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Self Help for Arts Leaders
Episode 91

Self Help for Arts Leaders

CI to Eye with Betty Avila

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Betty and Erik talk about her efforts to combat the workaholism culture in her organization and the challenges of fundraising as a person of color. Betty also questions the impact of Primarily White Institutions who are now taking on funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion work, possibly channeling funds away from organizations that have long existed to serve those needs.

Erik Gensler: Betty, thank you so much for joining me today.

Betty Avila: Yes, thank you for the invitation.

Erik Gensler: Tell us about Self Help Graphics. It’s such a unique and memorable name, and I’d love for you to share the story of the name and the history of the organization and your personal history with the organization, as well.

Betty Avila: Sure. Self Help Graphics was founded in the early seventies by a Franciscan nun named Sister Karen Boccalero, who was a rough-around-the-edges kind of woman and as I’ve come to understand, you either loved her or didn’t like her because she was a woman who was very honest. But the thing that comes through in all the stories that we’ve heard about her over time is that she was really trying to figure out how to create space for artists to just come together, to create work, to have access to show their work. And so, her and a number of artists from here on the East side created this space and the name, Self Help Graphics, really came out of this notion of artists being able to live off of their own work and utilizing the space that is Self Help to do that. This isn’t the kind of place where you come in and things are sort of given to you; it’s a space where it’s about a reciprocal relationship. So, the community gives to the organization and the organization gives back to the community of creatives. And my connection to the organization, I came to learn about it, you know, later than I would have liked. I think I talked to people who got to grow up coming to Self Help, coming to the Day of the Dead here, the longest running Day of the Dead in the country. And I didn’t get to learn about its existence until, you know, almost at the end of high school and I didn’t actually get to come to Self Help until I was in college. But my experience coming to Self Help was, I was interning at the Getty, which is on the other side of town, large institution, literally on a hill. And I brought my supervisor, who I was interning for, to Self Help. She said, “Show me the East side,” and that, to me, was Self Help Graphics. So, as we came over, you know, she got to see the neighborhood, but it was my first time actually going into the gallery of Self Help Graphics. And I can’t describe well enough the experience that I had coming from a very Euro-centered institution to a space where I didn’t even know who the artist was; I didn’t have to know, but the artwork immediately reflected me. And I had such a powerful experience that day that I knew I’d come back to work here one day and I always thought I’d like to run the space. I feel very honored and privileged that that is the case now.

Erik Gensler: So, how did it come to be from that moment to where you are now?

Betty Avila: Well, I joke that I slowly made my way East from the Getty over the years. I started to move closer and closer to the East side but I have experienced and worked in many different parts of the arts sector. So, a performing arts institution, performing arts grassroots organizations, obviously major museum institution, and now this grassroots visual arts organization. And I joined the team in 2015 as a Co-Director and stepped into the ED role in 2018.

Erik Gensler: So, you’ve been with the organization through a number of years of significant growth. And I know we can punctuate all this with 2020, which is its own story, but, of course, there’s growth through that, as well. I’d love for you to talk a little bit about growth. Of course, growth in size is very relative and I should say, I’m aware that most of the guests on this podcast come from “larger organizations,” and it was very intentional for me to speak to leaders of different size of organizations. And so, I’d love to hear, in your perspective, what some of the benefits of growth and I’m also curious to hear about what we perhaps don’t talk about often enough, which is the sense of loss that comes from growth.

Betty Avila: The organization’s budget has basically tripled in size since 2015. When I joined, we were at $350,000; we’re at just over a million now. So, that’s pretty significant in five years. And I was one of three staff members at that time and we’re now close to 30. So, part of what is so special to me about Self Help is being small enough that we have that flexibility and there’s a nimbleness to the way that we work that can be responsive to the community. But as we do grow, it does require the creation of an infrastructure that will support that growth. And that growth is very much in response to the demand that there is for our programming. And as you build that infrastructure, you start to lose a little bit of that flexibility and we’ve run into that tension in some parts, as far as who some of the artists, like, “Oh, you know, do I, do I have to have an MFA now, to work here at Self Help or to be part of this community?” and it’s conversations that are prompted by this growth that we’re starting to have, you know, to clarify, like, “No, Self Help is still here to serve the community of the East side and artists of color and LA in general,” but it does prompt, I think, because there’s only, I think, for people within the current nonprofit arts structures, that sense of you’re either community-based or you’re a big institution or you’re aspiring to be a big institution. And Self Help has always been in that liminal space and we continue to navigate that, I think, within this time of growth for the organization. Something that we’ve run into is this question of, “Who’s ready to go through that process?” And I think a lot about, you know, just arts administrators in general and where our training comes from and I think that there’s almost just a … our level of comfort exists within the systems and structures that sort of uphold these organizations and it can be uncomfortable when what we’re trying to create here at Self Help in this time of growth doesn’t look like what those institutions have in place. So, it’s exciting in the sense that I think we’re doing something, not necessarily new, but just different, and something that works for us and how we serve the community. But it is a journey, I think, for some of us on the team, as we navigate this way of working.

Erik Gensler: We did an anti-racism workshop at Capacity a couple of months ago and one of the concepts that we learned about, which I didn’t know was an anti-racist concept but that makes a lot of sense is the ability to hold two things up at the same time and both of them to be true. And it’s not the sense that you have to, like, debate for one to win, but, like, two things can be true. And, like, that is just profoundly, I think, a really nice way to be able to look at complex things like that.

Betty Avila: Yes, definitely. I think Self Help is a place of … it holds many values, many priorities, and sometimes it’s hard for folks to put us into sort of one bucket or category because of that. Yeah.

Erik Gensler: You were a panelist on our leadership panel at bootcamp last month, talking about leadership through chaotic times of 2020. And that session really resonated with my team and our attendees, so much so that we released the recording as a podcast and I encourage everyone listening today to listen to that. And in that session, I heard that quarantine changed your perspective on leadership in a number of really profound ways. And I’m hoping to dive a little deeper into some of those ideas And the first was this idea about not having to always be the cheerleader as a leader, that it was okay to acknowledge. I’m curious how you came to the realization that it was okay to share burdens with your team and how that evolved from the early days of you stepping into leadership and, perhaps, what you thought leadership meant as to what you’ve learned it means now.

Betty Avila: I think this actually goes back to the training that we get as arts administrators in institutions that, subconsciously or consciously, are rooted in a very patriarchal way of working. And so, there’s that sense of, the person at the top knows all the things, is this all-knowing figure and has to be constantly on and can’t ever show weakness. So, as I have unlearned some of those ways of working, and also, I think, just trying to be authentic to myself and you know, “What does my leadership look like?” that has really come forward. And I think that was already present for me before the quarantine and, you know, now as we’ve been in it, there’s no way that we can deny we’re all experiencing this. So, as I worked with my team, and especially in those early days of the quarantine, you know, or there was that everybody’s wondering like, “Am I going to be laid off? Do I have to worry about my family?” and me, you know, trying to like, be like, “No, we’re fine. Everything’s good. We’re going to make it through,” to really actually just being honest with myself and being honest with them of, “You know, this is hard. This is a challenging time,” and I can’t … it is a disservice to me and to the team to not be real about that. So, it’s something that I continue to learn, but I think the quarantine really forced that lesson quickly for me.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, and another thing you touched on was this idea that builds on what you were just saying, around transparency as a leader in this balance of what you want to share and can share and, you know, honestly share with your team and having empathy for their challenges and not burdening them and perhaps oversharing and having to make hard decisions that potentially impact their lives. You know, as you thought through that tension, what have you learned?

Betty Avila: I actually try to go back to my own experience not being in a leadership position and, like, what are the types of things that I wish had been communicated or at least acknowledged? If something couldn’t be communicated, at least it’s not the sort of elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about. And that’s what I’ve gone back to. When I think about, “What do I share with the staff and how much do I share?” I also think about some of the staff and myself in those positions previously, where it’s like, you know, “I actually, I’m not making enough money to be worrying about that level of organizational responsibility.” Thinking also about, “Is it fair to put that kind of pressure and stress on some parts of the team when they have plenty of time to get there?” And I’ve talked to the staff actually about that, especially our more emerging staff or hourly staff, where I’m like, “You don’t have to do that extra hour of work because, you know, we’re not going to pay you for it. There’s plenty of time for you to grow into that exempt position where you can work all the hours you want, but right now, don’t do that.” And I think it’s really, for me, it’s been creating a culture where we’re fostering a space that people feel comfortable having a work-life balance. And that, for me, is also that it’s a marker that I use when I’m thinking about what to share with the team. What do they take home with them that I need them to take home, versus what are they taking home that, maybe, they don’t need that stress. Maybe they need to just go home and focus on their family. So it is a tough line. I feel like I’m still looking for it.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. We live in a culture that has the sense of, like, work ethic and go, go, go, is elevated. And that’s just, like, baked, I think, into so many of us from a young age and to actively fight against that, I’m curious if that was a direction that you were thinking about before March and how, if that’s really evolved and you felt, you know, more comfortable doing that over the last six or seven months?

Betty Avila: Yeah, most definitely. I have been thinking about that for a long time. Even before coming into Self Help Graphics, I think I always felt a sense of, how could my work and my practice as an arts administrator be contributing to a paradigm shift that does prioritize people, not just for their work and labor and productivity? But, again, the quarantine really has driven that home and something I have talked to the team about as, you know, we’re … the organization will benefit from you being rested and from you being happy and finding joy in this really weird time, so find those ways to do that. Find the things that you need to do. Take the time that you need to take. You know, as around the staff, “You don’t get to take sick time when you leave, so use it. It’s there.” So, I recognize too that it can be jarring for someone to have that kind of messaging coming from leadership. They’re not used to that. And so, even, I think, that internal shift is a challenge at the team level, but I think that I’m just going to keep banging that drum until it gets through. And, you know, when people come in to the team, as the team does grow, that they’re internalizing that too and that we’re not rewarding workaholism, which, to me, is something that the nonprofit industrial complex does demand and that doesn’t contribute to the paradigm shift that I’m talking about.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, it’s the sense of, “You’re not enough unless you’re outputting some sort of labor,” and it’s really … I mean, I concept to fight that within myself. Like, “No, you’re enough just sitting there. Like, you don’t have to get something done this hour. Like, go for a walk. It’s okay; in fact, it’s important.”

Betty Avila: Yeah. Yes, exactly, exactly.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. So, Jennifer Zaslow, who moderated the panel at Boot Camp that you were on, has said to me for years, “This all starts with yourself as a leader and you have to put your own seatbelt on first.” And so, I’m curious if you, in this crazy time, when all of these pressures are on you, if you’ve been able to model that and how you think about that.

Betty Avila: It’s hard to model that. As I tell the staff, when we were in the office together, at 5:00 PM, “Okay, get out. It’s time to go,” and I’m still there a couple hours more, and I have staff who’s there even later, later than me. It’s hard to model. I think the quarantine and this time of the pandemic has helped me to understand that it’s not work, right? It’s not my job that is putting me in this position to overwork myself. It really is me. I found that, you know, being at home, working at home, that that became clear like, “Oh, I’m doing this to myself.” And so I think you’re right that it is something that has to come from you and internally and I’ve been very fortunate to have my husband, who will sometimes come over to the computer and just close it.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Betty Avila: He’ll close the laptop and be like, “You’re done, you’re done for the day. Let’s have dinner.” Or I got to a quarantine puppy in the last few months and, I think, also that, just having this thing that requires my attention and needs to go out and go for walks has been a good way to force myself to get out and take those breaks because I know that I’m going to be working through that feeling of guilt for a long time of like, “Oh, but I could be doing this right now instead of, you know, watching The Great British Baking Show.”

Erik Gensler: Oh my gosh, it’s like Xanax (laughs).

Betty Avila: (laughs) Totally.

Erik Gensler: (laughs) I’m caught up. I can’t wait for the next one.

Betty Avila: (laughs) Yeah, I’m getting there.

Erik Gensler: I think it also has to do with the structure of nonprofit arts as well. It’s not like you can afford to have a staff to delegate. And I think, particularly at an organization of your size, it’s not like you can have, like, a number two or, I mean, maybe you can, but it’s like, you probably can’t afford from your budget to have the kind of support that you would ultimately need to be able to have the true life work-life balance that you’d want.

Betty Avila: Yeah, most definitely. That is a challenge, but I … something else that the quarantine has taught me is that I cannot sustainably lead this organization without having that support and I’m very grateful to have a board who, when I said this to our board chair, you know, her response to me was, “I’m glad you’ve finally accepted that,” because I think they’ve understood that. And so, that’s one of the ways that the organization will be growing, with another position very soon. It does go back to that question of sustainability. And I think often of organizations that serve and are led by people of color and the added stressors on that community and on those leaders, and something that I do worry about—and I can’t remember now if I’d mentioned it during that panel—was how many leaders of color are going to leave the sector because of just the intense pressures and burden that the quarantine has brought into their lives, in addition to just the regular day-to-day, which, I think, already is, in many ways, unsustainable. And I worry about that because those are the people we need to stick around.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, and grow. And the access to funding and the access to wealth that a lot of the white organizations have, it’s so clear that it’s disproportionally distributed.

Betty Avila: Yes, most definitely. And something that I’ve noticed because of the pandemic is, a lot of what we would call PWIs, the primarily white institutions, taking on this narrative of, “We’re doing so much with so little and, you know, we’re just getting by,” and I think it’s a lot of the narrative and language that organizations of color have had to bring forward out of necessity because we just function that way all the time. So, I think that there’s, you know … as everybody is talking about diversity, equity and inclusion, I think that’s a point that I keep wanting to bring up, where philanthropy is really focusing on that, the resources are there. I think a lot about, is it equitable to make those investments for diversity, equity, inclusion, in the organizations that have not prioritized this, when, really, you should be funding the organizations that exist because of that lack, who are here specifically to address diversity, equity, inclusion, even if that’s not in our mission, right? Like, Self Help Graphics became real because it was a need and I am keeping an eye, right? Like, where is philanthropy putting that money? Where are those resources going? And you look at the development staffs of some of these larger institutions; they’re larger than my whole team. And so, it is something that I’m hopeful philanthropy will recognize, and that they make the right investments, especially at this time, because it’s those culturally specific organizations that I think are the most at risk of going away and that is a massive problem.

Erik Gensler: Thank you. Thank you for saying that. I was blind to that point of view and it makes perfect sense. It’s like, if these PWI institutions start making this the bedrock of how they’re fundraising, it’s going to take money away from organizations that are doing this work for much longer. I hope a lot of funders will hear that message.

Betty Avila: I hope so, too.

Erik Gensler: How has fundraising been during the pandemic in terms of, have you felt like there have … Initially, there seemed like there was a lot of foundations stepping up and individuals stepping up, but just curious your experience around the last seven months as it relates to changes in fundraising around this time.

Betty Avila: What we’ve seen, fortunately, is our community has really stepped up, in terms of individual donors. We have folks who, for our spring campaign, we hit the biggest numbers that we ever have in our spring campaign. And we usually have our annual print fair in June and that’s a huge fundraiser for the organization and it’s also, I think, a very just cool experience for people to come into the space, look through decades worth of prints and just get to connect. And so, I was worried, “Are people going to still support if they’re having to buy online?” and we saw that they did. People really came through for us. And I’m so grateful for that. We’ve also had funders who have been totally understanding and said, you know, “However far you got on that program that this money was for, great. Use the rest for whatever you need.” So, that has been super helpful. And we, in the Southern California area, have had the Getty and the California Community Foundation come together for this arts-specific relief grant that we’ll have a second wave of, hopefully in early 2021. And, you know, funders like the County, the LA County Department of Arts and Culture, same thing. Like, they’re funneling CARES Act dollars to the arts sector. So, we’re, I think right now, a lot of the organizations that have been able to weather the storm, it’s because of these influxes of funds that have come in. Obviously, the Paycheck Protection Program was helpful. What I worry about and where my concern really lies is this time next year, when those emergency funds have really dried up, when we’re supposed to be “back to normal,” and maybe we won’t be. And that is a major concern that I think the art sector, as hard hit as it has been, will not truly feel the economic impact of the pandemic until next year and beyond and that is my concern.

Erik Gensler: When you think about your time with the organization, of course, Executive Directors, along with many other things, but fundraising is obviously a huge responsibility. And if you take a step back, what are some things, you know, if you were to offer some lessons that you’ve learned about what makes someone a successful fundraiser, what are some of the things you think about?

Betty Avila: Fundraising as a person of color is a very specific experience. I mean, even just for myself, being somebody who came from a low-income background, to now be in a position to really work with and engage people who have wealth to share … and that’s something that I think isn’t always talked about, right? This discomfort that comes with coming into the work with that background. But I think, for me, what has been my biggest guide is always, “I’m not asking for money for me; I’m asking for money for this organization that I feel so passionately about, this organization that I will be engaged with for the rest of my life, whether I work here or not.” And so, as I bring people into who we are and what we do, it’s less and less about, “Give us money,” and more and more about, “Please make it so that we can continue to have incredible artists coming through this print studio next year, the year after. Make it so that we can have our incredible 25-year-old summer art program for youth. We have, you know, kids who are coming from pretty far away. Their parents are commuting 30, 40 miles to bring them to that summer program because it’s free and because, maybe, they came to it themselves as kids. So. there’s a very … I don’t want to call it familial but there’s a very deep connection that people have with this place and I find that once I can share that and expose that to folks who I am trying to engage, to support the organization, it gets a lot easier. I think it would be a lot harder to fundraise for a place that I didn’t have such love for.

Erik Gensler: What has been the hardest part of 2020 and what have been some of the most meaningful parts?

Betty Avila: I think it’s a kind of one and the same for me. Having the incredible racial reckoning that 2020 has brought has been so powerful and so moving and inspiring. And I think that, in some ways, it’s almost like we needed 2020 for that to spark it and, I think, to wake a lot of folks up. And on the challenging side, to be running an organization that is so rooted in social justice and that is a space where people come together and feel empowered and to not be able to open up our doors in response to that movement was very painful. I say that for me, personally, and I know for some of our extended team, you know, we were like, “What do we do? How can we support? This is why we exist, to be this platform for artists to talk about these issues. And we navigated that and found a way to do it, but for me, it was challenging to not be able to respond right away and open up our doors and say, “Come make protest posters here. Swing by on your way to the protests and get a poster,” which we ended up doing. We did a pop-up with a couple of artists who designed prints, but that was both the, I think, the beauty of 2020 and the biggest challenge.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, where can folks go to check out those amazing posters?

Betty Avila: We have them on our Instagram, @SHG1970. We had artist Dewey Tafoya and artist collective Ni Santas, they each created a design. And so, we just had a pop-up in the parking lot and folks could come and pick them up and they are available for download on the website, as well, as PDFs. So, if you’d like to snag your own, they’re there.

Erik Gensler: Amazing. I listen to a lot of podcasts and I always go back to Oprah because I think Oprah is such an amazing interviewer and there’s a question that she asks during her interviews, quite a lot, and she actually even wrote a book about herself because she wrote a bunch of columns with this question for herself. And the question she asks is, what do you know is true?

Betty Avila: For myself, something I’ve learned is true-and this really does circle back to this conversation that we’re having around productivity and workaholism—is this notion that the value that I bring into a world is not connected to the organization that I’m working for, that my voice is important, even if I’m one day not in this position. And I think that’s something that I’m still learning to internalize but I know that that’s real, that’s a very real idea and concept that I have to internalize. And I think for the organization, I think what is true is this is a place that will exist always in some way, shape or form. And I think that the need that it feels in the community … Non-profits are, you know, supposed to be working to make themselves obsolete as they’re reaching their mission but I think Self Help Graphics is a place that, it’s always going to be needed, as a space, as a platform, as a vehicle. This is something that has come forward for me as I’ve talked to artists who’ve worked in the space over the decades, who have had various touch points. And something that I hear a lot from artists from previous years in Self Help Graphics’ history is, you know, “Self Help was in its heyday when, you know, when I was here in 1982 or, you know, in the 1990s. That was like the best.” And I like to remind those artists who tell me that, that, you know, for the 21, 22-year-old in the space right now, this is the heyday of Self Help Graphics. And that’s something that I know will always be happening in the Self Help history and trajectory, that it’s always going to be somebody’s perfect time to have walked in the door at Self Help.

Erik Gensler: Well, we’ve come to your last question and it’s your “CI to Eye moment,” and the question is, if you could broadcast to the executive directors, leadership teams, staff, and boards of thousands of arts organizations, what advice would you provide to them in this moment?

Betty Avila: Circling back to that paradigm shift that I mentioned earlier, what I would like to share and communicate is to learn to be comfortable sharing power and learn to be comfortable not always being in control. I mean that both in terms of how arts organizations are serving and in relationship with community and the many communities that they serve, but also internally. I think a lot about the young and emerging arts administrators who have so many incredible ideas and I think need safe space to try things and fail and how that safe space doesn’t exist in a lot of institutions and I’d like to share that as a piece of advice.

Erik Gensler: Betty, this was wonderful. Thank you so much.

Betty Avila: Awesome, thank you.

About Our Guests
Betty Avila
Betty Avila
Executive Director, Self Help Graphics & Art

Betty Avila is the Executive Director of Self Help Graphics & Art, an organization on the East side of Los Angeles. Working at the intersection of arts and social justice, Self Help’s mission is to foster the creation and advancement of new art works by Chicana/o and Latinx artists, with a focus on printmaking. Betty was named one of C-Suite Quarterly Magazine’s NextGen 10 in Philanthropy, Arts and Culture, and an Impact-Maker to Watch by City Impact Labs.

Read more

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