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This is What Arts Leadership Sounds Like
Episode 33

This is What Arts Leadership Sounds Like

CI to Eye with Sharon Gersten Luckman

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Erik and Sharon talk about how she worked to rescue the Ailey Organization from the brink of bankruptcy, the importance of audience lead generation for not only marketing but also for fundraising, and the secret to a successful relationship between an executive director and a board.

Erik Gensler: Sharon, it’s such a pleasure to see you. Thank you so much for being here.

Sharon Gersten Luckman: Oh, I’m happy to see you, again.

Erik Gensler: We met over 10 years ago, when I was starting Capacity I was just always just so impressed with you as a leader always so looked up to you, and so I’m absolutely thrilled to have you hear to be able to ask you questions about leadership and, and your career.

Sharon Gersten Luckman: Oh, thank you. And I was thrilled, actually, to have you guide me in what was a totally new world for me and for most people at that time.

Erik Gensler: We’ll talk about that. when you started at Ailey times were tough for the company, so tough that I believe I read that you paid for a direct mail fundraising brochure with your own money.

Sharon Gersten Luckman: Sadly, that’s a true story (laughter). Yes. I went to do a direct mail and I was told, “There’s no postage in the machine. You’re going to have to wait until next month,” and, obviously, you can’t bring in money if you don’t ask. So, yes, I used my own money.

Erik Gensler: Take us back to that time. Obviously, things were rough. What was going on, and what were some of the elements that went into turning around the financial situation?

Sharon Gersten Luckman: I was the development director at that time and so I’ll talk about fundraising and what I turned around (laughs) with fundraising. The money that came into Ailey was mostly current income, meaning it was such a popular company, the fees covered most of what they did. So, therefore, they really didn’t have very sophisticated fundraising at all, and what they did have was from the government and was from the cigarette company at the time, Philip Morris, and a few foundations. Had that persisted, as government funding went down, as Philip Morris stopped funding the arts, things changed. What would have happened is Ailey would have gone out of business and it was sort of at that time a rocky time. So really the turnaround happened by broadening where money came from. So, in the short-term, the first thing that I did when I came in was change the gala. Believe it or not, the gala at Alvin Ailey, very popular, lost money. So, there was more people (laughs) who were coming as comps and friends and friend raising, they called it, then were actually paying for it. So, we changed that and, for the first time in what was I don’t know how many years before that, we started making money on the gala and then following up with the people who were at the gala. So that was the short-term. And in the long-term, we broadened our fundraising for other corporate sponsors. We worked on changing the board. We worked on individual giving and all those things broadened the fundraising efforts.

Erik Gensler: When you came into Ailey, you worked closely with Michael Kaiser. I’m curious if you can take us back to that time, what you remember most about that experience, and what are some of the things you, learned from that?

Sharon Gersten Luckman: Well, Michael view was that success brings success. And so, he wanted me, as a fundraiser, the director of development, to talk about Ailey’s success, and he was bringing success and turning things around from a financial standpoint. I was worried about that at the time. The way things were at the time, what funders were saying, especially the foundation funders, is, “We want to help companies that need it.” Michael was right. Success brings success. And what the funders and, certainly the sophisticated funders, understood was, of course, a successful company still needs to raise money, but a successful company, a well-managed company, a funder can feel good that their money is being used the right way and it’s going to bring more success. Another thing I learned from Michael was he did a strategic plan and he actually started that plan before I was hired. I think hiring me was probably part of the plan to hire a professional fundraiser. But that was another thing I learned from him, because especially in struggling companies, there’s always the fires to put out and the day-to-day things you’re dealing with and you just start pedaling nowhere if you don’t have a plan and if you don’t think strategically and Michael really taught me that.

Erik Gensler: How did your role evolve from Director of Development to Executive Director?

Sharon Gersten Luckman: Well, I was there- (laughs)

Erik Gensler: That helps.

Sharon Gersten Luckman: Yeah. I was there (laughs). And, honestly, I had a lot of success. It was dramatic success (laughs) and there was a lot to be done and I did it. So, I think I was thought of, when actually there was an interim Executive Director in-between Michael and me and that didn’t work out terribly well and, and I was there, and I was having success and so, I was put in as acting executive director for a few months and then asked to stay on as executive director.

Erik Gensler: Seeing you here after not seeing you for a long time just reminded me of the sign you had on your door at Ailey. Do you remember what it is?

Sharon Gersten Luckman: I had two signs. I wonder which one you’re referring to.

Erik Gensler: A goal without a deadline is just a wish. Was that it?

Sharon Gersten Luckman: Yes.

Erik Gensler: (laughs).

Sharon Gersten Luckman: A goal without a deadline is just a wish. I did not make that up. Someone said it to me once. I thought it was fantastic and, and I still live by it, by the way, and I’m doing a lot of consulting (laughs) and I still say it.

Erik Gensler: So we talked about fundraising. You had a remarkable relationship with Joan Weill, who was the chairperson of Ailey during the time when, when we overlapped, and I’d love for you to talk about the relationship between an executive director and a staff, an executive director and a board. What are the appropriate roles? What are the lines? And, as a consultant, where have you seen people getting into trouble and, and what do you advise around that?

Sharon Gersten Luckman: I was so fortunate to have Joan Weill as chair because of who she is as a person and because of, really, our relationship. There’s such respect between both of us right from the beginning, admiration, I want to say, between both of us, eventually, after working with her for 20 years, love between both of us. But the important part, I think the most important part, is trust between executive director and the chairman of the board, trust between the board and the Executive Director and trust between the staff and everybody else. And, without it, everyone’s worried, everyone second-guesses, things fall apart. What Joan knew, I would never, ever not bring her a challenge. I would not bring her a problem. It might be a problem I didn’t want to discuss or make public, but she knew I would talk to her about it. And when I brought it to her, and I think this is an advice I give to everyone, I had some ideas for solutions. I didn’t bring it to her and dump it on her lap. After all, the executive director is the professional in the field, but she could talk through and help decide what needed to be done, which of the choices was the right one, and even if it was time to share some of those problems or not yet. So, she trusted me, that I would never embarrass her (laughs), nothing would go off track that she didn’t know about. And I totally trusted her that she would never undermine me, we’d always talk things through, we wouldn’t, have any unpleasant surprises for each other, and that’s really important. And then the same is with the board. So, the board, especially once you have a track record, it’s harder when you’re new and the relationship’s starting, but you have a track record of success, a track record of not hiding things under a rug that could get worse or not, the board begins to trust you. And if they trust you, they don’t ask you so many questions. Now you might say, what’s the problem with a question? But there’s a lot of work to be done, and if, if an executive director has to spend a lot of time, not just the cultivation time, but a lot of time explaining bringing people up to speed, that’s a lot of effort, so I go back to trust on that one as well. And with staff, I’m going to say trust again.

Erik Gensler: It’s really nice that you had sort of like a mentorship, collaborative relationship with the chairman of the board. And so much of what I’ve heard on this podcast of successful organizations comes down to relationships where there’s clear communication and, and trust. I remember that, the example you showed with our relationship with Joan was something I haven’t seen a lot of you managed the board in such a way that, I don’t know, it’s very impressive and I haven’t seen very often.

Sharon Gersten Luckman: Oh, thank you.

Erik Gensler: (laughs).

Sharon Gersten Luckman: Well, you know, you said manage the board and, I like that way of thinking because I talked about trust, but it just doesn’t just happen.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Sharon Gersten Luckman: And you talk about staff and board, and I was, and do, believe in being somewhat controlling of staff and board because, really, speaking with one voice is important.

Sharon Gersten Luckman: If there’s different opinions, you can strategize how to tell the board there are different opinions. But what’s not good is staff talking to board in one side of the mouth and someone else on staff talking to board in another way. And that’s confusing to a board. It worries them. And certainly, board meetings, I orchestrated them.

Erik Gensler: Yes, you did (laughter).

Sharon Gersten Luckman: I orchestrated them with Joan Weill, again, so that there weren’t big surprises when something got brought to the board. So, managing the relationship, you’re so right to use that word.

Erik Gensler: One of the other things I, remember about you is how you did make sure the trains were all running on the same track. there was some sort of international crisis and you gathered everyone from PR and marketing and development, and because I was working on social media very closely at that point, I got to experience this. you brought us all into your office and you laid out the situation that the company was facing and then, with each team member, walked through the implication on each area of the organization, from how you would communicate this to the press, how you communicate this to the board, how you would communicate this to major donors, how you would communicate this to ticket buyers, how you communicate it to the staff. I learned so much from seeing that, and, I just wonder, was that something that you learned the hard way?

Sharon Gersten Luckman: I don’t know the hard way, but I spoke about communicating success, which I learned from Michael. There’s also how to communicate a challenge and you’re talking about a challenge that Ailey faced. It was not a problem that Ailey caused (laughs).

Sharon Gersten Luckman: I think it was an international issue.

Sharon Gersten Luckman: Communicating that, especially to the outside world, is really, really important. And I love working as a team. I certainly don’t know everything and nobody, once you’re in a bigger organization, does know all the pieces, so you really have to learn everybody’s point of view, hear it and then, and I say this pretty strongly because I’ve seen it done in a way I don’t think is good, but not make a decision by consensus. You listen, you get everyone’s expertise, but then it is the ultimate decision of, the executive director, to decide what that’s going to be and then to communicate it so everyone’s on the same page.

Erik Gensler: You’re not the first person in this chair of a podcast to say that. I interviewed this amazing graphic designer who wrote a book about how clients can best work with creative people and she said no good creative decision is ever made by a consensus. Everyone could participate in the meeting, but for ultimate success, you need to have one person in charge who owns it and ultimately makes the decision, it makes a lot of sense.

Sharon Gersten Luckman: Yeah, it’s true. And that takes some discipline.

Erik Gensler: (laughs).

Sharon Gersten Luckman: It takes staff sort of knowing this is how it is, setting it up. I want to hear from you. I’m making the decision, so there it is. And staff have to be behind that.

Erik Gensler: Sort of related to this, one of the things I admire about you and, and you said this early on in the conversation, you were admittedly not an expert in digital marketing and, pretty early on in the 21st century when organizations were first faced with people’s eyeballs moving away from newspaper and, and TV on to screens, you really enabled us to reallocate budget, take risks, try things. And, at least to me, you didn’t second-guess us. You enabled us to do our work and you, you never claimed you were an expert in digital marketing, but you knew it was important and you gave us the space to do what we needed to do.

Sharon Gersten Luckman: I give you, Erik Gensler, 100% credit for that. I do, You explained things to me in an absolutely professional way. I remember you had graphs.

Erik Gensler: (laughs).

Sharon Gersten Luckman: You explained what was going to happen in a way I understood and you’re being polite to say I wasn’t an expert. I was totally a novice and didn’t understand any of it. I only knew it was the way of the future. You explained it to me and then you quantified it to me. And, I hate to be, to keep saying the same thing, but then I trusted you.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Sharon Gersten Luckman: So, I’d say you were, you were a perfect teacher.

Erik Gensler: Oh, well (laughs), thank you.

Sharon Gersten Luckman: It’s true.

Erik Gensler: Thank you. So, I’m curious, during the time we worked together, it was this really early on in the 21st century where things were changing in terms of what was effective in marketing communication. And, when I came to Ailey, you were spending a ton of your money in, in the New York Times, like most cultural organizations, and, over the years of working together, we chipped away at that investment. And I’ve seen with many executive directors that that is a very hard thing for them and it still remains a hard thing for them today. So, I’m just curious, in 2018, what are your thoughts around print advertising and trying other it’s still something I get asked quite a bit and I’m curious on your take.

Sharon Gersten Luckman: I think it depends on what your demographic is, who you’re trying to market to, and I’m going to add, because sometimes people forget it, who you’re trying to get money from, donors. It’s not just getting people to sit in your seats. So, there is a value in some markets, in some companies, if they really want older, and I’m putting myself right there (laughs), older donors. Those donors want to see, in the New York Times, for the imprimatur of it, that you’re coming, your season’s coming. However, even better than putting money into a print advertising is getting a story in the New York Times, to use that example. To get a story, your reviews, all that, that gives you an even better imprimatur and you haven’t paid for it and you’re in the print. And then you can take those fabulous stories and all that and use them on social media.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Sharon Gersten Luckman: So there’s a place for some of that and hopefully the place is not spending money on it.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Sharon Gersten Luckman: And when I left Ailey one of my first big consulting was with Dance Theatre of Harlem. They had a much smaller budget for marketing than Ailey. Well, they had only a few days at City Center, as, as, as different from Ailey, five weeks. And we didn’t do any print advertising, as I remember it. We just hired Capacity Interactive to work with us because it was better bang for the buck- and it worked, you know, with huge success at Dance Theatre of Harlem that year from any years before and I believe, that relationship after I left as a consultant has continued with you.

Erik Gensler: I just finished, wrapped up there, I think our third season working with them, so I have you to thank for that relationship and it’s gone really great and they’ve been really successful. I think that’s a great point. I think that’s something that I’m new to seeing and understanding, that what I like to do is clarify if an organization is going to spend money in the print newspaper… For example, I got the museum issue of the New York Times and I brought it in here and there are full-page ads for museums all across the country in the New York Times and my first thought is like, oh, what you could do with that money on Facebook or, but, then, it might have been Michael Kaiser who said that’s not why they’re there. They’re there because they want to reach the five donors that can write them a check for hundreds of thousands of dollars (laughs).

Sharon Gersten Luckman: Exactly, and it’s being clear, what their goal is and you’re, you’re so right-

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Sharon Gersten Luckman:… and the reason and, and of a certain age and, and, a certain type of person also they want… You sometimes list your donors in those ads and they want to see their name-

Erik Gensler: Yeah, definitely.

Sharon Gersten Luckman:… so different from their name on social media. But if you’re a different kind of company and your demographic is younger and hipper, etc. etc., those diners want to be in social media so it really depends.

Erik Gensler: Right. That’s a really, that’s, this is a big aha thing for me recently. I was really into permission marketing, which I still am to this day, and I talk about Seth Godin. I talk about permission marketing. So, it’s based on the foundation of generating leads and having a relationship with ticket buyers and donors. And one thing you were doing is collecting email addresses, both in the theater and at the box office when people walked up. And I’m just curious, like that was, that’s not something many organizations were super focused on, but I know it’s something that you were focused on. What precipitated that and how did that come into being?

Sharon Gersten Luckman: You’re right. People weren’t doing that, but, you know, my background or was I came from being a fundraiser. Well, you’re raising money from people, your best people to go to are in your audience. So as a fundraiser, you want to know every single person in your audience and then, once I was (laughs) the executive director, I was also then in charge of marketing-

Erik Gensler: (laughs).

Sharon Gersten Luckman:… and bringing people into their seats. And, obviously, you want to know, especially at a place like Ailey, people said, we did surveys, “If we went once to Ailey, we came back, and we brought our aunts and our uncles and our friends.” Well, we need to know who you are then. So, it was very important at first to get snail mail, and we had the Ailey Ambassadors going up and down the aisles to get snail mail addresses. And, of course, how much better to get email addresses that don’t change so much, that are easier to write down with those little golf pencils right in the theater, and it’s a better way to get to the people, of course, social media. So that’s why we did it. It was very planned, and I still am surprised when other places don’t do it. What’s more valuable than to know who’s in your audience, get to know them.

Erik Gensler: I know. And then people say, “Well, you know, they’re buying online so we capture half the audience online already.” I was like, yeah, but you’re not capturing their friend, like the person who’s coming with them. There’s a whole, a best-case scenario, if you’re selling 50% of your tickets online, you only have half the email addresses because people buy two tickets.

Sharon Gersten Luckman: Oh, absolutely. It’s, it’s just, to me, essential. It’s critical.

Erik Gensler: I think that is foundational in the success of Ailey. Having that focus on retention and, because, otherwise, if you’re not capturing their email address, you have to rely on the New York Times to reach them next time or you have to rely on some other third party, but now that you have their email address and once you have snail mail, you can, you can begin that one-on-one relationship with them and I really do think that commitment and, you know, doing that made Ailey a more successful company. And the fact they came from the top was always, you know, I remember that, and I thought about it and I still think about it. And, I guess, my next question, as a follow-up to that, is Ailey does not control the theater where you produce your most important run, or your most important work, which is the five weeks at City Center. And so how did you craft that relationship that allows you to do things like collect email addresses in the theater?

Sharon Gersten Luckman: So for a company, Ailey or any other company that performs in a theater that is not theirs, that they don’t own, right, you could view yourself as just being a guest, and I’ve seen companies who do that, and they go, “Thank you, thank you, thank you. You let me in your theater.” And, and, frankly, yes, thank you. You let me in your theater and either presented your company or rented it to your company, so, yes, you do thank them. That’s terrific. But it’s not a one-way street. Theaters are empty if they don’t have companies-

Erik Gensler: (laughs).

Sharon Gersten Luckman:… and so it’s really a mutual relationship and the power is both places. And, to me, the only way to make it work is, back to your word, Erik, relationship. You need to have a relationship with the theater, with the presenter, and you have to both say, “This is what we want from this engagement. This is what you want from this engagement,” a theater wants to fundraise, of course, to the people who are in your audience who came to see your show, and the company wants to fundraise to the people in their show, and both want the names to have a relationship with, etc. That’s okay. Why isn’t that a win-win- for both to have it? And then to compromise if you have to. So, yes, maybe the theater gets to send theirs first, or not. That’s what has to be worked out, and that’s part of a relationship where both sides really respect each other and what they bring to each other.

Erik Gensler: When I came to Ailey, you had a really interesting internal structure where there was a director of external relations that reported to you and there was a director of marketing and a director of fundraising who both reported into the director of external relations. And a lot of arts conferences talk about that structure, which I think makes a ton of sense, but not many organizations have that structure in place, and I’m curious how that came to be at Ailey.

Sharon Gersten Luckman: , it came to be for a few reasons. One thing and I don’t want to overstate that there were arguments because there weren’t. But there’s a little bit of a natural push and pull between a fundraising department and a development department and a marketing department and a PR. They don’t have the exact same goals, and yet both absolutely have to work together perfectly. They do. It’s for the greater good, right? And what I said about fundraising is nowhere without marketing really, because those are the people who are coming to see you and you want… So, you really have the same goal. It works better if, if it can be that way, that was one boss on top of both who understand what both sides are looking for. So, if you have the right person to be the head of both, of those departments, that’s great. The other way it came to be is actually Ailey was growing a lot, by leaps and bounds, and I needed to have another layer of executives below me. And in really thinking what that should be, so that there weren’t so many people reporting straight to me, looked, I looked at ideas for reorganization, and, at Ailey at the time, came up with the idea of three main people. One was in charge of production and performance. Once was the external affairs person, which was, development and fundraising and PR, and the third person, at that time, was the financial director.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm.

Sharon Gersten Luckman: So it came to be also for that reason.

Erik Gensler: You are an incredibly hard worker and I remember at Ailey, the offices had, I can’t remember if it is the top half was frosted glass or the middle third was frosted glass, but you could always see your feet. And when I would come in in the morning, you would, I would see that you’re, you were there, when I would leave at night, and I was a consultant, so, but you were there early, and you were burning the midnight oil. And I’m just curious about your work ethic and how much you think work ethic has to, to do with your success.

Sharon Gersten Luckman: That’s who I am. I’m a hard worker. So, we could put that aside and just say that’s who I am. But, also, if you’re working for a nonprofit that you care a lot about, you’re passionate about, and I certainly was and, actually all my consulting that I’ve done, I care about what I’m doing. Why else would I do it at this point. And there’s no end to what you can accomplish if you work hard (laughs).

Erik Gensler: Right.

Sharon Gersten Luckman: And I’m looking for success and I’m looking for accomplishment and so, at best, as you grow and have more success, you delegate as I talked about, but that doesn’t mean less work for you. That means now you have time to take on a new project that you can hope to accomplish. So, there was lots of reasons that I worked so hard.

Erik Gensler: Are you working on any consulting work that you’ve really enjoyed or learned something from or felt this had a big impact?

Sharon Gersten Luckman: I just completed two years of fabulous work actually connected to the Joyce Theater. We were able to get funding, it was Joyce Mertz Gilmore Foundation, paid to the Joyce and, ultimately gave money to me, for intensive work with a company. It’s something that I asked for. I didn’t want to do superficial work. I didn’t want to consult quick in and out. And so, it was six months seeing, working with the companies for twice a month for two hours each time for six months, a meaningful relationship with companies. And Linda Shelton at the Joyce and I chose those companies. They were New York companies who performed at the Joyce. So, for the first year, I had a bunch, four companies, and the second year, I had four companies, it just was fabulous. It was meaningful. It was fabulous. The companies grew, and I grew because I learned so much. I’d only been at Ailey for years and so working with those companies, I learned what was happening really to some of the mid-level, smaller level and emerging groups. And, right now, fabulous, I, what a gift, I’m working at Julliard and we just completed, and I helped with a search to choose the new dance director at Julliard under the new president Damian Woetzel. And coincidence or no coincidence, whatever, Alicia Graf Mack, who was an Ailey dancer, just got chosen, so very nice. I did not choose her, but I was really the person working on that project.

Erik Gensler: What is something you think you’re really good at and what is something that you’re working on getting better at professionally?

Sharon Gersten Luckman: I think I’m good at bringing a team together and brainstorming and listening and, especially as I got more and more experience at making good decisions around that, knowing what I was listening to and making those decisions, I think as I talked about at, at the beginning, the idea of having a plan and a strategy, ahead of time, looking at a goal and figuring out the timeline that led to it, back to a goal without a deadline (laughter) is just a wish, so I think those were my strengths.

Erik Gensler: And what’s something that you’re, you’re working on improving?

Sharon Gersten Luckman: Well, I talked about, consulting, and I do like consulting, but consulting, you get to do all the brainstorming and the work of, looking into things, but it’s not my decision and it’s not up to me to implement it. And so that’s something to sort of remind myself. I’m not so good at, stepping back and realizing this is not my baby. I’m just helping develop it. It’s now yours.

Erik Gensler: That’s hard… Where do you look for inspiration?

Sharon Gersten Luckman: I look for inspiration in anything, (laughs) actually, that I see that’s successful. I’ve always been on the management end of the arts. I’m not the artist. So, on one level, the art is the inspiration, absolutely true. But, for me, well-managed companies, well-managed places, how they do it, leaders. I’m still, even though I’m not running a company, I’m still reading about what makes a successful leader and manager. That, that’s inspirational, the people who do that well. And, of course, I’m especially, and this was way before Lean In and way before Me Too, I’m especially interested in women in those roles.

Erik Gensler: So this is your CI to Eye moment and the final question is if you can broadcast to the executive directors, leadership teams, staff and boards of a thousand arts organizations, what advice would you provide to them to help them improve their businesses?

Sharon Gersten Luckman: Take the time to plan out what you’re doing a year at least. Take that time. And take the time and make sure you have the expertise to know where the dollars are. What I’ve seen in too many groups is they don’t really know what each project, how much money is coming from in each project and how much money is going out. And though you don’t make the decision purely on financial grounds, it’s absolutely essential to know what those financial decisions are and where the money really is going. So, I’d say a plan and then making sure the plan incorporates very specific dollars, where they come from and where they go. So those are the two. And then what we talked about, relationships, communication. You’re not working in a vacuum. You can do fabulous work and, if nobody knows it, then you’re not building trust, you’re not building a team, and if you have problems and you’re not sharing them then you’re also not leading. As I used to say, and it was true, no one can pay an executive director enough money, it doesn’t exist, to take the whole burden and responsibility on an executive director’s shoulders. You really have to share, your challenges as well.

Erik Gensler: That’s great advice to end with. Thank you very much.

About Our Guests
Sharon Gersten Luckman
Sharon Gersten Luckman
Executive Director, Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation

Sharon Gersten Luckman was the Executive Director of Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation for 16 years. She is largely credited with breathing new life into the organization, which was on the verge of bankruptcy when she took over.

Read more

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