I’ve been executive director of the LA County Arts Commission for the past 25 years and will be leaving at the end of July. Before this I was producing director of the Back Alley Theatre. I created the theatre with my husband, Allan Miller, in our spare room, and over ten years produced more than 30 Los Angeles premieres. The theatre became the fifth largest budget theatre in LA, toured shows statewide, and moved a production off-Broadway. But we came to feel we had exhausted what we could achieve artistically within that setting. So we instituted a year-long planned closure during which we met all our obligations to subscribers, paid all our bills, and moved on.
Boy, was that the right decision. As that door closed behind us, myriad other doors opened ahead. I began an exciting period of exploration to determine what I wanted to do next. I knew I didn’t want to head another arts organization (been there) but felt increasingly drawn to arts policy issues (during my time at the Back Alley, I had chaired the Associated Theatres of Los Angeles and served on the board of ARTS Inc.). I chose a job leading a small local arts agency in Ventura, and that led to my being recruited to the Arts Commission. A decades-long fascination with public policy and systemic change began.
I loved local arts agency work because, in addition to being a funder, there were limitless ways to support the greater arts ecology. During the past 25 years, we’ve grown the Arts Commission’s grant program eight-fold, making it the largest public funder in the region; instituted a robust technical assistance program; created the largest paid arts internship program in the country in collaboration with the Getty Foundation; revitalized the Ford Theatres; won an Emmy for the annual Holiday Celebration; created and helmed the regional plan for arts education; and instituted a countywide civic art policy. Whew.
Now I feel again that it’s time to move on. There’s no perfect time to make this kind of transition, but this seemed like the best moment for both the agency and me. We recently completed a comprehensive cultural equity and inclusion initiative and delivered the final report, with actionable recommendations, to the board in April. This was a major deliverable that also will be a road map for the Arts Commission for the next decade. What a great time to pass the baton.
And for anyone, twenty-five years is a long time in the same job. I’m ready for a real break and then new horizons, new learning, new challenges.
Sometimes, of course, you feel like walking away because of the old challenges: a change in the political tide, a recession, difficult people, the endless paperwork, scrambling to do more with less. But none of these are reasons to bail. I’ve always rejoiced that in the arts world, when something goes awry, the patient doesn’t die. No one says, “Bad art, go to jail.” It may feel like life or death sometimes, but put it in perspective: take a walk on the beach, have friends over for dinner!
When I know I haven’t shied away from an uncomfortable situation or unfamiliar territory, then I can choose something new with a clear conscience. I’m not running away. I’m going to be staying in LA and my lifelong passion for the arts doesn’t end with this job. I’m looking forward to crossing paths with many treasured colleagues in interesting new ways. There’s a big arts world out there, waiting to be explored … again. I’m running towards.
Laura Zucker is the recipient of Americans for the Arts’ 2017 Selina Roberts Ottum Award. Presented jointly by Americans for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts since 1990, the award recognizes an individual working in arts management who has made a meaningful contribution to his or her local community and who exemplifies extraordinary leadership qualities. Zucker is a member of Americans for the Arts.