lady Michelle Obama, recognizes Solvang’s continuing commitment to preserving and using its cultural and natural resources for the benefit and enjoyment of the public. Solvang is one of just 30 locations in California to receive this honor.
Solvang will no doubt gain even more recognition in 2011 when the Solvang Centennial will be marked by a year-long series of events to mark its founding in 1911.
“It’s a time to celebrate this town’s accomplishments and educate people about its unique history,” says Bates. “Many people don’t understand that there’s a vital and strong Danish culture here. Sure, the percentage of residents with Danish roots is a fraction of what it used to be, but Solvang is ‘home’ to an extended Danish community.”
Many are also surprised to learn that in the early years, the city’s population was almost 100 percent Danish, even though the town looked just like many other rural American towns. Its Danish appearance wasn’t “created” until after World War II, when it was decided that Solvang “should look as well as be” Danish, Bates reveals.
“Today, tourism provides much of the income for the city, which is the center for many of the Valley’s community activities, such as the Fourth of July and Christmas parades and cultural events like the Centennial activities.”
So far, the level of interest for the big Centennial has been overwhelming, says the director, who receives press inquiries from locations as diverse as Denmark, China, New York and Santa Barbara. “The common denominator has been a quest for information about how this small town in California became known as the ‘Danish Capital of America.’”
The Solvang Centennial Committee has been hard at work for 18 months, and at Elverhøj, preparations began more than three years ago.
“Our history exhibits have been renovated and we’ve been collecting, restoring and printing archival photos,” attests Bates, who helped select photos for the museum’s Centennial calendar, published in October.
A year of gallery exhibits will focus on Solvang’s history and Danish culture. The inaugural Centennial show, Spirit of Solvang: Capturing the Past in Photographs, opens January 9, also the release date for a book with the same title. Nothing’s yet confirmed, but there’s talk of visits from Danish dignitaries, diplomats and the royal family.
Beyond the Centennial, Bates plans for the museum to develop a WWII resistance exhibit with Solvang ties as well as to improve upon existing collections and the museum grounds. An expanded collaboration with colleagues at the Danish embassy is also on the agenda.
“It’s an important diplomatic link between Solvang and Denmark that has provided many positive things,” says the director, who points out that she would love to see her hometown embrace more of the contemporary Danish culture alongside the Old-World traditions, such as green living, innovative design, an emphasis on education and active lifestyles that involve more walking and biking.
On a personal level, Bates, who regularly puts in 50-plus-hour workweeks, says she looks forward to slowing down and spending more time with family and friends. She wants to do more of her favorite things—gardening, hiking and reading—and discover new places, like South America and Africa and more of Europe and the U.S.
“Life is finite, so you have to make the most of every day,” advises Bates, who says she learned this significant lesson while fighting a tough battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “What’s important in life distills into a handful of things,” she notes. “You can’t sweat the small stuff.”
In remission for more than three years, Bates says that what allowed her to focus beyond the illness was being able to continue her work at Elverhøj, where she found an incredible support network in the volunteers as well as fellow community members.
“I could come here and work and not think about being sick,” she explains. Of course, Bates’ strong will to defy the odds also plays a big role in her surviving cancer. “I refused to be defined by cancer and I definitely never saw myself as a statistic.” Today, this Great Dane is adamant about putting her energy toward the things that she loves. “I try to focus on the positive and do what I’m passionate about. I’m fortunate to have job where I can do that.”
And that deserves a bouquet!