AN ARMFUL OF FLOWERS
In overwhelming numbers, organizations that make up the region’s art scene are led by women.
When you draw back the camera and pan Northeast Ohio’s nonprofit arts community, one thing comes into sharp focus. An overwhelming number of these organizations are staffed and helmed by women, from Amy Callahan at Waterloo Arts to Lucinda Einhouse at the Beck Center and a bevy of points in between: Rachel Bernstein of Heights Arts, Christina Vassallo of SPACES, Mary Ann Breisch of Valley Art Center. Lillian Kuri, Jill Paulsen, Megan Van Voorhis, and Donna Holt Collins are the faces for the venerable Cleveland Foundation, Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, Arts Cleveland, and Ohio Arts Council organizations, respectively. Alenka Banco helms the Cleveland Arts Prize in town, while Debra Lee Meese and Alexandra Nicholis Coon are executive directors at the Orange Art Center and Massillon Museum in those more satellite locations. The list goes on and on.
Pinning down the phenomenon is tricky. Per Jill Snyder, executive director of moCa (Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland), the trend has been in the works for decades.
“Women who had a pioneering spirit weren’t as likely to be advancing in established organizations or institutions,” she says of the mid-twentieth-century art scene, which saw a number of women fostering smaller startup organizations, including the one she helms today. Long before it was a gleaming Uptown beacon, moCa began as a humble storefront on Euclid Avenue, founded as The New Gallery in 1968 by Marjorie Talalay, Nina Sundell and Agnes Gund. The avant-garde venue gave Clevelanders their first exposure to the likes of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Christo.
“You’re working in the margins,” says Snyder of the roles women filled in the 1960s and ’70s. “You’re working outside, so there’s more room for experimentation. There’s more room to be not judged by the traditions of management, of business, of whatever the structures are in the institutional world.”
Despite those dynamic origins, Snyder also cites current gender inequities within the arts, particularly the monetary sort. They track predictably along the same lines as other professions. Per the July 2, 2019, Washington Post, in 2017, women directors of the 25 largest museums earned about 76 cents on the dollar paid to their male counterparts. The figure coincides with the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ more general estimate: women earn 74 to 80 percent of their male peers’ comparable salaries. The on-the-job discrepancies, however, end at the dollar sign.
“This is in no way to diminish the strength and effectiveness of women,” says Snyder. “These two things can coexist. There can be an economic disparity and a gendered relationship to not-for-profit management and there can be awesome women leaders of those organizations,” she adds. “The gendered aspect of it doesn’t diminish the understanding of how hard these jobs are and how much they involve business acumen.”
Snyder continues, “I also think that women tend to gravitate toward teams,” she says, making a point not to establish a hard bifurcation between men and women. “It isn’t as if men can’t cultivate these qualities. I just think the qualities are somewhat more innate in the women in our society, and that translates well into the kinds of jobs that not-for-profit demands. We evolve more naturally into these roles. Teams are a part of that.”
The idea of teams as structural building blocks combined with socializing and networking culminated in the formation of one of the area’s quietest and most significant arts networks: ARTgirls.
“We were all hungry for the same kind of thing,” says BAYarts executive director Nancy Heaton of the group’s inception. “It was very organic.” ARTgirls started a handful of years ago with a half-dozen women. They’d talk about the nuts and bolts of nonprofit business: how to write grants, interact with board members, and how to tackle the education aspect of the work. Invitations were word-of-mouth; meetings were casual. “Basically, it was a social way to get out of our respective bubbles and just be ourselves,” says Heaton, noting that defining labels (mom, director, development person) were left behind for the gatherings.
The concept took off, and today the ARTgirls mailing list now numbers approximately 150, with each event garnering between thirty and sixty attendees.
“It creates a good opportunity to connect in an informal way with other people who are working in the arts,” says Art House executive director Laila Voss, adding that the group offers a platform on which to share similar and different challenges, successes, and failures. The key to the ARTgirls’ success, she says, “has a lot to do with the camaraderie.”
The sentiments that founded the group are deeply rooted for Heaton and BAYarts. Although her previous career in fashion included no nonprofit experience, she took over the beleaguered west side institution in 2006 and infused the 1948 organization with new life. “It was getting ready to close,” says Heaton, but with her influx of energy, “volunteers came out of the woodwork.” Some had education backgrounds, others understood financial systems. Some couldn’t wait to get their hands around a paint roller while others had experience in the retail aspect of business. Almost all of them had young families.
“We all had these fantastic backgrounds and it was like: How can we put all those things to use?” recalls Heaton. “It was like a second career for a lot of people. I encouraged everybody to use their ideas, to take their strengths and bring them to the table.”
Call it stone soup by any other name, BAYarts now boasts an annual budget of nearly $1.5 million. The organization operates four buildings, a consignment shop, a full educational program schedule, galleries, and a host of festivals and events.
But do women bring a “secret sauce” to the table? The question is at once mandatory and impossible, at least in a quantitative sense.
“What is that thing?” mused Heaton as she thought it over.
“We support each other,” she eventually continued. “We’re not competitive with each other. We encourage each other. We praise each other.” She also notes the “family first” aspect of the sisterhood, with life’s imperatives such as tending and picking up the kids earning an understood and unifying priority. “We build communities,” says Heaton. “Women bring everybody together.”
“I think women are conditioned to multitask well,” adds Snyder. “There is that hustle. We’re not conditioned to say, ‘No, that’s not within my job description.’ We tend to be very expansive in how we respond to challenge, like: We can do it—even if that means you’ve got to wear five different hats,” she says, adding that those roles may include mother and caretaker on top of running homes and businesses. “That’s part of a certain DNA to how women navigate the world.”
“I think that perhaps women might be more driven by passion and seeing a need that they feel they can and should fulfill,” adds Voss. “Women tend to be less driven by money than by commitment.” She’s helmed the funky Brooklyn Centre Art House for three years, although it was founded in 1999 by Sheryl Hoffman, who handed the torch (or, more accurately, the keys to the 1948 Quonset hut) to Amy Craft in 2007.
Voss stresses the importance of mentorship and the nuanced aspects of leadership. “I also think the ways that women in leadership arts organizations have influence are often not overt; rather, [by] just being in those roles, doing day-to-day, [influence] spreads in an osmosis kind of process. Every time we are out in public—at an opening or other event—we advocate and therefore influence. This is probably true of anyone in any leadership role.”
Cleveland Scene arts reporter Dott von Schneider, who is also an artist and has dabbled in nonprofit work, cites accessibility as an attribute possessed by successful women in the arts. “I really love what Carrie Carpenter is doing at Gordon Square,” says Von Schneider. “She’s delegating properly. Her staff is wonderful. You feel like there is a team when you go into their offices.
“She’s engaging,” adds von Schneider. “Carrie is extremely approachable. She’s doing things for Gordon Square.” She cites the area’s artist-in-residence program and the organization’s frenetic events calendar, which is full up with Gordon Square Presents dates and unique features such as Unidos por el Arte, a celebration of Latino artists held last May at 78th Street Studios.
Von Schneider calls approachability like Carpenter’s a key factor to a nonprofit’s success. She also mentions Zygote Press’s Stephanie Kluk as possessing a welcoming accessibility following in the tradition of her predecessor, Liz Maugans.
Maugans is the director at the cutting-edge YARDS Projects, which is just the latest entry in her accomplished CV. To be sure, every party interviewed for this article noted her long-running involvement in the Northeast Ohio art scene, her transformative and gentle leadership, and her status as a tireless pioneer.
“These are very muscular jobs,” said Jill Snyder shortly after mentioning Maugans. “They require an enormous amount of business acumen. As a leader,” she adds, “you have to be the chief advocate. You have to be the face in community. You have to be the chief communicator.
“You have to inspire and lead.”
CAN celebrates the leadership of women in the arts during its benefit party September 21 at Worthington Yards courtyard and new rooftop sculpture garden. Honored guests are George Gund Foundation Senior Program Officer for the Arts Jennifer Coleman, and Cleveland Arts Prize-winning artist Kristen Cliffel. The party features food by celebrity chef Karen Small, drinks, music by DJ NicNacc, and projections by the Guggenheim-winning, Cleveland-based media artist Kasumi.