On Women in Leadership in the Arts
What does it mean to be a woman in this alarming moment, let alone a woman who is leading a nonprofit arts organization?
At its essence, “lead” originally meant “to see” or “illuminate the way.” In relationship to the metal it had to do with flow, which conjures collective movement, even progress, and a kind of abundance. This combination of meaning provides such a beautiful and elemental way of thinking about leadership. Contrary to what we are seeing today, leadership is not rooted in scarcity and is not about some of us winning and most of us losing. Rather, leadership is to see and illuminate a way forward.
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. We need to listen to and be accountable to one another. We need to believe in ourselves and see our inextricable connection. Good leaders help us trust, come together, and be better together.
Yet, despite the constantly alarming headlines, I see leaders every day on playgrounds, in grocery stores, on the dance floor, in meeting rooms, on street corners, in train stations, and throughout the organization I have the honor of being part of—Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA). I am grateful to the countless people who are standing up and speaking out even as our supposed leaders are at best cowering and at worst colluding. This is the Black Lives Matter movement, #MeToo, March for Our Lives high school students across this country, and the people who are running for school board, for local office, for change. This is people like Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Professor Anita Hill. These are the people who understand that leadership is not about brandishing power; it is about seeking truth, building trust, and inspiring participation. These are everyday people who understand that the best future is one that leads with hope and inspiration. It is the people who think beyond themselves, beyond their personal ambition, and even beyond their individual organization or enterprise who inspire me most.
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.
When I took my first full-time job in the arts as Executive Director of Intersection for the Arts, I was struck by how isolated arts organizations are from the community around them. Too many arts leaders are focused on their fields without understanding the potent role they can and should play as civic and community leaders who bring the power of the arts to broader public discourse. I am driven to assure that artists and arts organizations are understood and deeply valued in our society, and that drive has necessitated my participation in broader public discourse and consideration of myself and YBCA as leaders in the arts, in the public life of our region, and in the political life of our country.
As a female leader, I have lost count of the number of times that someone spoke to me, expected something from me, or positioned me in a way that they simply would not have if I were a man. Just recently a local art critic who struggles to see the value in what we do at YBCA tweeted that I and my colleagues were “well-meaning” but he wishes we would “get our act together.” I can’t be sure, but I really wonder if he would have tweeted this unnecessary and patronizing statement if the lead curator and I were men.
I think we—no matter our gender—have to defy expectations and challenge explicit and implicit bias every day and all the time. The female leaders I know are inclined to build support systems, nurture talent, create opportunities, and hold visions that illuminate the way. We are leaders with incredible capacity to build inspired, collaborative working environments that can lead to courageous transformation in our field and beyond. We must remember that we aren’t aspiring to the existing paradigm of leadership, but are making a new one. And, we have an obligation to steward our creative resources for the betterment of a faltering society.
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