Today, in these seemingly unenlightened times, it is easy to worry that the very people we have elevated to leadership can neither identify nor light the way. This isn’t just a concern about who might run for office or be appointed to the Supreme Court. It’s a worry about the critical and threatened role of inspiration, integrity, generosity, and compassion in public life. As a leader of a nonprofit arts organization in this context, I think the most important thing we can do is urgently and carefully consider the current and potential role our organizations can play in reimagining and reigniting our struggling democracy. As a female leader and a mom, it is natural for me to think about how and why an organization was born, and how and why it exists today. I have often reflected that institutions were made by people in order to deliver on the promise of democracy. We know they are not doing that, so we have to change them. The purpose of leadership, in many ways, is not to hold an organization in place but to constantly nurture it toward what it can and should be.
For several years now, I’ve had the great honor to work with Americans for the Arts and its National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military to convene and advocate the value of the arts in health and healing nationwide, particularly its significance to the military community. Through this transforming experience, I’ve seen thousands of individuals—boots on the ground—who are building healing arts and military networks, which offer civilian and military community members greater opportunities to regain health and wellbeing and to build resiliency in response to the reality of increasing trauma occurring within our communities. A ubiquitous presence in the community ecosystem uniquely positions the arts to lead the movement to create healing networks and non-stigmatized environments that both afford respect and foster community-wide resilience and growth for individuals facing the invisible wounds of war.
With three brothers and no sisters, I grew up thinking I was one of the boys. My 4th grade claim to fame was being the arm wrestling champion of my class, and it was a source of pride that I could out-run one of my older brothers when we played tag football. The boy next door was altar boy to my priest when we played Mass. If you really wanted to get me mad, you’d tell me I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. I share this background as a way of explaining that I don’t often think of myself in terms of my gender. My many role models are as likely to be women as men. The times when I have encountered career hurdles, I’ve attributed them to other factors—e.g., someone else was more qualified, I was too timid, etc.—not to the fact that I’m female. The times when I have faced blatant gender discrimination I have called it out as directly and respectfully as I knew how, and with humor when possible. When someone is stepping on your toe, say “ouch.” I resist the idea that my potential is attenuated by a largely immutable characteristic.
Research released this week by Americans for the Arts sheds light on the aspirations, accomplishments, shortcomings, and methods used in cultural planning over the past decade and compares findings with Craig Dreeszen’s similar—although more extensive—study from 1994. The data reveal that expectations of cultural planning have increased significantly over these 20-plus years, and that the greatest change is in the emphasis on serving community interests rather than a focus on the arts and cultural sector’s own needs. While community-wide cultural planning helps formulate aspirations and action strategies, it doesn’t ensure results. Where cultural plans also set their sights, but where outcomes fell short, is in the area of cultural equity—expanding resources for under-represented groups including immigrant populations, removing barriers to participation, and bolstering education and youth development. Fewer than half of cultural plans included specific actions to address diversity, equity, and inclusion—a surprising finding in 2017.
As a nonprofit arts leader, I am inspired every day by the growth in our sector, as well as the undeniable positive effect that artists and arts organizations have in their communities. At Theatre Communications Group, we say “A better world for theatre, a better world because of theatre.” We understand that theatres need knowledge, networks, and resources, and TCG has a role to play in supporting those needs. But theatres also have unique capabilities and responsibilities in their communities. If they choose to, they can help bring about justice and social change through the work on and off stage. I am rewarded every day by the ways in which people of all ages can engage with the artistry on its own terms, as well as the conversations and awareness that theatre evokes. And yet, while there is so much to be celebrated, the nonprofit arts sector has also replicated some of the structural inequities of the larger economic system.
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In economic news, we sometimes hear that the arts aren’t doing so well. So, how can your arts organization defy this trend and become a sustainable entity for years to come? I have three letters for you: CRM.
The Business Committee on the Arts, an organization started by David Rockefeller in 1966, celebrated the many ways that the arts bring people together on Tuesday, Oct. 2 in New York City. We at ArtsWave were proud that Cincinnati once again “made the list” with our own Top 10 Business Supporting the Arts in America: Fifth Third Bank. In the midst of stories of arts engagement and creative partnerships that characterized the remarks of each honoree, Fifth Third’s SVP and Chief Administrative Officer Teresa Tanner shared something particularly poignant and timely with the guests. Teresa described how art is being used to foster healing after the horrific mass shooting in the bank’s lobby in September. In the days that followed, bank leaders decided to cover the lobby’s broken windows with huge canvas boards. To show solidarity with one another and build strength in numbers to move forward, employees were invited to dip their hands in paint and leave their handprints on the canvases. Hundreds of colorful handprints now adorn the space and remind Fifth Third employees that they are “Fifth Third Strong” and “Cincinnati Strong.” This simple activity became a profound and hopeful action, something that brought the company together after unspeakable loss.
The ARTS Engage! Task Force was created in 2016, inspired by a successful youth arts program and with a mission to “improve the quality of life for Lackawanna County residents through access to and participation in artistic, creative, and cultural experiences.” The power of passionate, committed, and diverse people working together has the ability to transform communities, but meaningful cross-sector collaborations take time. The kind of knowledge trust, enthusiasm, and planning needed for sustainability cannot be achieved in a short time frame. But rather than think of this as daunting, we can see it as a chance to expand our world, meet new people, challenge our cognitive biases, and create innovative and integrative systems of change. There will be stressful days, things won’t always work, and there may even be conflict. But I have found the joy in this work, and the impact far outweighs the difficulties.
When I was asked to write about my leadership, I thought of writing about my path as one of the leaders of the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC); however, I did not want to write this from the perspective of a linear trajectory as the figurehead of the nation’s only Latinx arts service organization. My life is not defined by a position I hold but rather by how I choose to live my life in service to others. My strong sense of love and commitment to family, humanity and community is what drives me.
In a state with two million people spread out over a landmass that’s 10 times the size of New Jersey, the challenges of bringing people together in one place are obvious. Yet we know from experience that the time invested in traveling outside the state capital to cities and rural communities is worth the effort, and is indeed the only way to build trust between neighbors for a new concept. Fortunately, we could rely on the National Endowment for the Arts’ Creative Forces and Americans for the Arts’ National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military for guidance. In the last three years we have held face-to-face meetings with 90+ new individuals at three roundtable discussions—two in Albuquerque, one in Roswell. In the last two grant cycles, we have funded five new projects with a veteran and/or military focus. These numbers are modest, and we acknowledge, even embrace, the “baby-steps” method of outreach.
According to the Americans for the Arts Creative Industries Report, there are 674,000 businesses involved in the creation or distribution of the arts, and they employ 3.5 million people. This represents 4% percent of all U.S. businesses and 2% percent of all U.S. employees, demonstrating statistically that the arts are a formidable business presence. Collectively, we know the issues our cities and society face are too complex to address in one way. But I firmly believe the creative sector can be a strong partner in developing sustainable development goals such as well-being, economic health, quality education, and sustainable cities and communities. I see this as a team effort, requiring the investment of businesses, investors, AND funders to drive what is already important to them, by expanding their portfolios to embrace programs and services that only the creative sector can deliver.
As my time on Americans for the Arts’ Arts Education Council winds down, I’m given to reflecting on the power of “art-relationships.” Over the past three years, these relationships not only have benefitted me on a personal/social level, but also have elevated my professional expectations and performance. I’m grateful for the people I’ve met on the Arts Education Council, I’m honored to call them friends, and I’m appreciative that they’ve made me a more successful arts administrator. With my final council post for ARTSblog, I thought I’d share some insights I’ve learned as they relate to developing professional connections.
Although we’d like to believe that the arts and culture sector does better than other fields, sexism remains pervasive—but not unconquerable. Throughout my career in the nonprofit and arts sector, I have been told that: I should describe myself as aspirational, not ambitious; women in their twenties weren’t good hires because they are only fully formed after they married; I wouldn’t be promoted into a permanent position because having just had a child would make me less committed to my work; and other comments of a nature too personal. Small, demoralizing comments meaning, “You just don’t measure up to your male colleagues.” While the arts sector has not been a leader in breaking this cycle, it should be. Judging from current trends, emerging female leaders inspire me to believe that we can get ahead of the curve.
I wasn’t destined for a career “in the arts.” Despite being a cellist since 4th grade (courtesy of when public schools invested more heavily in the arts) and immersed in the world of classical music all of my life, I was headed to a world of science—either botanist, or field ecologist, or environmental educator. I was part of a hiking, camping, and backpacking family—wedded to the out of doors—and I graduated with a degree in biology. I wanted to channel my love of science, teaching, and museums, hence my choice over 30 years ago to pursue a master’s degree in museum education with a goal of developing and teaching science curricula (and, in particular, to work at the Museum of Science in Boston). And then at three pivotal moments in my life, three key women entered my professional world and offered me new opportunities that would change the trajectory of my work.
No matter what industry you work in, Americans are seeing the value of creativity in their jobs. From our recent public opinion poll, Americans Speak Out About the Arts in 2018, 55% of employed Americans agree that their job requires them to be creative. And an even larger percentage, 60%, believe that the more creative and innovative they are at their job, the more successful they are in the workplace. And how are they finding their inner creative spark? For many businesses, the answer lies in partnering with the arts. Our recently released Business Contributions to the Arts 2018 Survey, conducted in partnership with The Conference Board, asked business leaders if the arts contribute to stimulating creative thinking and problem solving—and 53% of them agreed that it does.
All students deserve high quality arts education that develops important skills needed to succeed in today’s competitive workforce. Many of the skills developed through arts learning—collaboration and cooperation, problem identifying and problem solving, decision making, design thinking, articulation and critique, constructive communication—are considered key attributes by employers around the world in the 21st century. After all, they are the skills of leadership. Since 1989 the Ohio Alliance for Arts Education, Ohio Arts Council and the Ohio Department of Education have worked together to gather data and report on the status of arts education in Ohio’s schools. The Ohio Arts Education Data Project launched in September 2018, and Ohio is proud to be among the first few states in the nation to provide online arts education data dashboards available to the public!
I still find that women have difficulty being heard—the old story: a woman makes a key point in a group meeting, nobody reacts; a man follows with the same point and everyone thinks it’s a good idea. I’ve seen savvy women handle that one by circling back and thanking the man for reiterating her point. Women often get rolled over by men in discussions because they are bigger, louder, more aggressive where women tend to be more deferential. Faced with such an instance, I stopped talking, held up my hand to visually stop the grandstanding, looked at the director in the eye, and asked him to refrain from talking over me so that I could finish my point—he did. Women often start statements by apologizing—and continue to do so throughout their commentary. STOP THAT. Julia Child once said, “Never apologize, and carry on.” The first step in women becoming leaders is empowering themselves to be leaders.
As I was preparing for my presentation at the upcoming National Arts Marketing Project Conference, I interviewed a number of bloggers, digital media experts, marketers, and influencers to get their take on the highs and lows of using social influencers to promote your products and experiences.
Social media has become a bona fide and critical component of the customer path to purchase—and arts marketers are taking advantage, successfully using social media to make their organizations more relatable, promote upcoming shows or exhibits, and gain memberships with special announcements and behind-the-scenes content.
Twenty-five years ago, I left my job as the Managing Director of a regional theatre and started WomenArts. I deliberately moved from the center track to the sidelines because I wanted to work with women artists. They were the ones I loved the most—especially women artists of color and lesbian artists. They were the reason I had originally gone into the arts, and I had felt their absence during my 20 years in mainstream arts organizations. WomenArts mainly serves independent and community-based artists, and it puzzles me that they are so often ignored in discussions about gender parity or cultural policy. I am thrilled that more women are moving into leadership roles in major arts organizations, and I am sure they will have a positive impact. But we need to face the fact that there are not enough jobs to go around at those institutions. Even if we had women leading every major arts organization in the U.S., there would still be thousands of unemployed or under-employed women artists.
My recent foray into professional arts marketing shows me that there’s much we can learn from each other on ways to link historically overlooked and disenfranchised communities with the mainstream theater communities who want to invite them in.
Arts organizations often find a delicate balance in planning a season that generates necessary revenue and attendance, while still being driven by a meaningful purpose. The ultimate goal is to provide opportunities rooted in a place of purpose, guided by your mission, that have the ability to reach a largest possible range of individuals.
An honest, unreserved commitment to community collaboration brings healing and positive growth. If your arts organization feels like their outreach and engagement is not as successful as they had hoped, remember these four key approaches to bring you back to the root of meaningful arts programming.
In the rise of a socially-conscious zeitgeist, a spectrum of practices across the vast catalog of art institutions and programming have come into question, specifically around the issues of representation and equity. From hiring policies to curation, art audiences are demanding more inclusive narratives. Often our digital platforms provide the unfortunate circumstance of sustaining a highly contentious environment around these conversations. A common response across many institutions has been to remain steadfast and inflexible in questionable practice, as opposed to considering the validity of such cultural objections. But some institutions have found a way to respond to the current state of cultural criticism in more productive ways.
To communicate effectively, it really helps to know who you’re communicating with. As an arts marketer communicating on behalf of an organization, audience research is one of the most important tools we have to understand who our audiences are and what they want.