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. 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

We Are All Wonder Women

It’s 2018, and the need to advance women in the workplace is still ever present. Recent decades have certainly yielded progress, but too many unacceptable issues remain unsolved. From sexual harassment to gender pay gaps and more, the fight continues. As we push for fair and equitable treatment, it’s also important to remember that female support systems should be part of the equation. Far too many women in the workforce navigate their careers without the benefit of mentors. Mentorships, both formal and informal, provide opportunities to build relationships that help younger or less experienced professionals better navigate the workplace and personal career development. This is by no means the single key to advancement, but it’s one we shouldn’t overlook. Those of us who can provide guidance and be supportive can make a critical difference in the professional development of others.

#365take2 — or, A letter without expectation.

There is so much to write in a blog about female leadership in the nonprofit arts world. I’ve been incredibly lucky in my professional and personal life. My experiences in adversity are real, but they are also privileged. I’m white, come from a wonderfully loving home, and am able-bodied. I have generally been surrounded by supportive people—women—family, friends, coworkers. I don’t have a lot of stories about being held back or feeling discrimination, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have them. The Nonprofit Leadership Workbook for Women notes that while 73% of all nonprofit employees are women, we only account for 45% of nonprofit CEOs. Slightly better than the 5% of female CEOs in the Fortune 500. I was honored to become the executive director of my organization very early in career, well before I was ready. But that’s the thing about women, right? We face challenges head on. We take advantage of opportunities when they arise. We figure it all out as we go. We must. We’re spending our days making the world a better place.

On Becoming an Effective Leader and Creating Your Own Opportunities

As a woman working in the arts management field, I know how critical it is to look for opportunities and to take advantage of them. I have had several women role models who have demonstrated the importance of being a good leader, and now that I’m at a stage in my career where I am training the next generation of arts leaders, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be a woman in a leadership position, and how to create your own opportunities. There are three guiding principles that I continually share with my interns who are just getting a glimpse into the inner workings of an arts organization. First, always be curious about what you are doing and what others are doing around you. Second, don’t sweat the small stuff; work your way through problems the best way you know how and don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. And finally, pass your knowledge and expertise on to the next generation.

Lifting Up a Community Through the Arts

When people tell me they see me as a leader and influencer in the nonprofit arts world, I must confess that I don’t really see myself that way. I’m in a unique situation as a Lakota woman. First, we actually have no Lakota word for “art.” Expressing ourselves visually is something we’ve always done; it’s part of who we are as Lakota people. Art is life. We also don’t perceive leadership the same way the dominant society does. For me, it’s my honor and my responsibility to find the right ways to care for our people. In this case, I’m very fortunate to be able to help lift up my community through the arts. To me, at its heart, leadership isn’t really about leading something. It’s about using what you learn to forge a path forward. When you grow internally, that shapes what you want to do and the impact you will have. The arts absolutely can empower others in their own leadership journeys, because getting in touch with creativity in any way will change you.

Everyone Was a Womxn at Some Point

Everyone was a womxn at some point! Then she gave you time and fostered a space within her to help you become what you are. The more women realize that from being able to give birth to being the backbone to almost every successful company, what’s clear is that we are the leaders and have always been the most popular artist. It’s always been that way; we’ve just been the silent partner, the main investor, the proverbial “legs” with others leading as the body. THAT, however, is what’s changing. So what it means to be a womxn in a leadership position at an arts nonprofit in today’s world means being what we’ve always been, but with a voice to say what you want, what you need, having the will to take what you deserve, build what you see, and being the face that represents that.

Shatter Some Glass

How can the arts empower other women to take leadership roles? When you find your passion, believe that no one can stop you. Search for adventure. The old adage—there are no small parts, only small actors. The American regional theater movement was founded by women—three women in three different cities across the country, Margo Jones (Dallas), Nina Vance (Houston), and Arena Stage’s Zelda Fichandler in Washington, DC. I am honored to have taken the helm of Zelda’s flagship. It’s important to remember that these women were at the forefront of an entire movement—while we struggle with gender parity among current directors of regional theaters, the movement itself owes everything to these three women. Any woman trying to burst forward should take strength from that. And remember and speak their names. We are here because they took action.

Nonprofit Arts Women Rock

Throughout this fall, Americans for the Arts is curating a blog series featuring the voices of women in leadership roles at nonprofit arts organizations. It would be easy to say that we are holding this blog series because of the recent surge in the women’s movement, or because today women are still not paid as much as men for their work and deserve a spotlight, or because it would be sport to call out the men who have abused their power over women. The truth is, we simply felt it would be amazing to lend a microphone to these women to hear their perspectives about what it means to be a woman in an influential role in the arts today. It is our hope that through these blogs, other women will feel empowered to take on leadership roles and in turn encourage other women to do the same.

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