Holy smokes, I’ve been Executive Director of Arts Wisconsin for 20 years as of April 1.
When I started this job in 1995, the organization was called the Wisconsin Assembly of Local Arts Agencies (WALAA, pronounced WA-LAH; our very first newsletter was called “Voila!” Really.). WALAA came to be in the early 1990s when the Wisconsin Arts Board called together a group of Wisconsin local arts leaders to advance the state’s storied tradition of grassroots arts involvement. Inspired by the Wisconsin Idea and great leaders like Professor Robert Gard, who was Director of the UW-Madison’s Officeof Community Arts Development (based in the Ag School, by the way, which shows impressive vision from the university leaders of the time) in the mid part of the last century, WALAA focused primarily on networking, service, and technical assistance with local arts agencies.
In 2015, the work is about the creative economy, creative placemaking, asset-based community development and the arts and creativity in education. I use the word “creativity” more than I use the word “arts.” But Arts Wisconsin’s mission, vision and purpose are still what WALAA started out with – that the arts are fundamental to the lives of the people of Wisconsin, that our work is all about ensuring access to the arts for everyone, everywhere in the state and advancing the arts for Wisconsin’s economic, educational and civic success.
I came into the job with a lifelong involvement and a solid background in the arts and in community engagement and outreach, and I thought I knew something about community cultural development. (I guess that’s why they hired me in the first place, huh?!). I was excited to be involved with this new organization and ready to make a difference.
What I’ve learned over twenty years could fill a book. As the organization’s first (and so far, only) director, I’ve learned about the mechanics of organizational systems and business management, fundraising, contract negotiation, conference planning, accounting,websites, spreadsheets, regulations, policies.
I’ve learned about politics and power, human nature, the psychology of change, about how personalities and politics shape events and ideas, how to build and sustain community, how intangible, global forces affect our daily lives.
Most importantly, I’ve learned about people – the creative, infuriating, endearing,wonderful, resourceful people making the arts happen on the local level and making the job worthwhile. I’ve been inspired by the many board members, staff members, interns, partners such as the Wisconsin Arts Board and many others, members and constituents, generous donors and supporters, and leaders I’ve had the privilege of working with. I’ve learned about human interaction with the arts and creativity, the creative instinct that is inherent in every person and can’t be stifled no matter how difficult the circumstances; that the arts encompass something bigger than a work of art or a performance. My job is not about determining “who is an artist” or “what is art.” (Please, don’t make me have that conversation.) It’s about helping that creative spirit come alive in every corner of the state.
Just to expand on that a bit…from the beginning, this job has been all about:
· partnerships, collaborations, and networks – working together towards common goals, on any level, is the only way change happens.
· connecting the arts to local and global economic,educational and civic infrastructure and issues, while nurturing creativity and artistic expression to define humanity and society – the fundamental reason that the arts are essential
· ensuring that Wisconsin and all of its communities stay “ahead of the curve” artistically, civicly, organizationally, technologically, and other ways, in a rapidly evolving world
· building on the past with new pathways to individual,organizational and collective innovative and entrepreneurial capacity that lasts
· defining what we mean by “arts sector” and “arts experience”in a world increasingly shaped by globally accessible online and electronic creative systems. When I started this job, I worked primarily with nonprofit arts councils, organizations that provide a variety of arts experiences in their communities. I still work with those organizations as a primary focus. The nonprofit model is what we have known and is still relevant, but now, there new business models and new public and private partners enabling arts, cultural and creative experiences.
· illuminating peoples’ lives and their stories. Community development work is all about relationships, especially when it comes to leading and dealing with change. I often wish I had a degree in psychology so I could understand people better, since we are such complicated creatures, sometimes acting in defiance of our best interests.
There are a few “truisms” that I seem to repeat over, and over, and over again, inthis work. One of my guiding mottos, especially in the past few years, is based on what Winston Churchill said about Britain’s role in World War II: “never, never, never give up.” What really makes things happen is the individual and collective mindset that there are no barriers that can’t be overcome with the right attitude and a whole lot of patience, persistence and passion. Defining what success means, and finding common ground, is an ongoing process, one that is entirely maddening/engaging/fascinating/satisfying.
I’ve had the great privilege to travel to every corner of the state as part of the job. I’m glad that fate deposited me in Wisconsin, and that I’ve been able to get to know the state and its people, communities, and arts and culture really, really well. As I often say, I can tell you where the best pie and ice cream are, anywhere in the state. I believe that a visitor should honor culinary offerings as well as cultural while traveling!
I’ve been lucky to find a calling that reflects my values and satisfies my soul, and to be part of an exciting “ongoing conversation” for Wisconsin, its people,and its communities. When I started this job, I was a local arts administrator. Twenty years on, I’m a community activist who works through the arts and creativity, to help people, organizations and communities realize their dreams, and to bind those dreams into a statewide whole. This job has been and continues to be an exploration personally and professionally, connecting dots, people, communities, information and resources. Even after twenty years, I learn something new every day about people or situations or issues, in good, bad and certainly very interesting ways. These learning moments make me think, laugh, exalt, ponder, seethe and feel a sense of wonder, depending on the situation, that there is still so much to learn and to do.