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Getting Closer to Dance
Episode 50

Getting Closer to Dance

CI to Eye with Linda Shelton

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Linda and Erik talk about developing the appropriate purview for a board of directors and the Joyce Theater’s community in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. They also discuss the joint effort between Eliot Feld and Cora Cahan to transform the former movie house into a renowned home for dance.

Erik Gensler: Well, thank you so much for doing this.

Linda Shelton: My pleasure.

Erik Gensler: I think when I was exploring a career in arts administration … You know the story that’s going to come (laughter)-

Linda Shelton: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: … because I’ve told you this before. I met you and it was my first informational interview and you said something to the extent of, “Arts administration is grueling and brutal and potentially look elsewhere unless I’m ready to suffer,” or something like that. (laughs)

Linda Shelton: (laughs) Oh dear.

Erik Gensler: Which I appreciated. And I still worked in arts administration.

Linda Shelton: And I think you had one of the tougher jobs.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Linda Shelton: In arts administration.

Erik Gensler: Which was a great way to learn-

Linda Shelton: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: … but a rough thing to live through at City Opera.

Linda Shelton: Yes.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. But thank you for doing that. You probably get a lot of requests from people asking and I was just a kid and didn’t know anything and know anybody. So, that was very nice of you. I guess I want to start, for the people who may not know the Joyce Theater, how would you describe the Joyce Theater to someone who’s never seen it or been to New York City, for broad context?

Linda Shelton: It is a theater. It is made by dancers for dance. Great sight lines. I like to say it has great proportion because the stage is large enough that we can accommodate medium-sized dance companies but the sight lines … you can see from every seat, so it’s intimate. But again, great proportion. You can see every kind of dance there that you could possibly imagine, from ballet companies to contemporary dance, culturally specific, tap, things that don’t have a name. Everything is on our stage all the time. There’s always something going on. And then beyond that, I think we could be called a service organization because of all of the support we give to dance companies outside of the stage.

Erik Gensler: I’d say it’s very unique as an institution. A lot of cities do not have an organization like this that’s fully committed to dance with that level of intimacy and that breadth of curation.

Linda Shelton: It’s kind of a blessing and a curse., I like having this niche and this focus that sets us apart from everybody else, but when I speak to my colleagues that are in multi-disciplinary spaces and they can bring in some rock show or some really popular event—Hamilton—to offset the things that don’t sell so well. So they have that-

Erik Gensler: Right.

Linda Shelton: … advantage that we don’t have.

Erik Gensler: So, I’m going to quote Claudia La Rocco, writer for the New York Times in an article about the Joyce, who said, “In an economically shaky art form, the Joyce is a bastion of growth and stability.”

Linda Shelton: (laughs)

Erik Gensler: And you’ve been at the helm of this growth and stability. So I’m curious, how did you do that?

Linda Shelton: Very carefully. Extremely carefully. When I started, the budget was, like, $2 million. We weren’t raising any money at all. Like, very little on the fundraising side. A very small staff of about eight people. And now, the budget is around $13 million, there are 26 board members, the staff is in the 50s of full-time people, and the programs have expanded hugely. But it was step-by-step and it was really in response to what the field needed.

Erik Gensler: So how do you think about growth?

Linda Shelton: I don’t think about it as growth. I think about it as, how do you stay relevant? How do you meet the needs of the field? It’s not just growth for growth’s sake. It’s where are there missing elements? Or what do we need to do to fill in the gaps so that we can have a product onstage that audiences are still interested in? And that can come in the form of commissioning work. For us, a lot of growth was in rehearsal space because you need a place to rehearse. You can’t rehearse in someone’s living room. You need very special amenities to do that. So that’s where a lot of our growth has been. But it’s always been looking at what we’re being asked to do.

Erik Gensler: You’ve had some geographic growth as well with the Soho space,

Linda Shelton: Yes.

Erik Gensler: Can you talk about that project?

Linda Shelton: So, back in the- in the mid ’90s, that space, which was Joyce Soho, was for sale and it had a deed restriction on it that said it could only be used for dance. So, there weren’t a lot of buyers at the time.

Erik Gensler: That’s a very unique deed restriction.

Linda Shelton: I had to look into why it was like that and it’s a very specific situation. When they were doing a lot of deed restrictions in the Soho area to protect artists.

Erik Gensler: Hm.

Linda Shelton: It was owned by the Dia Foundation at the time and they’re a museum, so they were using it, but not to its full capacity. So, the Joyce was able to buy it for $1.2 million.

Erik Gensler: Amazing.

Linda Shelton: Which was funded-

Erik Gensler: That’s a good deal.

Linda Shelton: It was an excellent deal. But because it had that deed restriction on it, no one really wanted to purchase it. But the funder was the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust and the funder was very enlightened and they said, “We’ll give you the money to buy that, but that deed restriction has to come off.”

Erik Gensler: Mm.

Linda Shelton: “Because we don’t want you to be in that same position-

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Linda Shelton: “… years down the line.” So, they helped us work with the city to take care of that and the deed restriction was removed and we ran it for a very long time and then we were faced with the situation where we had to purchase the Joyce Theater. We had been under a lease that was up in 2016. And if we didn’t secure that location, then we’d be in big trouble. So, we ended up selling Joyce Soho for a lot of money and then we were able to use that money to buy the Joyce Theater. So, it was very difficult to give up that space because so many artists were discovered there.

Erik Gensler: Could you talk about the history of the Joyce Theater? It has a really sort of storied, interesting history.

Linda Shelton: Well, it was, a movie theater and they were showing cult films, things like that. Kind of like the Pulp Fictions back in the- Pulp Fiction movie in that time. So things like … El Topo was one of the movies. I finally watched it at some point. It’s quite violent. But people would come and see it at midnight and things like that.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Linda Shelton: So, I think that was fine for the neighborhood. People really loved going there. It was called the Elgin.

Erik Gensler: What year was that?

Linda Shelton: I would say in the ’60s, ’70s. And then, for a very short period of time, it turned into a porn house. But not a very long period at all. And the neighborhood didn’t want that at all.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm.

Linda Shelton: So, they were closed down. And then, Elliott Feld and Cora Kahn had the foresight to find that building and purchase it and renovate it for dance companies.

Erik Gensler: Elliott Feld, who’s a choreographer.

Linda Shelton: Yes, and had a dance company back then. And he wanted a place for his own company to perform and he thought that there would be many others in his same situation, so he build it really on behalf of the field.

Erik Gensler: So, did you have to- did they have to do a huge renovation project to turn a movie theater into the Joyce?

Linda Shelton: They did. That would’ve been in the late ’70s, early ’80s. And they did it pretty efficiently. There was some debt at the time, but eventually, that was all taken care of. Fundraised for.

Erik Gensler: And talk about the state of the organization when you came in. What year was that?

Linda Shelton: I started in ’93. So, 26 years ago. It’s flown by. It was a very small board. It was mostly a rental house, based on the model that Elliott Feld had set up, which meant that it was curated. The dance companies that came were carefully selected, but they paid rent and the Joyce didn’t take very much risk, but it meant that the same companies were visiting kind of year after year. And some had dwindling audiences, but continued to return year after year. So, small staff. So, it was kind of like a blank slate, to be developed.

Erik Gensler: Let’s turn to programming. I’d love to think about or talk about how you think about programming. And you recently hired a new director of programming, Aaron Maddox, who succeeds Martin Wechsler, who led the theater’s programming for 22 years, so big transition.

Linda Shelton: Yes. Martin was actually at the Joyce before I got there, so he preceded me by six or seven years. He was sort of filling these slots of the rental companies. It was more of a booking job.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm. (affirmative)

Linda Shelton: And he also handled the education program. So, eventually, he became director of programming and we decided to flip the model and start presenting more and more so that we could have control over what was on the stage and so we could really fulfill the mission of diversity and that meant suddenly Martin was traveling all over the world to find things and work with other presenters when there was a tour that might be happening that wanted to come to New York. So, the programming changed drastically.

Erik Gensler: Strategically, how do you think about your season in terms of what company opens, what you do in harder, riskier time periods, that it’s harder to attract audiences in winter to come out of their apartments, subscribers versus first timers … Just curious about the strategy behind that.

Linda Shelton: Oh, we don’t program necessarily by the weather (laughs) because we’ve seen that New Yorkers will come through anything, as long as the subway is running, we have a show. It’s funny because there’s not, like, any really bad time. I think certain companies perform better at certain times of the year. For example, we’ll look at something that’s very, very popular to do over the holiday time period because we’re trying to find things that can spend maybe three weeks so that we can get enough performances in while the holidays are falling within that period. We look at, maybe, like a Michelle Dorrance or somebody, or MOMIX or things like that that will be popular and that can play a long run. But the summer sells well for us. Even in August, we do a ballet festival then and that’s when, I think, a lot of other places don’t have any programming.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Linda Shelton: So, there are still enough people to fill our seats in the summer. We have a membership, which is a subscription model. You know, it’s been down forever. It’s not that people aren’t coming to see a lot of shows, but they’re just not committing. We have a lot of multi-buyers, but they’re just not committing to that membership. Even though you can exchange and you can do all kinds of things and have all kinds of perks.

Erik Gensler: Is that something you talk about a lot?

Linda Shelton: We do. It’s kind of a love-hate relationship because for us, our members get a discount. It’s really a great deal.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Linda Shelton: And we certainly want the commitment ahead of time, but then when a show is selling really, really well, we’ve already discounted the member tickets.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, it’s a hard one.

Linda Shelton: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: So, one of the fun things about going to the Joyce, I think, is the community. I think it’s fun to go see art downtown and the opposite is going to see, like, theater on Broadway where you dread going to the community.

Linda Shelton: (laughs)

Erik Gensler: So, I’m curious how you think about the Joyce in context of your community, how you work with your community partners. Do you think of the Joyce as an anchor institution for the area?

Linda Shelton: I listened to Karen Brooks Hopkins’ podcast (laughs). So, I heard her talk about that. And I though, yeah, the Joyce, it’s not quite BAM but was certainly one of the anchors in that neighborhood that, you know, for better or worse, was part of the development and now the expensive apartments in that neighborhood.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Linda Shelton: So, you do have responsibility for that. At least, I feel responsibility. But the thing that makes us all come together, it’s mostly around the restaurants. People, when they go to the theater, they want to get a bite to eat before or after. So, those restaurants have to be thriving. And when there’s trouble there, then we see trouble, too. So, we have many, many programs with the local restaurants just to make sure that they’re getting the income that they need to stay going and it makes for that kind of a community.

Erik Gensler: Are you inviting them to the theater?

Linda Shelton: We do, we do. We did this program that was funded by Corey Johnson, our councilperson. So, what we did is, we found some businesses in the community. Well, one of them was Google, they’re right down the street from us.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Linda Shelton: But maybe they didn’t know what the Joyce was. You know, here we were, a lot of people still think we’re a movie house. So, I know Google wants them to stay in that Google building, but we lured them out by a special package that they would get a dinner … It was a really good deal. And then they came to see a show. And so, we had to subsidize it a bit as an entry point. And that worked out really, really well.

Erik Gensler: It’s interesting, what Karen talked about is how neighborhoods changed. And one thing that she said that stuck with me is, “Every time a chain store opens in your neighborhood, it becomes the death of the neighborhood.” And I feel like where you are, there’s- it still feels very New York-y. It feels like there are still mom-and-pop businesses, but it is changing.

Linda Shelton: Yeah, there are a few. We certainly have our share of banks and drug stores-

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Linda Shelton: … quite a few. But there are still some, sort of, more boutique-y shops throughout.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. And the housing neighborhood- housing developments in that area are crazy.

Linda Shelton: Some of the most expensive apartments …

Erik Gensler: In the city.

Linda Shelton: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. Do you feel like your audience is changing? Or do you feel like the people moving in there are embracing the Joyce?

Linda Shelton: Yeah, we still have, you know, a strong pocket of neighborhood people that visit us rather frequently. Yeah, but I think it’s from all over the city.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Linda Shelton: And because you don’t have that language barrier with dance-

Erik Gensler: Right.

Linda Shelton: … we’re attractive to tourists as well.

Erik Gensler: You also just have this core community of dance lovers, which I think is a great thing and I think a lot of … I don’t know, that New York has a really strong … Would you call yourself, like, a downtown dance? I mean, it’s more than that. It’s all kinds of dance. But the audience of the Joyce is always … I like the audience, I like going there. You feel like it’s part of this really cool community that loves dance.

Linda Shelton: Yeah, I think it depends where you enter it. I mean, I feel like we used to be more downtown. But then, when downtown became further downtown (laughs)-

Erik Gensler: Right. Bushwick (laughter).

Linda Shelton: And we’re kind of looked at … Yes.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Linda Shelton: We’re kind of looked at as more mainstream now.

Erik Gensler: Interesting.

Linda Shelton: But you’re right. A lot of dancers do come and it has a really nice feel as a community, when you come in. People always say we’re so welcoming, which is exactly what we want to be.

Erik Gensler: You’ve gone through some rebranding not too long ago. And what … Say the tagline, I think it’s great.

Linda Shelton: “Get closer to dance.”

Erik Gensler: I think that’s brilliant.

Linda Shelton: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: It’s so good. What was the process of coming up with that like?

Linda Shelton: Well, we actually started working on that quite a while ago when we were looking at what we had to offer as a theater, what made the Joyce unique. And it gets back to the intimacy of that theater. So, we wanted the audiences to get closer to dance, like, physically, but also, to learn more about it. So …

Erik Gensler: Yeah. It’s such a great tagline. It so embodies that- you know, your organization, I think.

Linda Shelton: Thank you.

Erik Gensler: The intimacy and the-

Linda Shelton: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: … what your mission is.

Linda Shelton: Yes.

Erik Gensler: A big part of your job is fundraising-

Linda Shelton: Yes.

Erik Gensler: … and I’d love to talk about your board and maybe some advice that you could offer or lessons that you’ve learned on how to successfully work with a board or maybe a mistake that you’ve made or however you want to answer that.

Linda Shelton: Well, of course, there are mistakes to be made, but I teach this class at NYU, “Boards of Trustees and Governance in the Performing Arts.” So, my students get to learn all of the tricks (laughs) and things that you want to do. But I think a lot of it gets down to the recruiting.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Linda Shelton: Who you’re recruiting as board members. And I think that takes time. I think you’re always doing recruiting and always looking for people. For the Joyce, we’re so lucky because our programming happens almost year-round and I think that’s the best place to recruit from.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Linda Shelton: So, we have audiences. I mean, I’m always envious of universities that have alumni, because they are definitely loyal. But we do have this blessing and curse that we have a loyal audience that come through our doors all the time.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Linda Shelton: So, recruiting from the population, I think, is our best way to find board members. But then you have to be open and honest with what your expectations are. I’ve heard colleagues of mine that complain about their boards, say things like, “Well we didn’t tell them what we expected from them because once they got to know us and fell in love with us, of course, then they would give us anything that we wanted.” But I feel like-

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Linda Shelton: … that’s kind of a trick, you know? It’s not …

Erik Gensler: It also sounds like that person probably has challenging interpersonal relationships. (laughs)

Linda Shelton: (laughs)

Erik Gensler: If you’re approaching a relationship that way.

Linda Shelton: Could be, could be.

Erik Gensler: The person’s going to mind-read and fall in love with you and just give you what you want, like … (laughs)

Linda Shelton: (laughs) I mean, that’s really what I hear. But I think it goes both ways. As long as you’re honest with what you want … and executive directors, if they take advantage of that, I mean who else gets to pick who their bosses are going to be?

Erik Gensler: Right.

Linda Shelton: I think any executive director should be involved in that recruitment process. It shouldn’t fall to a board committee.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Linda Shelton: And get to know somebody over a period of time, if you have that active pipeline going all the time, then when somebody’s ready to come on, you can bring them onboard. But you’ll know … you’ll know them, they’ll know you. There won’t be any surprises. And then, make sure that you’re checking in with them. Engaging the board takes a lot of time, but it’s very worthwhile and very satisfying to do that. I feel like I have a really terrific board. People are there because they believe in the mission-

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Linda Shelton: … and they want to see the Joyce grow. They want to share in success. I want them to share in those successes.

Erik Gensler: What are the expectations for a board member at the Joyce?

Linda Shelton: We do have a financial commitment, which is $25,000. Beyond that, we want them to be our advocate. We want them to introduce us to new people. They have to hold the mission and trust. That’s almost above the financial commitment. They need to serve on committees. They need to be engaged.

Erik Gensler: How big is the board?

Linda Shelton: It’s 26 right now.

Erik Gensler: Are you looking to grow?

Linda Shelton: A little bit. A little bit, yeah.

Erik Gensler: And what’s the meeting expectation? How often do you meet with your board?

Linda Shelton: We meet every other month. Every meeting is geared toward an activity that we’re getting ready to take on. Like, we pass the budget in June, so we’ll be meeting around June for that purpose. Presenting the season … around these kinds of activities.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative) So, when you teach your students about board governance, what’s some of the best advice you provide?

Linda Shelton: We spend a lot of time trying to unpack that very bizarre relationship between someone in my position that reports to a board, yet we’re directing them. And it’s just a very strange model that we work with.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. If you were gonna coach a new executive director who has never led a board before, what are some of the things you’d tell them?

Linda Shelton: I think you really have to listen to everything they say. And sometimes, you know, not so recently, but early on, like, a board member would say to me, like, “Have you thought of this?” And it would be something so obvious. Like, “Have you thought of selling tickets?”

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Linda Shelton: And you know, you just want to scream-

Erik Gensler: Right.

Linda Shelton: … when you’re being given advice like that or a suggestion like that. But even if it’s something that you think is ridiculous, you have to listen to it.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Linda Shelton: Listen through and then get back to that person. You can’t just let it sit out there.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Linda Shelton: You have to have that follow-through. You have to make sure that you’re considering it. Maybe it is a good idea and you were just in a bad mood that day or something.

Erik Gensler: Selling tickets is a good idea, generally. (laughs)

Linda Shelton: I think so, in general. (laughs)

Erik Gensler: John Schreiber, who is the head of NJPAC that’ll be the next podcast we release after this one, he said something really interesting that I’ve never heard before and he talks about focusing the board’s purview. For example, at NJPAC, they don’t have a marketing committee. He wants the board- he only has committees and within their purview are the things he wants them focused on-

Linda Shelton: Yes.

Erik Gensler: … which I thought was really interesting.

Linda Shelton: As a matter of fact, we just eliminated our marketing committee.

Linda Shelton: We have an event committee. That group of people, they’re very focused on the various events we do. We have a finance committee, a trustee’s committee, but not the ones where they’re not so helpful in terms of-

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Linda Shelton: … guiding the organization.

Erik Gensler: Especially when you have, like, professional marketers in the organization.

Linda Shelton: Yeah, yeah.

Erik Gensler: I think that naturally lends attention, if you have a board that’s not in the day to day about something like that.

Linda Shelton: Right, right. I don’t have a programming-

Erik Gensler: Right.

Linda Shelton: … committee. Because it does- it gets a little sticky between professional staff and then they feel like they just have to listen because it’s a board member, we avoid that committee. But the marketing one also seemed unnecessary. At one point not too long ago, we were looking at ticket prices. And I think a lot of the Joyce board members enjoy and brag about the affordability of the Joyce, that the ticket prices are pretty low, and they like that.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Linda Shelton: We also do demand pricing, and I think there was some misconception about selling these very expensive tickets. But it was such a small percentage of the house that we thought-

Erik Gensler: Right.

Linda Shelton: … let’s set up a task force. Maybe they’ll meet two or three times. Let’s just look at where the ticket prices are. Are we going too much in one direction, not enough in another?

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Linda Shelton: So, we did that. And the- that committee reported back to the full board and then it was finished with its work.

Erik Gensler: That’s really nice. It’s almost like having a army of management consultants at your … I wish-

Linda Shelton: Yeah, yeah.

Erik Gensler: … like, every week something comes up here and it’s like, “Oh, God, if I just had, like, an external army of people to do this project or looking into this thing.”

Linda Shelton: Well, that’s exactly how you look at the board, exactly. And sometimes they’re not on your board, but there is kind of rule out there that your board should be able to call the president within three calls, like, within three connections, if you want to call that person.

Erik Gensler: Which president?

Linda Shelton: Any- any one (laughs). Any one we’ve had.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Linda Shelton: But if you have that kind of reach, so maybe you don’t have the particular expertise to sort out something-

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Linda Shelton: … you know that you can get to it very, very quickly.

Erik Gensler: I see.

Linda Shelton: Like, I have a few lawyers on my board, I have quite a few and I use them a lot because a lot of times, maybe it’s a real estate issue, or a personnel issue, or things like that, and if they can’t help me with it, then they’re very, very willing to say, “You know, that’s not my area of expertise, but let me connect you with this other person.”

Erik Gensler: That’s great. I’d like to talk about personal development and leadership a little bit. What is something you’re really good at and what is something you’re working on improving?

Linda Shelton: Hm. I think I’m good at connecting people or people and ideas and I think that is a big part of fundraising.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Linda Shelton: So, I think I’m good at that. And something I’m working on is through my work at Dance/USA and Dance/NYC learning a lot about social injustice and how that affects our programming, our staff, how we act in the world. So, I’m trying to figure that out from a person with what I would say is white privilege.

Erik Gensler: Have you read Robin DiAngelo? Her book, White Fragility?

Linda Shelton: Yes.

Erik Gensler: I love that book, I’ve learned so much.

Linda Shelton: Yes.

Erik Gensler: What actions have you taken internally to combat that or think about that?

Linda Shelton: Well, I’ve done a couple of workshops, again, through Dance/NYC that have been very, very eye opening.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Linda Shelton: And the facilitator taught us to recognize when we’re in a stretch zone, when you’re even just talking about the subject. So, I think that’s a large part of it, to be able to have a conversation with someone who may not even think twice about what it means to be in a society and a country, as we are, and to not even give it a second thought. I mean, I think that’s really important.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Linda Shelton: To be able to have that conversation, realize that maybe you’ve gone beyond your stretch point-

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Linda Shelton: … and how do you respond to that? You know, what are your responses?

Erik Gensler: What is a stretch point?

Linda Shelton: Well, like, we could be having a conversation and you might say something that would provoke me based on, maybe, something I’ve read in that book-

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Linda Shelton: … or, like, the system … you know, everybody has to deal with the system, the way things are set up. And then I might say, “But no, the systems are set up against certain people.” And then you might say, “But I had to work growing up.”

Erik Gensler: Right.

Linda Shelton: And then, like, you start getting more heated. So you know, like, when you go beyond that point-

Erik Gensler: I see, yeah.

Linda Shelton: … of you’re no longer comfortable in this conversation and how far are you going to take it?

Erik Gensler: Right, right.

Linda Shelton: So, like, you get out of that comfort zone.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, right. And Robin DiAngelo says it’s the responsibility of white people to- she would encourage that if you hear anything, you have to go after it. I mean, she’s very- she’s bold about this, which I kind of like. But then it leads to some interesting outcomes. Like, I had an issue with a friend, and (laughs) after he could not understand the concept like a situation that happened-

Linda Shelton: Right.

Erik Gensler: … He could not- he didn’t- he- he wasn’t there- he isn’t- he didn’t hand in the work.

Linda Shelton: Right.

Erik Gensler: … and I don’t blame him; I hadn’t done the work a few years ago.

Linda Shelton: Right.

Erik Gensler: And, like, he would say things like that, like “I worked hard,” or like, “That’s not racism.”

Linda Shelton: Yes. Right.

Erik Gensler: And it’s like, well … And then I sent him a Robin DiAngelo podcast to listen to and he never wrote back. And so I feel like … I think I pushed past the stretch point (laughs).

Linda Shelton: Yeah, yeah. And that’s uncomfortable. Huh?

Erik Gensler: Yeah, but I don’t know it’s so hard. But, like, I think the other hard thing is we’re often afraid to have the conversations, so no progress gets made.

Linda Shelton: Right.

Erik Gensler: And I think one of the- some of the people here have really pushed me to, like, you just have to have the conversation and you have to be uncomfortable and the only way we’re going to have progress is if we have the conversation.

Linda Shelton: And recognizing when you’re in that conversation and then recognizing what your responses are.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, yeah.

Linda Shelton: And how you move beyond that in a productive way, rather than just shutting the conversation down.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, right. Well, that’s what Robin DiAngelo says about racism, too. By even- by even saying, like, “That’s racist.” That’s just the conversation killer, it doesn’t allow.

Linda Shelton: Right, right.

Erik Gensler: It’s, like, a label that shuts everything down, which is part of the problem (laughs).

Linda Shelton: Yes, definitely.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. What is something you know now that you wish you knew when you started in this role?

Linda Shelton: You know, I wish I knew back then, like, how long I would be doing this job (laughs). Because, like, you just never know. Am I going to be doing this for a year?

Erik Gensler: Right.

Linda Shelton: And there’s something about what you can accomplish if you are going to be involved with something for a long period of time.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Linda Shelton: So, I know that’s- you know, that’s probably not very helpful, because we still never know how long we’re going to do anything, but still, I mean, imagine knowing that. That, like, you’re going to have this company for 30 more years or something like that. What would you do now if you knew that you had that strong of time?

Erik Gensler: Totally. It’s very eye opening to think about that horizon of what it-

Linda Shelton: Yeah, because I think-

Erik Gensler: There’s freedom in that, too.

Linda Shelton: There is, exactly.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Linda Shelton: Exactly. I think now, we look at it in very small increments of time. And maybe, you know, I plan yearly and then maybe three years and five years.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Linda Shelton: But nothing like … That’s way out there. Like, five years?

Erik Gensler: Right. We do five years, too. But it’s like, after two years, I feel like it’s just fiction. You know?

Linda Shelton: Right, right.

Erik Gensler: You’re just making it up. I mean, but you have to do something (laughs).

Linda Shelton: You do, and Michael Kaiser said, “You’ll get the best artists if you’re planning five years in advance.”

Erik Gensler: Right.

Linda Shelton: And I think he’s right about that, so anything you can do along those lines to think about it. But I find, you know, I work with a lot of young people and I think that sort of planning is very different.

Erik Gensler: Definitely.

Linda Shelton: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. Especially how people, I think, look at their careers now versus, maybe, twenty years ago how people looked at their careers and what companies they’re going to be with in the length of time.

Linda Shelton: Yeah, a board member told me, “If somebody’s going to work for eight years, that’s four jobs.” (laughs)

Erik Gensler: That’s real commitment.

Linda Shelton: So, try to hire somebody when, you know, especially in fundraising, where it’s all about relationships and …

Erik Gensler: Yeah, there’s a lot of turnover in fundraising. Why do you think that is?

Linda Shelton: Well, here’s my theory: so, everybody has to get an expensive degree and you come out with a lot of student debt, so for me, maybe people will start at the Joyce—I hire a lot of people from the program I teach in—

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Linda Shelton: —but we have a good reputation for running a tight ship and good training and so then, when the Met comes knocking on their door, they’re offered, like, three times what we can figure out in our own budget.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Linda Shelton: It wouldn’t make sense for me to match that kind of salary.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Linda Shelton: So off they go!

Erik Gensler: Right.

Linda Shelton: And they can pay off their student debt more quickly, which I completely understand.

Erik Gensler: Totally.

Linda Shelton: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: Yeah the economics are really rough.

Linda Shelton: They are. They are.

Erik Gensler: Where do you look to grow yourself professionally? Like, books, podcasts, other leaders, Dance/USA?

Linda Shelton: Yeah, I do, I participate in both Dance/USA and Dance/NYC. There’s a lot of professional training that goes into those organizations and that’s where I’ve been working on a lot of the diversity and social justice issues. A lot of what I read is around the class that I teach. Because I’m trying to stay a step ahead. So, I’m reading something now called the art of governance. But I just did a podcast for this organization. Creative Women. And so, I’ve been listening to Sandy Kline’s podcast.

Erik Gensler: “Conversations with Creative Women.”

Linda Shelton: Yes.

Erik Gensler: So, we’ve come to your last question and we call this your “CI to Eye moment” and the question is, if you could broadcast to the executive director’s leadership team, staff, and board of 1,000 arts organizations, what advice would you provide to help them improve their businesses?

Linda Shelton: Oh.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Linda Shelton: You know, I think it’s- you know, those are a lot of different groups and I’d probably say something different to each of them.

Erik Gensler: Hm.

Linda Shelton: But you know, it’s pretty simple: stick to the mission. Figure out how you’re going to fulfill that mission and every decision should be made based upon that, on all sides of it. And if you’re just entering the field, there’s nothing wrong with staying at an organization for a while.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, great. Well, thank you so much.

Linda Shelton: Thank you, Erik.

About Our Guests
Linda Shelton
Linda Shelton
Executive Director, The Joyce Theater Foundation

Linda Shelton has been the Executive Director of The Joyce Theater Foundation since 1993. She was highlighted as one of “The Most Influential People in Dance Today” by Dance Magazine in 2017. She also sits on the boards of Dance/NYC, Dance/USA, and has served as a Tony Awards nominator. Under her leadership, the Joyce received the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Liberty Award in 2011 and the William Dawson Award for Programmatic Excellence and Sustained Achievement in Programming in 2019.

Read more

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