Skip to content
Follow Us

Get the best of Capacity Interactive delivered to your inbox.

Redefining a Cultural Center for the 21st Century
Episode 57

Redefining a Cultural Center for the 21st Century

CI to Eye with Deborah Cullinan

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

0:00 / 0:00

In This Episode

Deborah and Erik discuss Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ position as a cultural incubator and the role of change management in nurturing organizational health. They also talk about the iterative evolution of an organization's mission and website.

Erik Gensler: Thank you so much for joining me today. I’m super excited to talk with you.

Deborah Cullinan: Very glad to be here.

Erik Gensler: So, I was looking at the mission statement of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and I have to say, it’s really remarkable, which is not something I think I’ve ever said before about (laughs) an-

Deborah Cullinan: (Laughs)

Erik Gensler: … arts mission statement. I love that you say that culture is an essential catalyst for change; therefore, it’s the responsibility of arts institutions to spur and support societal movement. I’m curious to dig in, first of all, what you mean by that, and second of all, how you got to this mission statement.

Deborah Cullinan: One of the things that I really believe to be true—and I’m very much inspired by one of YBCA’s board members whose name is Jeff Chang, a very well-known author among many things—just very inspired by what he has to say about the idea that culture precedes change, that any lasting social change that we’ve been able to achieve has been proceeded by a cultural movement. And I think about marriage equality. I think about reproductive rights. And even when those things are at risk, they’re much less likely to be overturned because through the course of cultural movement, we’ve changed hearts and minds and people have come to a new place about what they believe is important. And in my mind, arts centers of all shapes and sizes can reimagine themselves and really think about what role they’re playing in shifting culture and how they are uniquely able to develop conditions that bring all kinds of different people together around particular issues and ideas in order to make that change, in order to change hearts and minds and to lead toward policy shift or other kinds of cultural shift in our communities.

Erik Gensler: That’s amazing. Is the mission something that you have worked on recently? Is this is a new revamped mission statement? How long has it been around?

Deborah Cullinan: I’m terrible with years, but it’s been a couple of years and we worked really hard on it and as you can imagine, we debated every single word. But for me, the statement has been very much related to and, in many ways, leading the kind of organizational transformation that we’ve been undertaking over the past several years. So, I’ve been here about, comin’ on six years. And when I first got on board, it was really about listening and understanding and really thinking carefully about what’s we can do together and what an arts organization can be in terms of being a civic asset and being a place for the public to gather around the issues that matter most to them.

Erik Gensler: Do you have the mission statement that you could easily read to us?

Deborah Cullinan: It’s pretty simple. It is that we generate culture that moves people.

Erik Gensler: If the mission is to catalyze cultural movement and to move people and communities forward, then we look at the assets that we have as an organization and try to understand, how do we best do that? Given our unique position as an art center in the heart of downtown San Francisco that is multi-disciplinary and that has a long history of really focusing on celebrating a diversity of voices, how do we best do that? What do we have to offer that would really move the dial?

Erik Gensler: Hmm. And you describe the institution as a “cultural incubator.” Can you talk a bit about what you mean by that?

Deborah Cullinan: Yeah, when I think of cultural incubator and I think about arts organizations, it goes back to this idea that I believe that our mandate is to actually create conditions for people to come together in very unique ways, very different kinds of people from across sector and community, to really think about, what are the game-changing ideas? How can we be as imaginative, as creative as possible in the face of the issues that are most pressing today? And I think if we can create the conditions for great, big, bold, sometimes wacky and wild ideas to emerge, then I also want to think that we can be a place that could commit to those ideas, that can incubate those ideas. So, a really good example of that is a project that we call CultureBank. This is a project that emerged because we had a bunch of different questions swirling here at YBCA and a number of very interesting people gathering around those questions. The questions included, “What does equity look like?” and “Why do we work?” We had an artist and, actually, a pioneer in community development investment here facilitating one of those questions. Her name is Penelope Douglas and she’s a longtime colleague of mine, a mentor. She happened to be here at YBCA with the artists at the exact same time that she was at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco with the central bankers and those conditions just set us in motion to really think about what equity means and why, after we’ve invested billions of community investment dollars in communities, why it’s not working, why the wealth gap continues to increase, why more and more people are marginalized. And at the same time, we know that artists, particularly artist entrepreneurs, who are really enterprise-driven, are out there having transformational impact in their communities, one neighborhood, one block, one classroom at a time. They’re largely under-capitalized, and they’re misunderstood. They’re not understood as key early stage investors in communities. And CultureBank was born. The idea was, how do we come up with a new way of thinking about investing in artists, who have a really unique ability to see and lift what matters in communities? And if we understood that as investment and we actually invested in it, we would have much more productive, long-term outcomes. And so, CultureBank is being incubated by YBCA, so it’s not only that we’re an arts center that can help to propel really wild and big ideas, but we also can incubate those ideas and bring them to fruition.

Erik Gensler: Amazing. I think another example around that is your work with Blue Shield and with the art and health partnership?

Deborah Cullinan: Yes, we are very, very proud and pleased to have just launched a brand-new partnership with Blue Shield of California and the partnership is going to enable YBCA to really invest more deeply in projects that advance knowledge around the direct relationship between art and healthy outcomes for people. So, as the body of knowledge is growing around people’s health outcomes, we understand that health outcomes are determined more often by their zip code or their grade reading level than by their genetic code. And if we know that, then we really ought to be looking upstream. We really ought to be thinking about, how can we meet people early in their lives and bring the elements that we know we can bring in order to assure that they are healthier in the long term? And we’re seeing all of this data about the relationship between participating in art activities and better outcomes for people who are suffering from post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injuries. We know that if there is art in classrooms that—especially in classrooms where kids are coming from stressed situations—that they are less likely to have mental health challenges. We know that this is happening all over the world, but, again, we’re not connecting the dots and we’re not understanding that if we invest in artists and understand them as actual producers of health or healthy outcomes, that we’re gonna be better off in the long term. And so, our partnership with Blue Shield is very much about building on that knowledge, raising awareness, and supporting artists who are working around health.

Erik Gensler: That’s so cool and I love the Healthy Corner Store Coalition.

Deborah Cullinan: (gasps) So good. Yes, the Healthy Corner Store initiative is a pretty powerful project that brings together city agencies, community-based organizations, and YBCA in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, which is a neighborhood that has notorious food-justice issues and for a very, very long time could not attract any kind of full-service grocery store. And so, what we did was, we thought, “Let’s look at what exists. What are the existing assets in this community, and how do we lift them and transform them in a way that would enable us to provide healthier options for people in the community?” And so, we identified neighborhood liquor stores, so lots of corner liquor stores in the Tenderloin and other neighborhoods in San Francisco. Our youth artists fellows, these are young artists who are also working at the intersection of art and social change, came in and worked with these organizations to help transform one liquor store at a time to be a place that would offer fruits and vegetables grown in the neighborhood, that would include a kind of ambassadorship where folks in the neighborhood were educating one another around healthier options. The young people made all the signs for the store and we’re about to open another one. So, it’s super exciting.

Erik Gensler: That’s so awesome and it just shows your reach into the community in such a thoughtful way.

Deborah Cullinan: Oh, thanks. Yeah, I feel like this is the role that an arts center can play. It can be a resource to its community. It can bring its creative capacity to bear and we believe very strongly that if we don’t start with creativity and if we don’t inspire people … It’s one thing to come up with solutions in a silo that might relate to food justice or housing issues, affordability. It’s another thing for a person who’s living a very difficult life to be able to lift themselves up and see a future for themselves that’s different than what they’re experiencing. And so, we believe that if we can help people to infuse inspiration, to see a different future, to believe that they can move in a different direction, then that future is theirs.

Erik Gensler: It’s just so different of the arts center that’s elevated and people have to come to it and spend a lot of money in order to have an experience.

Deborah Cullinan: Yeah, I mean, I like to think that we can move the dial on creating a place that is not just a place of passive witness or a place where one or two people are dictating what’s great and instead, be a place that democratizes that and that can really celebrate great art in all kinds of form. And so, I hope that we are able to move the dial on this conversation about, is it an arts center? Is it a community center? It is both. It must be both.

Erik Gensler: Mm. I saw a video where you talk about YBCA’s culture of participation and you say, “We invite you, you invite another, and we multiply.” And as a marketing geek, I love that idea and it’s so different than, “We serve you ads or we buy ads, so you buy tickets.” Instead of being top-down, it’s very bottom-up and it’s very 21st-century in a way of, you do something great and inspire ten people, who tells ten people, who tells ten people, and then you have a movement.

Deborah Cullinan: I love it. I’m so glad that you caught onto that because to me, to be a center is to be a place, to be a kind of home to people and if you are only transacting, if you are only selling tickets, or marketing product, you’re not going to be a home or a center for people. And so, for me, the vision of YBCA, once we’re completely successful, is a place that’s teeming, where people say, “I’ll meet you at YBCA.” And when they say that, they don’t mean, “I’ll meet you there right before the show,” they mean, “I’ll meet you there. We can do our thing. We can contribute our ideas and we can participate in performance, and visual art, and film, and beyond.”

Erik Gensler: Yeah, it’s like, a lot of organizations, sort of, will append a café on and ask, “Well why are people not coming to our café during the day?” And it’s, like, no, it has to be core to the mission of what you’re doing.

Deborah Cullinan: Yeah, I think that’s hard for organizations like museums to understand. I was just having this conversation earlier today about how community engagement or audience engagement has been a trend over the past, at least, several years, if not decade. But what happens, often, is that an organization might get a grant from a foundation to do a audience engagement or community engagement project and it’s sort of the side-show. And they’re doing that work, but they’re still doing everything else that they were doing before and I guess I believe that if you really want to be a place for people, a place that engages people’s hearts and their minds, their creativity, then you have to change. You will inevitably be changed. As Octavia Butler would say, “All that you touch changes you. All that you touch you change.” And so, to me, it’s really about being open to becoming something new and to being something that represents the worlds that you’re living in.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, and I think it comes to back to how we started this conversation with your mission statement. I think the opportunity for you to really think about and re-invent and bake that into the core mission then allows you to manifest it rather than just accepting the mission statement that you’re handed and trying to append it.

Deborah Cullinan: Yeah, I think that’s really smart. I feel like we must look at these mission statements all the time and interrogate them, every word. Is this still right? Is this still relevant? Do we need to move this forward? And I think, as you say, it’s not something you’d write and put on the wall, or put on a bookshelf. It’s something that you live, that you have to really embody.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, it’s really great that you got the opportunity and you forced that and you were so thoughtful about it and now you’re activating it. It has to start with mission. I don’t think it works otherwise.

Deborah Cullinan: I agree. And in an exciting way, we’re seeing more of this, kind of, purpose-driven brand work in the corporate sector, too. Just trying harder. People just trying to better understand, how do we do good and what is the good that we can uniquely do?

Erik Gensler: You recently celebrated YBCA’s 25th anniversary and in a post about that milestone, you wrote, “Today as public trust in our institutions and our leaders continues to erode, there may be no role that is more important for our cultural organizations to play than to be places for people from all walks of life to come together in dialogue.”

Deborah Cullinan: I did write that.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Deborah Cullinan: (laughs) I think we underestimate the role of the trusted place in our democracy. We’ve built all these institutions to deliver—institutions of finance, of healthcare, of culture to deliver—but they are not trusted places. And if you think about that, it’s really quite a conundrum without that feeling of if these are the delivery systems for democracy and we don’t trust them, then how do we participate in democracy?

Erik Gensler: Mm.

Deborah Cullinan: And so, to my mind, it’s about rebuilding and reclaiming and reigniting these institutions with that feeling of trust. It has to start there. That’s why we have to be places that are about invitation and inclusion. And, again, that doesn’t mean that you have a day for this community and a day for that community or a month for this or a month for that. It means that you are opening the door. You’re not only playing the music, but you are learning a new dance.

Erik Gensler: Totally. What I love about this, too, is the second half of the sentence where it says, “…people from all walks of life to come together in dialogue.” And, I mean, you’re not just saying that. When you look at your website, you’re seeing that. When you see programs like a pay-what-you-can level of membership, that’s walking the walk.

Deborah Cullinan: I hope so and I think you can never walk it enough. You can’t stop. You have to stay hungry and aspirational. We just have to believe that we can always do better.

Erik Gensler: What is the pay-what-you-can level of membership?

Deborah Cullinan: It’s basically what it sounds like.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Deborah Cullinan: It’s pay-what-you-can. Pay a dollar. Pay forty dollars. And I think we are thinking a lot about what membership means. We know this membership model in the museum world, which usually means that you might get to jump to the front of the line or you might get a discounted ticket. I want to imagine a membership that’s much more about community, that’s much more about people joining to be with one another and a membership that feels a sense of ownership over what’s happening and I think we’re not there yet, but we’re in pursuit.

Erik Gensler: Have you found that to be a popular program? Are a lot of people paying what they can?

Deborah Cullinan: Yes, absolutely. Particularly people who’ve walked up. They’ve opened the door, they’ve come in, they want to see more, and they’re delighted that the invitation is, “Please do, on your terms.”

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative), that’s great. I mentioned your website and I just think it’s really different and it’s so unique. First of all, it’s so clean. I think it’s so inclusive. Did you rethink the website when you rethought your mission?

Deborah Cullinan: Oh, my gosh. First of all, I love that you just said that. The website has been one of the biggest challenges and we are actually in the process of another rethink. So, it kind of goes back to what I said about the mission statement. I think you have to keep on interrogating these very public-facing articulations of the invitation. The website should be an invitation to you to participate and hopefully to participate no matter where you are. We’ve rethought it, I think, two times, now, since I’ve been here and each time, I think it moves further in the direction that we want it to go. But I am super interested in websites that are really successfully inviting your participation and that are not only about trying to sell a ticket or get you to join up in a membership. And so, offline, you and I should talk more about what you like about it-

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Deborah Cullinan: … so that we make sure we hold onto that as we continue to evolve it. (laughs)

Erik Gensler: I mean, we talk about this all the time at Capacity, that websites need to be iterative. You’re never done. It’s always evolving. First of all, the expectations of what a website can do are always changing, but you don’t just launch it and step away. You’re just, like, constantly trying to make it better. But I think just the feeling I got from being on your website … just the variety and the diversity of the programming and the simplicity of the images and the use of white space … It just is very, very unique for an arts organization.

Deborah Cullinan: Well, I am very glad to hear that, and I absolutely will pass that along to everyone-

Erik Gensler: laughs)

Deborah Cullinan: … who is (laughs) currently trying to make it even better.

Erik Gensler: And so, to follow up on that, when you go to “blog” on the website, it goes to your Medium account, and I think that’s just so cool and unique for the CEO of a cultural organization.

Deborah Cullinan: You know, it just kind of organically happened. That’s an example of, we didn’t really think about where thought leadership might go and we actually named Medium to the YBCA 100 early on in its life because we thought it was a very unique, democratized platform for writers and sharing thought leadership and ideas. And that, sort of, circumstance just led us to using it for me to launch my own page and then for us to use it more personally that way.

Erik Gensler: And you’re not hiding behind the institution. You’re …

Deborah Cullinan: It’s me, yeah. (laughs) It’s me.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, you’re putting it out there. There’s a book I love—and I’m actually interviewing the author—called the Marketing Rebellion and the subtitle of the book is The Most Human Company Wins.

Deborah Cullinan: Ooh, that’s so good.

Erik Gensler: And that’s what this is. For you to put that out there and it to go to your voice talking about things that mean so much to you was really impactful.

Deborah Cullinan: Oh, I so appreciate that. It’s really interesting because institutions are people-

Erik Gensler: Yeah (laughs).

Deborah Cullinan: … and the YBCA 100, which is the list of 100 people who are most inspiring us as an institution, it’s an annual list. When we first came up with the first YBCA 100 list, it was actually an internal exercise and it was very much about this idea that a place like YBCA, an arts organization like this, its staff is so dope, like, so interesting and connected and these are artists and cultural activists who are working in the institution. And yet, we most often only hear from the lead curators or the executive director. And so, what would it be like if we just created a process where we can learn from one another, and we could hear about who inspires our co-workers, and who are they following? And we did this really intricate internal exercise that was team-building and very much about the humanity in the institution and then we had a pitch where everybody pitched their top nominees and it was so inspiring. The list was super awesome. And we’re sitting there with this amazing list generated by the powerful staff of YBCA at the exact same time that Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit was happening in our theater. Super inspiring summit, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a list of really powerful people that, move around on the list quite often, and most of them have a lot of money (laughs) and not the most diverse list on the planet. And we are looking at this list of famous people, people I’d never heard of, collectives, really activist people who are shifting culture and we were, like, “This is too good.”

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Deborah Cullinan: “This is too hot. We’re gonna have to make it public,” and that’s how it happened.

Erik Gensler: And how has that evolved?

Deborah Cullinan: So, it is an annual event. So, what happens is we’ll announce the list in the summer and then in the fall, we bring together as many of the honorees as possible in conversation, in dialogue, with our community. And we really introduce folks in our community to people that we hope to be working with over the next several years. We’re asking the list makers who will be on stage to talk about what questions they’re pursuing in their work and these questions really inform YBCA’s program. So, I mentioned earlier, when I talked about CultureBank, that we often have a set of really provocative questions swirling around the institution, but those questions come from the summit. So, questions like, what does equity look like? Can we design freedom? Questions about political power, safety, collective safety. These are questions that have come out of the summit and then we commission work around those questions, support artists who are pursuing those questions, and also do a series of fellowship programs where we have a number of people working together over a year looking at the questions. So, it’s kind of an organizing principle for us and it’s a way to get into relationship with really extraordinary people and bring our community into that relationship over time.

Erik Gensler: Cool. Well, I’d love to turn the conversation inward and talk about your organizational culture. I’m curious, how do you nurture the organizational health at YBCA?

Deborah Cullinan: It’s a great question. As we’ve been talking, organizations like this are really dynamic, so a big part of the challenge is the change management, how you are helping people live in a gray space, see their own value in something that’s evolving, and be able to participate in the design of that evolution. So, one of the things that we did after we crafted the mission statement and brand platform is we undertook a process of defining our values and really thinking about how we not only name these things, but what they really mean to us, what they mean in terms of every day interaction, and how we can imbed those values into the organization’s day-to-day life. We did some pretty serious investment. We defined our values and our values are abundance, boldness, personal agency, and authentic collaboration. And inside each of those are really important things. Like, we value diversity. We want to be a place where you can bring your whole self. We believe in the idea that we can do this, that despite being in a nonprofit environment in a very expensive city, that our resources are abundant and our creativity is abundant. So, there’s a lot of layer underneath the values and we did a full-staff process that culminated in a staff retreat where we really focused in on those values and we also did the Insights personality work. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of this, but this is one of these Myers-Briggs kind of efforts. But what we wanted to do was understand the whole staff, not just do this for the leadership or the department heads, but really what does it mean to come to know individually who we are and to see ourselves on the whole? What’s our personality as an organization and how do we work across difference and how do we come to value the way that our colleagues may approach things differently? We spent a whole day working on that in the Marin Headlands and really focusing on the values. Now, every day, we have a values wall here in our “hub” which is essentially our staff room and on that wall, you’ll see people shout folks out, their colleagues out, for really embodying and living those values. We start every staff meeting with those shout-outs and we incorporate the values into our planning process. And so, part of it about is just really about knowing who we are and what we stand for and how we want to show up for each other. And I think part of it, in terms of institutional culture, is really trying to navigate ambiguity and being a place that is constantly shifting and changing and, again, helping staff to understand with as much clarity as you can, their role and why they matter and why they’re important.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And in your recruiting process do those values come into play when you’re looking to add to your team?

Deborah Cullinan: They do, yup. They’re a part of recruitment, they’re a part of interview process, and they are part of onboarding.

Erik Gensler: What I love about those personality tests—and we do MBTI and we do another great one that’s called Positive Intelligence—we love our personality tests, but what I enjoy about them is the results are neutral. Like, in MBTI, it’s not that one is good and one is bad. It’s that you’re different and it helps you understand difference, which I think is super helpful.

Deborah Cullinan: I agree. Insights uses color. The language is color. So, FYI for anyone who knows Insight, I lead yellow-

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Deborah Cullinan:… and you’ll know what I’m talkin’ about.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Deborah Cullinan: But the point is that there are four colors and everybody has the tendencies in those colors. And so, one of the strengths of it is that you learn what you lead with, what you’re inclined to bring to the table. You learn how that affects people who lead differently. But you also learn how to turn up the other colors when you need to. So, I feel like it just gives you a beautiful, kind of, map to being able to adjust yourself appropriately to work well with people who might come to things differently than you do.

Erik Gensler: Definitely, and I love that you did this values work in addition to the mission work and I think for a lot of organizations, those two things get intertwined, but they’re absolutely different things.

Deborah Cullinan: Yeah, I mean, to me they’re so entwined. Understanding what you care about when you’re trying to achieve a mission feels so important. It feels like if you don’t know, generating cultural movement could look really different if it was an organization that had completely different values.

Erik Gensler: Right, right. I guess what I’m saying is, some places stop at the mission, but you really need the values in order to fully execute the mission.

Deborah Cullinan: That’s right. I think that’s right.

Erik Gensler: I’m curious about your evolution as a leader and I want to ask you some questions about that. And first of all, where do you tend to look for inspiration around your growth? And that could be podcasts or people or authors or publications. What’s really changed you and what are you currently really excited about?

Deborah Cullinan: Oh, so many things. It’s all that. I’m actually looking at a book that someone I know sent to me, Patrick Lencioni.

Erik Gensler: Oh, my favorite. (laughs)

Deborah Cullinan: (laughs) Thank you very much.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Deborah Cullinan: So, definitely, reading and following people who are thinking carefully about organizations and thinking about staff and culture and cultural policy … these are the types of things that I follow. I am super fortunate because right now I am an Innovator-in-Residence at the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City. It’s a two-year program and it’s really focused on innovation. So, I’m working on moving the dial with CultureBank in Kansas City, but I’ve also really benefited from being in a foundation that does not directly or overtly support the arts in a formal way and also being in a cohort of innovators, where I’m the only arts person.

Erik Gensler: Mm.

Deborah Cullinan: And so, I say that to say that I benefit greatly from being outside of the field and really trying to move the dial on the role of the arts in life and learning from people who are working in other sectors about how they’re approaching the same kinds of challenges that we face, but doing that from their perspective. So, that’s been really rewarding for me. And then I just love to read. I really do. There’s something about falling into something and away from what you’re currently dealing with that really works for me. And the other answer … I mean, there are many answers to your question, but I am so fortunate to work in an environment like YBCA, where some of the most extraordinary human beings are coming and going and contributing their best thinking and their creativity and I literally don’t have to walk more than two steps to be around someone who’s inspirational.

Erik Gensler: That’s amazing. What’s something you’ve learned in the last year or so that’s changed the way you work or think?

Deborah Cullinan: You know, over the past more than a year, my son, who is a teenager, has been dealing with some teenage challenges. He also has some health issues. He is a Type I diabetic and raising him and being there for him in his teenage years as I am running this beautiful organization at such a unique and difficult time in the world has just taught me that we are okay and that it is not all going to go as planned and that we must be adaptive and creative. And it’s just … I’ve grown more personally watching him face some of the challenges in his life with … it’s just beautiful to watch. It’s hard as his mother, but it’s really beautiful. I think it’s so important to understand as women that we can be extraordinary moms. And an extraordinary mom is not a perfect mom, let me just be clear.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Deborah Cullinan: My son said to me yesterday on Mother’s Day, he was telling me about one of his friends who he claims that this friend’s mom does not know what she’s doing.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Deborah Cullinan: I said, “Well, Hayden, do I know what I’m doing?” And he’s, like, “Well, no. No one knows what they’re doing, but you’re just better at not-

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Deborah Cullinan: “… knowing what you’re doing.” (laughs)

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Deborah Cullinan: Which is hilarious.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Deborah Cullinan: But I think it’s important to know that you can do this. But to me, what is so astounding, so profound, is the pressure that these children and their parents face. There are so many paths in life and right now we seem to have boiled down a young person’s path, if they are fortunate, to getting straight A’s and going to a UC college, or whatever it is. And it’s like, the world doesn’t work that way and I don’t know where we lost our way in terms of understanding how valuable it is to be an individual and to find your way. I feel the pressure, particularly on working moms, where they feel like we have to be everything, all of it has to work, there can’t be mistakes, when in fact life is just one big long mistake (laughs).

Erik Gensler: Yeah, totally. I agree, the mistakes are gonna happen, it’s just how do you deal with them? (laughs)

Deborah Cullinan: Exactly, exactly.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Deborah Cullinan: And how do you learn from them?

Erik Gensler: What is something you feel like you’re really good at and what is something you’re working on improving?

Deborah Cullinan: Let’s go to the “working on improving.” I am constantly working on trying to be a better manager. I think I’m a decent leader and I think that’s really different from being a great manager. And I look to people here at YBCA who teach me and show me all the time how to be better and better, how to create clarity for people, how to not make assumptions, how to help them define success and see their way to it. I tend to run a little bit up in the clouds, so that’s one thing that I’ve been thinking a lot about. Especially now as we’re undergoing some change, it’s so important to be able to help people manage through that. So, that’s one thing. And then, I think what I’m good at, I think I’m good at problem solving. I’m not one to back down. I feel like we have to look at what it is and do everything we can to imagine something different. I often, as an exercise here at YBCA, working with our COO, I say, “Let’s get out of the spreadsheet, out of it. The spreadsheet articulates the paradigm we’re in. The columns, the rows, the numbers, the categories. This is an articulation of the paradigm we’re in. What if we stop today and made a whole new thing? What would it be? And if we do that and we end up with something similar to what we have, then we know we’re on track.”

Erik Gensler: Hmm, yeah. Well, and you have, sort of, this really unique paradigm where you’re not a … I don’t want to say, “only,” but you don’t see yourself as only an arts center and you don’t only see yourself as a community center. Do you have certain organizations that you do look to for inspiration or that you model yourselves after?

Deborah Cullinan: So many. I think about all kinds of institutions to be really honest. I think about some of the great public libraries. There’s an incredible public library in Toronto that I look to often for its just unique way of being a place for people. Not just a place to check out books, but a place. It’s a go-to for newcomers to Toronto to get situated, to get papers. There might be talks there. They do a lot of work out in the community. It’s these institutions that think beyond … that are constantly, again, reinventing and thinking beyond their walls and the confines of what they can do inside of their facilities. So, that’s one example.

Erik Gensler: This is your final question and we call this your “CI to Eye moment” and the question is, if you can broadcast to the executive directors, leadership team, staff and board of a thousand arts organizations, what advice would you provide to help them improve their businesses?

Deborah Cullinan: Oh, I love this question. I would say, “Don’t be afraid.” I would say, “Now is the time for arts organizations to reimagine a creative ecosystem for this country that fully articulates the role of the artist and the arts organization as central.” That my advice is all about look to how you can be in service. Look to how you can share your creative resources. Look to how the arts and artists and arts organizations can contribute to broader societal concerns and organize yourselves in that way.

Erik Gensler: Amazing. Thank you so much.

Deborah Cullinan: Thank you.

About Our Guests
Deborah Cullinan
Deborah Cullinan
CEO, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Deborah is the CEO of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), the cultural anchor of San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens development. By using culture as an instrument for social change, YBCA is reimagining the role an arts institution can play in the community it serves.

Read more

Related Episodes

Artificial Intelligence: The New Frontier or Unchecked Robots?
EP 114
May 03, 2023
Artificial Intelligence: The New Frontier or Unchecked Robots?

AI is generating a lot of buzz in the marketing sphere—but is it really worth the hype? In this episode we pull back the curtain on AI, explore its strengths and limitations, and consider how it can help arts marketers meet their goals more efficiently.

Navigating the New Privacy Landscape
EP 113
Feb 28, 2023
Navigating the New Privacy Landscape

More than ever, arts marketers need to be purposeful about data collection, responsive to privacy regulations, and respectful of their audiences’ preferences. In 2023 and beyond, it’s all about staying user-centric and privacy-focused.

Don’t Miss an episode

Don’t Miss an episode

Subscribe to CI to Eye and have your insight and motivation delivered on demand.