Americans for the Arts Presents 2018 Public Leadership in the Arts Award for State Arts Leadership to California Senator Ben Allen

Friday, December 7, 2018

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In partnership with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Americans for the Arts is pleased to present California Senator Ben Allen with the Public Leadership in the Arts Award for State Arts Leadership. The award honors state officials who effectively lead the arts advancement movement in their region. The ceremony took place this morning at the NCSL Capitol Forum in Washington, DC.

Relevance, Diversity, and Progress in the Arts

When you look at the arts sector more broadly, it is clear women have gradually come into more leadership positions. Although art history departments and museums were male-dominated for centuries, recent data show that we’re finally turning a corner. Nevertheless, there is a stubborn gender imbalance at the helms of the largest museums. And barriers for women of color—or men of color for that matter—are even higher. Having seen as much change in my field as I have since 2000, I am both heartened and worried. As a society we have made progress on the recognition and remediation of gender inequality, and the persistence of racism as a driver of inequality has come into clearer view. In philanthropy we are becoming better at rewarding leadership in these arenas—often belatedly. But we also see that social progress can engender apathy and even resistance. There is far more to do for the arts and museum sector to become truly representative, equitable, and inclusive, and thus the most excellent it can be for our country. For all of us in the practice, study, and philanthropy of the arts, this is a great calling.

Learning that Asserting Oneself is a Good Thing

My title is President and CEO of the Staten Island Museum. I will admit when I first began introducing myself in this role, I felt somewhat awkward and uncomfortable with this title. In museums, the title of Executive Director is much more common, so in some way I felt like my title seemed overblown. I’m not someone who typically draws attention to myself, so at first I rather timidly stated my title, or even said “I’m the director of the Staten Island Museum” instead—downplaying the title, because that felt more comfortable. But then I thought about it. Why wouldn’t I say President and CEO proudly? There is no reason that I shouldn’t. Except for the nagging notion that women shouldn’t brag, or maybe that at some level I’m internalizing that there aren’t too many women President and CEOs and that it seems like that title doesn’t belong to me. But the reality is I’ve earned it.

A Woman of Substance

When I first read Katharine Graham’s autobiography, which later became the basis for The Post, I don’t remember experiencing any moments of recognition. Awe, yes. Admiration, absolutely. That a woman with so little self-confidence had found the capacity to topple a president by discovering some previously hidden strength—now that was an inspiring story. But it wasn’t until I watched Meryl Streep navigate Katharine Graham’s route from society maven to newspaper publisher with a backbone of steel that something struck me, and I recognized that her trajectory and my own career development bore some commonality. I was certainly not a pioneer of the generation of theater managers that included Nina Vance, Iris Siff, and Zelda Fichandler, or even that second wave that included Sara O’Connor and Alison Harris, Jessica Andrews and Mary Bill. Nonetheless, as an early career manager when few women were in the field, it was hard to have my voice be heard, to be able to command a room so that my thoughts could be presented.

Bring it on.

I have learned what is important for me through the arts: whether it is a hobby or a profession, the arts allow us to tap into our own voice and find what is meaningful. It is an extension of who we are, and it is reified in the world through words, music, paintings, and movement. The arts tune us into the thing that makes us tick. It gives us the power to listen to our own selves, to truly go in and feel. In a world where everything is external, the arts are a reprieve—a moment to lean in and go deeper. The arts give you a confidence to listen and to chart your direction. With a better understanding of my own self, I can make connections and lead this organization more effectively. I see myself as the Jackson Pollock of arts administration—at first glance, one might think it’s chaotic, but there is intentionality behind every stroke.

On Women in Leadership in the Arts

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.

One of the Boys

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.

Encouraging Women to Think Big

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. 

A Latinx Woman’s Journey: I Did Not Get Here Alone

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.

The Creative Power of Women in Leadership

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. 

2018 Council Elections: Voting for Advisory Council Members is Now Open!

Voting closes November 16 at 5:00 pm ET

Monday, October 29, 2018

Americans for the Arts wants our members to elect art professionals from the field to serve on one of four network advisory councils: Arts Education, Emerging Leaders, Private Sector, and Public Art. Voting closes November 16, 2018 at 5:00 pm (ET).

At pivotal moments, key women believed in me!

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.

Women Becoming Leaders Starts with Empowering Themselves to be Leaders

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.

Leadership from the Sidelines

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.

Recognizing Leadership and Innovation in the Arts Happens Every Day

Each fall, many of us in the arts world look forward to hearing the names of the National Medal of Arts recipients for the year. Awarded annually since 1985, this highly anticipated honor seems to have been put on hold beginning in 2016. Similarly, the National Humanities Medal ended a 26-year-long streak with their slate of 2015 honorees, and October’s National Arts & Humanities Month—which expanded from a week-long celebration proclaimed by President Reagan in 1985, to a month-long celebration of the arts and humanities in 1993—has yet to see a presidential proclamation since October 2016. Americans for decades have appreciated nationally recognized awards and a presidential proclamation every year as a show of support and encouragement to unleash creativity and reach for new heights. This year that hope was no different and I have been asked again and again for my thoughts on what has become of these high-profile awards.

What does it mean to be a woman leader in the arts world? Hmmm … I’m not sure how to answer that.

I can think of many questions with complicated or unknown answers: Does being a woman influence the way I lead? How much has my career path been influenced by my being a woman? Would I have done things differently if I was a man (no way to know that, of course!)? Of course, the world is different for today’s generation of woman leaders. My twenties were in a time when women were starting off in careers of importance in much greater numbers than my mother’s generation, but the influences of that previous generation were very present (at least in my world). Now, although there are still tangible and intangible systems in place that affect women, it is the norm that young women feel and know that they can lead in the arts or any other sector. Much of the time, I feel that young women are leading and we older women have to be available for counsel if needed, but mostly we have to get out of the way.

The Power of Storytelling for Women Leaders

Every woman has a story, and the world needs to see and hear your story and your perspective as a woman leader—and, more critically, as a woman of color. Storytelling is rooted in our cultures and has been proven to be one of the most effective ways to not only share with the world who you are, but open people’s minds in a way that simply telling a set of regurgitated data or facts cannot. Over the past few weeks we have seen the power of storytelling play out in one of the largest stages for women that we have ever seen. The Kavanagh hearing allowed each party to tell their story in a historical setting like no other, but the stories that captured our attention, the stories that had the most impact, the ones that moved and changed people’s hearts and minds in that hearing, across the country and perhaps the world, were told in an elevator.

Equipping Artists to be Community Leaders

I joined our new staff member in a meeting last week with a prospective grant applicant. We were discussing his interest and desire to get a new keyboard for his work as a musician. This young man humbly presented himself as he shared his professional and educational background that more than qualified him to apply for the developing artist grant we administer. Our new staff member did an excellent job reviewing the grant guidelines and preparing him for the process, but as the meeting was wrapping up, I saw that something was still missing.

“May I share an observation with you before you go?” I asked. “Sure,” the artist quietly replied.

It’s Time for the Arts to Rally Around Standardized Outcomes

Like many social areas, the arts have struggled to reach consensus on impact measurement metrics. Certainly, considerable progress has been made in terms of measuring economic impact as a result of the arts, led by Americans for the Arts and its Arts and Economic Prosperity series of research reports. But, as Business Contributions to the Arts: 2018 Edition reiterates, most companies are not measuring a standard set of social outcomes when it comes to the arts—and that could be holding the sector back. Our data also show that corporate funding for the arts is in a strong position. That means that now is the time to take on the challenge of being more rigorous in the measurement of arts programs to help ensure sustained contributions over the long term. Companies would benefit from stepping up to the plate.

Arts & Business Partnerships Continue to Strengthen Both Sectors, Research Finds

Last week, we celebrated arts and business partnerships at our annual BCA 10: Best Businesses Partnering with the Arts gala. We heard inspiring stories about why businesses value the arts. BCA Leadership Award winner Chandrika Tandon shared how her passion for music provided passion and engagement at her job. Fifth Third Bank spoke about how the arts helped them heal and respond after a mass shooting at their headquarters. Phillips66 shared how the arts create a strong company culture. These stories align with the data from the just released Business Contributions to the Arts survey, which found, among other positive results, that business support for the arts is on the rise. 

Women Rising

My healing process occurred alongside my career in the arts—first as a student and volunteer; then as an artist and a teaching artist; and now as an arts administrator and leader. The transformation happened over the past 25 years. While the trauma is no longer debilitating, it is never forgotten. And, while the arts didn’t heal the trauma alone, theater was instrumental in helping me build the language and my own awareness of the trauma, and in seeking additional outside assistance. It is impossible for me to separate these narratives. I fervently believe that at its core, our work in the cultural sector is to build a more inclusive, empathetic, and humane society. As leaders we must recognize that many of the people we interact with on a daily basis have experienced some sort of trauma, bias, or oppression based on gender, sexual orientation, or race. It is not that hard to accomplish—just use the tools acquired through the arts themselves.

Americans for the Arts Introduces the Arts + Social Impact Explorer

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Today, Americans for the Arts unveiled the Arts + Social Impact Explorer, an interactive online tool that draws together more than 1,000 data points on how the arts impact and integrate into 26 different sectors ranging from education and innovation, to health and wellness, immigration, faith and environment. The tool provides quick top-line research, example projects, core research papers, and lists service and partner organizations doing this work, as well as provides printable PDF fact sheets to share with decisionmakers.

To Lead in the Arts as a Woman

To lead in the arts today as a woman is a privilege and an honor. We live during a critical time. There is much discord, fear, apathy, and concern for our field and its value in our society. We have the opportunity to stand up and use our bully pulpits thoughtfully. When those do not exist, we build new ones. When we are not heard, we can amplify one another. Women leaders remember integrity: when we fight for something, we use every resource available to understand the issue and go about solving it with passion as well as responsibility. Every choice we make is seen through a finer lens and has more riding on it. We must turn that into an opportunity to seize the moment and act with courage when it counts.

Diversity Conversations

Diversity Conversations is filled with examples culled from discussions with thousands of American professionals, executives, union workers, educators, politicians, law enforcement officials, and others I have trained since the 1990s. Each chapter offers practical tips to increase effectiveness in conducting productive and critical diversity conversations with your friends, family, co-workers, as well as people who do not view the world like you. This third edition of Diversity Conversations is released during a time in our world where there is a growing need for more civility, unity, and human understanding. Each person must face our own demons of bias, tribalism, and cultural blind spots. If we continue to drink from the bitter cup of blame and cross-cultural degradation, we will never engage in the work necessary to bring about sustainable change. 

Selfless Leadership: How Not to Give Away Your Apples and Turn Into a Stump

Do you know the story of The Giving Tree? Many of us do, either as a childhood story or as one that has been introduced to us as adults to share some life lesson or axiom. The story goes like this … A young boy finds a tree. The tree loves the boy, and they play. Then the boy grows older and wants things from the tree: its apples, branches, and eventually its trunk. The tree gives the boy everything, happily, until all is left is a stump. The end. Ostensibly, this is a story about selfless giving, and business folk often hold it up as a wise allegory: a story of leadership to inspire managers into their own career of selfless servitude. Y’all ... I’ve been given this story as an example of what female leadership should look like, and the worst part is that in my younger years—I actually believed it.

The Circle of Leadership

The everyday leadership of a huge, statewide arts community is less a battle charge and more of a circle or a forward spiral, going out to gather people and ideas, bringing them back to the organization, re-aligning, and then going out again. As a statewide organization, Minnesota Citizens for the Arts needs to serve artists, arts organizations, and arts audiences in every corner of our large state. Serving such a large geography means I travel the state as much as possible to serve our constituents and to gather the information we need to be effective. This forges links in a chain of relationships that webs together and strengthens our networks. I bring what I learn in those communities back to our organization to help inform our work, and then I hit the road again, completing the circle.

Americans Speak Out About the Arts in 2018: An In-Depth Look at Perceptions and Attitudes About the Arts in America

In a society struggling to find equity and social justice, Americans believe the arts improve the quality of our communities. How do we know? We asked. Americans Speak Out About the Arts in 2018 is the second in a series of national public opinion surveys conducted by Ipsos on behalf of Americans for the Arts. One of the largest ever conducted, it gauges the public perspective on (1) personal engagement in the arts as audience and creator, (2) support for arts education and government arts funding, (3) opinions on the personal and well-being benefits that come from engaging in the arts, and (4) how those personal benefits extend to the community. Here are some findings of the survey. 

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