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Words of Inspiration From 2019
Episode 70

Words of Inspiration From 2019

CI to Eye with 20 Cultural Leaders

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Since CI to Eye's launch in 2017, Erik has asked each guest, "If you could broadcast to executive directors, leadership teams, staff, and board of 1,000 arts organizations, what advice would you provide to help them improve their business?" This is their "CI to Eye moment," and we’ve compiled all of last year’s moments in this special episode.

Erik Gensler: Welcome to a special episode of CI to Eye. After the popularity of last year’s compilation episode, we’ve decided to make a tradition out of compiling each year’s “CI to Eye moments” to look back on the last year and get inspired for the new year ahead.
In 2019, I spoke with 20 incredible thought leaders, from executive directors to arts researchers to experts on ED&I and many others inside and outside of the arts. I asked each of them, “If you could broadcast to the executive directors, leadership teams, staff, and boards of a thousand arts organizations, what advice would you provide to help them improve their businesses?” Here’s what we learned.moment

Erik Gensler: Mission is at the core of every nonprofit arts organization. As many of my guests this year shared, it’s important to come back to the mission and examine your relationship to mission in your programming, staffing, marketing, and relationship to the community. Melissa Cowley Wolf, Director of the Arts Funders Forum and Founder of MCW Projects, examined the role that missions play in arts organizations’ relationships to the broader society.

Melissa Cowley Wolf: You are a leader in our society and you’re an ambassador for the cultural organization. We need to own that. We need to speak incredibly well about our partners in this, about other institutions, what they’re doing. Be ambassadors for your institution down the road because rising tides lift all boats. If there’s more money coming in to the arts, it’s going to help everybody. This is hard work. It’s exhausting. Every day, you go to work incredibly optimistic and you want to walk out as optimistic as you walked in and I think the way to do that, the thing that keeps you energetic as a cultural worker in this country, I think it’s when you are outside and you’re talking about the importance of art in society and you’re talking about the importance of your institution. It provides an energy because people respond to it. We need to be proud of what we do. We need to own it. We need to have a good mission, articulate it, be proud of it, and we’re gonna continue to be a very, very impactful, successful sector.

Erik Gensler: John Schreiber, an Emmy- and Tony Award-winning producer and the President and CEO of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, shared how he ensured the entire organization is brought on board with mission alignment.

John Schreiber: Focus on the goals and the aspirations of the organization and an agreement among staff and board about the goals and the role of the organization also needs to be clear, because without that the … the business likely will not succeed and the intention of the nonprofit won’t advance, so we made a decision that we workshop with our board, that we’re gonna rewrite our mission statement. We did that three or four years ago, four or five years ago and it took a minute to do it. It took a while to do it, but we understood that diversity and inclusion were needed to be at the heart of our business from a missions perspective and from a business perspective. And it took a while … it took a while to … to get there, right? But, we did and we had a unity among board and staff around the mission of our business. It’s been a wonderful ride since then as we have workshopped that in a dynamic way. So, it’s never the same. It’s always changing, but the goal and the alignment among board and staff has remained consistent, which enables us to do the work.

Erik Gensler: Linda Shelton, the Executive Director of The Joyce Theater, agreed about the importance of mission.

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

Erik Gensler: Diane Ragsdale, the Faculty Director of the Cultural Leadership Program at Banff Center for the Arts and Creativity and Assistant Professor and Program Director for the Masters in Arts Management and Entrepreneurship program at The New School, questioned whether mission statements are enough to hold our feet to the fire.

Diane Ragsdale: Well, let’s go to where we were just talking. There’s something I’ve recently begun to kind of formulate, that, you know, missions are squishy and buildings and bottom lines are not and judgments about art are subjective and human beings are often self-interested and the nonprofit form lends itself to manipulation and to serving the interests of a few rather than the general public. If you look at this—we could call them a confluence of forces or dynamics—I think that arts organizations need to be aware of these dynamics and can’t hang their hats or trust or lean into mission statements and value statements as enough to keep them moored to their purposes. I really think we need non-negotiable principles or policies that we set that hold our feet to the fire so that when these forces are in play, we are compelled to constrain ourselves from certain behaviors and actions that might otherwise lead us to program an entire season that is white, western, and womanliness, right? Or any other thing that we might be trying to avoid, that we put in our mission statements. We have value statements, we have all sorts of things that we say we’re trying to do, but what is it that really holds our feet to the fire? So, I think my question arising out of that is, if you look at your mission statement and you look at your values that are posted wherever they’re posted, all of the lofty rhetoric, are you holding your feet to the fire? What is holding your feet to the fire? Have you created the policies, the principles, the habits of practice that are really going to ensure that you uphold those over time or for as long as they are relevant, right? With all understanding that these things can and should shift over time. I worry that boards and leaders sometimes stop short of setting those policies and want to trust themselves to just make the right decisions, but can get edged off of doing the right thing at the moment when the bills have to be paid, right? So, we have to take the money. We decided to do this show, not that show. We hired this person, not that person. And before you know it, you know, we have a list of values that are completely incongruous with what we’re doing, right. Values that we’ve stated that are out of step with what we’re doing. So, what’s holding your feet to the fire?

Erik Gensler: To close out this section, Deborah Cullinan, the CEO of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, proposed a collective mission for the arts sector as a whole.

Deborah Cullinan: 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: I believe that leadership requires lots of self-reflection and perspective and practicing and demonstrating work/life balance. Here’s some advice from my guests on how to slow down and focus on what matters most. Lily Weiss, Executive Director of the Dallas Arts District, finds success in slowing down and being intentional with the relationships she builds.

Lily Weiss: Probably, what I have learned, first and foremost (laughs) is, take long, deep breaths. And that has helped me tremendously and I haven’t always done that, but if I can do that, then I can hold for a moment and be patient with anything and everything that’s happening around me. And then what I would say is, learn from everyone, whether that is a friend or a foe, someone you like or you don’t like, because I think it’s within that experience that we discover the true meaning of building relationships and really for the benefit of the organization. I would also say, surround yourself with dynamic leaders. Don’t separate yourself, get out, be open. Find a mentor and someone you trust that’s gonna tell you the truth. In doing that, I think that we discover more about who we are, and who we are as leaders.

Erik Gensler: Darren Sussman, co-founder of The Institute of Financial Wellness for the Arts and the co-founder and former President of TheaterMania and OvationTix, notes the importance of caring for your team.

Darren Sussman: Care about your employees as if they were your own family. And most arts organizations do that, but I think we could always do it better. You know, at TheaterMania, that was one of our core things was care about our people. And somehow, someway, that resonates and they work better, they work smarter, and even when they leave your organization, they often become supporters and allies and you never know, they might wind up becoming some grant-giver at some other (laughs) umbrella organization, gets you the biggest grant you ever had.

Erik Gensler:Cameron Herold, executive coach, best-selling author, and founder of the COO Alliance, reminds us that there is more to life than work.

Cameron Herold:I think the big one is, just let’s not take ourselves so effing seriously, (laughs). Like, none of this actually matters. You know, none of us are getting out of this alive. We are all gonna die. I had somebody the other day, and I said, “What’s the exit for your company?” He was like, “I’m not gonna exit.” I’m like, “Well, guess what? At some point you’re gonna die. And at that point, then you have exited your company.” And he was like, “Ooh, I never thought about it that way.” Like, this is just what we do to make money. So, how can we have fun with it along the way? How can we have a good time? How can we treat people nicer? How can we help our employees and how can help our customers and laugh along the way, versus thinking this is everything? And then also, how do we get some balance into our lives so that when we go to our cocktail parties and hang out with our friends, we can talk to them about everything except work? Right? Instead of having nothing to talk about but work.

Erik Gensler: Ben Cameron, President of the Jerome Foundation, advises against “dashing for the finish line” without pausing to look back on the past.

Ben Cameron: I would say that, for me, the moment is upon us that I alluded to before, to begin to free ourselves from former structures and former values we pursued, like stability, to begin to think more about resilience and adaptability. The Mark Robinson work around this, I think, is fantastic but among the things I would tell leaders … There’s a lot that organizations do well that’s at the heart of this. Most organizations I know, yes, they have a mission. Yes, they’ve clearly defined roles for board and staff. Yes, they have a sense of what their purpose is to some degree, so, yes, that’s great. I would say, pay more attention to the external situational awareness and then the three things I think we’re not good as an industry but I totally believe in is gathering information from the external environment to making data-based decisions, is one. I think a second one is maximizing your staff’s capacity to work across silos and have tendrils into the community that connect them to others outside the walls. And the third one, of course, is to engage more in reflective thinking. It’s easy, especially given the pressure and the day-to-day and the millions of requirements to you are running … There’s that line in Alice in Wonderland about, “I’m running as fast as I can and if I wanna get anywhere I have to run twice as fast as that.” You know, there’s that sense we’re all on this treadmill dashing for the finish line and we don’t have time to reflect. But if we don’t consciously take that time to engage in reflective thinking, we can’t possibly digest what we’ve done. We can’t learn. We can’t redirect. We can’t grow. And so, as hard as it is, if there’s only one thing you can do, is make the commitment to engage in reflective thinking and reflective time.

Erik Gensler: Ronnie Brooks, the founding Director of the James P. Shannon Leadership Institute in Saint Paul, Minnesota, re-affirms how crucial it is to take time to reflect.

Ronnie Brooks: I think I would say that they should slow down, that they should take time, individually and collectively, to figure out what they have learned from their experience in life and in work, what they deeply believe in, and how they might work more effectively to reflect what they deeply believe in and to exhibit the values by which they would like to pursue those intentions.

Erik Gensler: Closing out this section, Mark Price, Founder of Alchemy Collective, shares how innovation must come from within.

Mark Price: I would say, clean up your nervous system and clean up own backyard. Innovation comes from you. It doesn’t matter what you say. It’s the experience, it’s the embodiment of what you represent. It is not a matter of a series of guidelines or a series of methodologies. It’s, what kind of culture are you promoting? And that starts with you. It starts with the experience from the janitors, from the VPs, to the people who are higher-ups. It’s how you are fostering connection, how you are fostering relationship, and more importantly, it stems from, how are you cultivating and fostering that relationship with yourself? If you have healthy relationship to self, capital S, that is … there is no way that that cannnot have a trickle-down effect. So, it’s a powerful way to embrace embodied leadership.

Erik Gensler: The arts and cultural sector is on a journey to create and foster equitable, diverse, and inclusive environments for staff, artists, and audiences alike. Here are a few pieces of advice for the arts from expert ED&I practitioners. Robin DiAngelo, bestselling author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism, explains why just being nice isn’t enough.

Robin DiAngelo: Niceness is not anti-racism. Niceness is not courageous. There’s nothing courageous about niceness and it will not get racism on the table and it won’t keep it on the table when everyone wants it off the table. So, racial justice takes strategic, intentional, courageous action. It doesn’t happen naturally and you can just assume that your policies and practices are reproducing racial inequality and then start to ask how that might be happening. Ibram Kendi wrote a beautiful book, National Book Award winner, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America and he argues that the definition of a racist policy is any policy that results in a racially unequal outcome and by that definition, virtually all our policies are racist. If you keep producing plays and works and hiring people that are white, when it becomes just a special kind of play that doesn’t center whiteness, that outcome would be racial inequality. And so, we have to build our stamina to have these conversations. And I would also add that reflecting is not really much of anything if it doesn’t result in action. So, sometimes, when I end a workshop, you know, you go around and you say, “What’s one thing you’re taking with you?” And white people will say, “Oh, I’m going to keep thinking about this.” What I have learned to offer back is, “And how will people of color know you’ve been reflecting about this? You know, what will actually be different in action?” So, that’s what I would offer. It’s very complicated. It’s very layered, but there are many, many, many resources out there for, kind of, how-to’s and I think one of the, sadly, most important ways that white people can break with the apathy of whiteness is go look it up like you’d look up anything you had any kind of interest in.

Erik Gensler: Lisa Niedermeyer, former Producing Director for Disability Dance Works, shares why arts organizations must strive for “joy equity” in their accessibility initiatives;

Lisa Niedermeyer: Recognize that you’re currently exclusive and segregated. Just have that moment of recognition. By intention or not, you are, and so stop making excuses for that and recognize the opportunity to imagine beyond inclusion to joy equity. That’s the juice. That’s the party I’m inviting you to join. (laughs) And celebrate within the field the rigor and the innovation that path offers. I’ll add, consider sending your staff or yourself as professional development to have a disability- centered experience of hospitality. Put it in your budget to come see Kinetic Light on tour and have a cultural immersion experience of that, of what the future could look like within your organization.

Erik Gensler: Cardozie Jones, Founding Principal of True North EDI and Capacity Interactive’s ED&I consultant, examines what it would look like to have a truly collaborative, human, and holistic workplace.

Cardozie Jones:I think the advice I would give is to long for truly human and holistic environments where people can come to the office, come to the workplace, and be their full, authentic, cultural selves and recognizing that for that to happen, we have to have real conversation and, ultimately, real action around … when it comes to the kind of environments we are creating, the kind of systems that we are producing and reproducing, the kind of beliefs that we put forward … and considering, in what ways are our mission and beliefs aligned with our actual outcomes? I think it requires really hard conversations. So, how are we having conversations around what power looks like, how it’s being used and monopolized, and what would it look like to get to a more human, a more holistic, a more communal place? I’m not saying where everyone is making all the decisions, but I’m saying everyone gets to come together and decide how we’re gonna make decisions, at the very least, and collaborate. And yeah, I think diversity as a general term is important, but I want to make sure that we’re not thinking that diversity as the answer. Diversity is a thread in this very, very complex tapestry that we’re looking to address. And the big things I’d say, start thinking about other words other than diversity. Diversity is not the problem. We’re diverse. We’re here, we are diverse people. The question is, for me, in addition to diversity, what does power look like? What does sharing look like? What do communities look like where those communities are for everyone?

Erik Gensler: As arts administrators, it can be easy to keep our heads down as we work to meet the internal demands of our organizations. As several of my guests this year reminded us, we are doing this work for our audiences and we should strive to keep their interests in mind in everything we do. Sean Kelly, the Founder of Vatic dynamic pricing, shares the importance of using data to assess what your audience wants and needs.

Sean Kelly: The hardest thing about working in the arts is that you love what you do. You really care about it. And all of those people that you just named have very strong opinions about what success looks like and what they ought to be doing. What’s often lost amongst all of that knowledge is, what do your patrons want? And so, what I would advise them to do is to … absolutely, you should start with your intuition and say, “I think we should do X,” but then, reach out and, if you can, find some data to help validate that, because then you’re bringing the patron into the conversation and into your future strategy and since we are literally built for them, that is a really good thing and it actually helps you make better decisions for your organization and better decisions for your patrons.

Erik Gensler: Peter Linett, President of Slover Linett Audience Research, explains why organizations should look more closely at audience experience, beyond just content.

Peter Linett: I think it has to do with acknowledging a duality you and I just touched on, which is that an experience, even a program or programming, is not just content. It’s also form. And to see that holistically is vitally important. It’s not just what we put on the stage. It’s not just what we put on the wall or in these glass cases in a history museum. It’s how people are meant to interact with that material. How are they meant to engage with each other? What’s the vibe? Is it participatory? Is it informal? Is it humorous? If so, to what degree, and what sort of aesthetic direction is it humorous? Is it satirical? There are questions about what people are meant to do, how they’re construed as visitors, as audience members, that really are under-examined in the field. When I sit in on a programming meeting at a symphony we’re working with and I hear the conversation limited to, “What’s the repertoire and how does the repertoire fit together in a given program?” I think that’s vital. It’s important. It’s just as important as, what artwork should this museum acquire and exhibit on the … you know, who are the artists? How inclusive is the, sort of, range of aesthetics and cultures and backgrounds represented? That’s all content and it’s vital, as I say, but it’s not sufficient. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. And to think about the experience design more broadly and what we’re imagining people’s role in their seats, in the lobby, in their hearts and emotional lives, in their social interaction, that’s the rest of the experience design. So, it’s about programming, it’s about people, it’s place, it’s the positioning, of course, that sort of sets up the conditions for people to have a positive experience. The key is to not see programming as synonymous with content. It’s reinforced by the ways critics come at these. They review the content and don’t say anything about the form, but for a newcomer and for the audience that a cultural institution wants to engage, the form is odd. Once you feel those two apart, which is, it’s not enough to be more inclusive about content; we also have to sort of say, “What’s the form? What’s the experience design that would be more relevant and comfortable to more kinds of people?

Erik Gensler: Robert Phillips, former Director of Customer Experience at The Cleveland Orchestra, believes that one size does not fit all when it comes to patron experience.

Robert Phillips:I think most of all is that customer experience efforts are not one-size-fits-all anymore. Once you really dive into the behaviors that are going to create a great experience for each individual type of guest, then you can develop a program that’s unique to your organization, unique to the way that you do business. These things can be creative. These things can be exciting. It doesn’t have to be eye-roll-inducing. The days of that customer service textbook are gone. And so, I guess in the end, customer service, customer experience can be fun. We don’t have to take ourselves too seriously. We don’t have to exist in a bubble, but we can also appreciate the unique way that we do business. I always tell my staff that the sports world has it tough. We’re both in the event space in a way, but when you go to a sporting event, your team could lose. And it’s on that venue to make sure that you leave, even though the team loses, and says, “I had a great experience, still.” For us, the Cleveland Orchestra doesn’t lose concerts. So, we have that opportunity to elevate the experience that much higher and really, truly make memories by personalizing the experience and exceeding expectations and one size doesn’t fit all. We can really have fun when it comes to creating great experiences for our guests.

Erik Gensler: Mark Schaefer, business consultant and best-selling author of Marketing Rebellion: the Most Human Company Wins, shares how your organization can benefit from connecting with your audience as people, first and foremost.

Mark Schaefe:r Well, it’s very simple: this road toward human-centered marketing may seem strange and unfamiliar, but the place to start is to number one, look at the things that you’re doing with your organization and if you’re doing things that people hate, stop it. It’s just that simple. Get out there, talk to customers, see what they love, and go do that. Be more human in everything you do, in every customer touchpoint, in every phone call and email and text message and event that you host. Think about, “How do we show our faces, our real faces, our smiles and our passion? How do we insert that humanity into everything we do?” because I know the most human company will win.

Erik Gensler: Finally, Terri Freeman, President of the National Civil Rights Museum, recognizes that our audiences are changing and it’s up to us to keep up with the times.

Terri Freeman: Well, I think what I would say is, folks, it’s 2019. Our audiences are different today than they were twenty years ago, than they were 40 years ago, then they were 60 years ago. The methods by which people get information is very different today than it was. We have to make sure that we are giving people an experience that is relatable to them. There was a time when museums were copy-heavy. It was all about artifacts and writing, things that you had to read about. You have to put things in audio. You have to present things in video. You have to have opportunities for people to be interactive in your space. You have to figure out how you use social media in your space and encourage people, frankly, to help you brand your space through their own personal social media. No longer do we have the luxury of only pushing out information. Now, we receive information back from our publics about how we truly are doing our work and we have to be open to receiving that. So, I think the big lesson to me, people don’t necessarily want to feel like they are walking back in time; they want to better understand what happened from a historical perspective, but they want to be able to apply that learning through what they’re used to in 2019. And I find particularly, there are some institutions that still present things in a manner that is looking for an audience that is 50 and above and I think what we have to recognize is that those audiences will be dissipating and that we’ve got to start cultivating folks while they’re in their twenties or even younger to understand and enjoy the content that we’re providing through our arts and culture experiences, as well as cultivating them to be givers to these institutions.

Erik Gensler: To close out this episode and as we prepare for the challenges, opportunities, and experiences that this new decade will bring, here is Sir Clive Gillinson, the Executive and Artistic Director of Carnegie Hall, to remind us that while we may never have all the answers, we can find success by asking the right questions.

<strong I don’t believe I can give people advice. I mean, you know, I love conversations. You know, I think listening is much more important. I mean, you can’t give advice to people where you don’t know anything about their business. And even if you do know something about their business, they know a hundred times more than you do about their business. So, when people say, “Can I come and meet with you cause I’d like your advice?” I always say no. I mean, I’m perfectly happy to meet and have a conversation and be a sounding board and we’ll talk about things, but I think to try and give advice is a bit like thinking that answers are more important than questions. I mean, for me, it’s always questions and therefore, if somebody says something about advice, my advice always is, I don’t give it. I’m more interested in just talking about questions and because you’re going to need to find the answers, but you’ve got to think about what are the right questions for you to ask.

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