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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Relevancy, Innovation, and Evolution in Local Arts Groups: A Conversation with Fund for the Arts CEO Barbara Sexton Smith



Barbara Sexton Smith. Photo by Katie Levy.
By Keith Waits

Entire contents copyright © 2012 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

In March of this year, Barbara Sexton Smith was named the CEO of the Fund for the Arts. Serving as Interim Director following the controversial April 2011 departure of Allan Cowen, Sexton Smith was a favorite among the organizations who made up the long-term cultural partners of the Fund. But she was by no means a sure thing to be selected for the permanent position. So the announcement was a welcome affirmation of that support as well as another hopeful sign that the Fund might be truly committed to the change the firebrand veteran had been pursuing during her tenure as temporary boss. Fresh from finishing the 2012 campaign, which exceeded expectations, we asked Ms. Sexton Smith to talk to us about her vision for the future.

Arts-Louisville: In the year-plus since you were named Interim Director of the Fund, you have made efforts to address some of the concerns that had been voiced about the Fund’s structure and procedures. In a general sense, how will dropping the “Interim” designation make a difference in your approach? Or will it?

Barbara Sexton Smith: It will not make any difference in my approach whatsoever. I’m the same person today as I was when I became Interim Director, and I have the same passion and beliefs that I always had.

AL: So, for you, the Interim title did not limit or restrict you in any way?

BSS: Absolutely not. I felt an obligation, more than ever, to the community, to the artists and to the donors who support the arts – an obligation to surpass their expectations during that period, because that was an evolutionary period for the Fund for the Arts. Coming on the heels of unrest and an unfortunate departure, there was a lot of healing that had to be done. Also, there were partners who were counting on the Fund for the Arts to have a successful campaign and keep the allocations at least at the level they were at the year before. There was a tremendous amount of pressure to do that, so we had to stay upbeat, remain positive and stay focused on our message. That was SO important! I felt my number one job in March 2011 was to immediately communicate that message to the board and the staff and go out into the community and remind folks why the Fund for the Arts was founded. That was critical, because it gave us a foundation to hold onto and stand firm on, and I think maybe we had lost sight of that.

One of the lessons I took from that experience was that when coming through difficult times in business or in your personal life, if you go back and remember why you exist and why you are here, many times therein lies the answer to what you should do in that moment. So Mayor Charles Farnsley founded the Fund for the Arts in 1949 as an umbrella fundraising organization that would support the arts with a focus on education and on providing a better quality of life for all of our citizens; and we will protect that legacy and we will guard that brand and we will fulfill our mission.

AL: When Allan Cowan was the CEO, there was a perception that he was adept at courting the big corporate donors while you worked very effectively with the employee campaigns, the more populist approach, if you will. Now that you have the top job, will it be a challenge to juggle the demands and expectations of those two dynamics?

BSS: Every day is a challenge and I thrive on a challenge, so I welcome that – especially a challenge that is new and different. Yes, Allan was extremely adept and extremely successful at working with our large corporate donors; and I will continue to work on employee campaigns, which are very important because they represent the democratization of fundraising to save the arts. And it’s very simple:  it’s “Savings 101.” You have to diversify in order for your portfolio to be strong. So while it’s important to court the big donors, it’s also important to keep seeking the smaller support. As Laura Lee Brown says, “The proof is in the pudding.” If that’s a plug for Proof on Main, I’m not sure; but she says that to me all the time.

I’ve been the chief revenue generator since 2000, which means I’ve been the point person with the campaign chairman; and I’ve been working for 12 months with that person: strategizing, fundraising, identifying problems and finding solutions together. Also, I have been with the Fund for 14 years, but I was in this business a long time before that…

AL: With The United Way…

BBS: Yes, and with The United Way I built up a reservoir of goodwill with so many of these same corporate leaders that I work with now. Then, in the interim phase [between The United Way and coming to work for the Fund], I owned and operated a leadership development company and taught the Harvard Negotiation Project to many management teams all across the Commonwealth. So that helped make the transition at the Fund go more smoothly:  I had the relationships, introductions were not necessary, and there was almost no one that I couldn’t pick up the phone to call or send an e-mail too.

AL: It seems like you are now doing two jobs, though. Are you looking for somebody to be your number two – your own “Barbara Sexton Smith”?

BBS: I’ve felt like I was doing two jobs many times this last year. But out of respect for the board, it was not my place to hire someone like that. I was more than happy to step up to the plate and wear two hats. As a matter of fact, the Fund for the Arts typically had 14 employees and we immediately went down to 10 employees. Then several folks stepped up to the plate and wore two hats, which I appreciate. Not to mention our board:  Dave Calzi, Managing Partner over at Ernst & Young, served as our Board Chair – and he did not sign up for the amount of work and the level of engagement that he found himself in this last year; and Joe Pusateri, our campaign chairman for 2011, spent every Tuesday all day working with me and the Fund for the Arts staff beginning July 1, 2011, through the recent celebration at Kentucky Shakespeare. So everybody stepped up and did more.

Celebrating the end of the 2012 campaign at opening night of
Kentucky Shakespeare. Photo by Frankie Steele.

What we have done, we have eight full-time and four part-time employees; so we’ve brought the team up to twelve. And Sam Corbett – who ran Sam Myers formalwear and has been a longtime supporter of public education – has rotated off of our board, left the family business, and joined our team on a one-year special assignment. I think he brings a lot of experience and business achievement to the table – and energy. You can never underestimate the power of sheer energy. I call it the rhythm that you choose to get other people to come along with you. So Sam is helping create that rhythm on a day-to-day basis in the office and on the street.

Another role he’s going to help me with:  Although we have a very dynamic and well-educated staff at the Fund – several have advanced degrees – they have six to seven years’ work experience and aren’t going to have much experience calling on the CEOs of the top 25 companies in the area and getting access to them. But they are talented and they are the ones who go in and run the payroll deduction programs and other things, and Sam is a door-opener for them. So we have shored up some areas for me so I can spend my time on strategic positioning.

Jim Welch and our board of directors have agreed to lead a strategic review and a thorough board self-assessment, because I believe every board needs to take a tough look at itself every few years and ask itself the tough questions: Am I being effective at helping the organization and the organization’s management team meet its mission? So we are in the process of that assessment. As soon as we get those results and they are tabulated, Kevin and Eric will report to a small group on our board and begin to develop a strategic position, contra-distinct to a strategic plan. A strategic position sets an organization up for success regardless of any external forces or internal mandates there may be. A position sets goals that are manageable and targets that are achievable. It’s a model that has been used very effectively by many leaders; locally, Gordon Brown over at The Home of the Innocents is a good example.

AL: At the risk of oversimplification, most of the complaints about past operations seem to break down into two categories:  who is funded, and how the allocations are decided. The Power2Give program seems designed to answer both concerns in one fell swoop, adding funding opportunities for non-Fund members and allowing the “wheels to show” by connecting specific sponsors with the beneficiaries.

BBS: I agree there were a lot of questions about funding and who got what. Folks were asking for more transparency…and I heard that loud and clear IMMEDIATELY. Within two weeks after the leadership change at the Fund for the Arts in April 2011, I held a meeting with the Cultural Partners – and you will note that we stopped calling them “members” and changed it to “partners” – and the first announcement to them was that we were going to make some changes: we’re not going to be “membership” driven, not be an elite group, but be cultural partners, that there would be other groups who would be able to receive money from the Fund for the Arts, and that this would happen through some unconventional methods.

The other thing I did was immediately eliminate what had been called the “blackout period.” I never understood that concept, that there was a period when those who received annual allocations towards their basic operating costs were prevented from fundraising by the Fund for the Arts. I think that’s absurd! There is so much money in this town, there are so many people in this town, and we all need to be out raising as much money as we can. So that was a drastic change that was made.

AL: For most, if not all, of the participants, Power2Give enjoyed a rush of success in its first phases. Will you be able to sustain that funding structure long-term?

BSS: We all need to be out raising as much money as we possibly can. So that was a drastic change that was made. We do not have a membership program. Going forward, Power2Give is going to set it up. Money will flow in through the Fund. Fund for the Arts made the investment for that program. We’re glad to do it; we’re glad to run and manage the program and absorb the expenses related to running that program for the benefit of any 501 (c) (3) non-profit in the Commonwealth of Kentucky and Southern Indiana. I think that’s important.

Somebody said, “Why are you going beyond Louisville and Jefferson County with this Power2Give thing?” Well, it’s really simple. Because the arts groups we have historically been funding – their reach is much broader than just Louisville and Jefferson County. So it kind of showed me what needed to be done. I just think maybe folks didn’t know exactly how to go about broadening that reach. So now, the first thing that happened was the governor’s office called, just as soon as they heard about Power2Give. They called us and said, “We want to give you all some matching money, unsolicited.” So during the last year, we received $50,000 from the Kentucky Arts Council on top of our annual grant we receive from them, for which we are always grateful, because they didn’t spread that all across 120 counties in the Commonwealth of Kentucky for funding Power2Give projects. You know, more than 70 organizations have posted more than 185 projects on Power2Give. Now those numbers change every day, because that’s a very active site.

The number one key to success for Power2Give, we’ve learned, has been the matching money. So thanks to Republic Bank, we had the $100,000 guaranteed up front; then the Kentucky Arts Council’s $50,000 last year; and then LG&E gave us $25,000 for matching money on Power2Give; as did Stites & Harbison, who gave us $5,000 for that program. Going forward, we got the attention of the mayor and the Metro Council. I think folks know now we received $25,000 out of this last round of budget approval from the Metro Louisville budget. And the Kentucky Arts Council sent us a letter right away saying that in addition to the increased annual contribution that we receive, they were giving us additional funds for Power2Give. And those funds will be loaded on the site very quickly. We’ve generated more than $456,000 as of today on Power2Give. Now the Power2Give site has generated $1.1 million nationally, because it’s live in Miami-Dade County; Charlotte, North Carolina; Milwaukee; and Greensboro, North Carolina.

But we represent…what?…more than 40 percent of that on a national basis. I think that’s because we kept matching money in the pipeline at all times, until just here recently. And we’re waiting on some more direction from the Kentucky Arts Council before we apply to match money. But they’re [Power2Give] raising money in Charlotte and Milwaukee and Miami-Dade County with match money. And I think the reason they’re doing that is because the non-profit organizations posting projects in those communities saw the power of social media, saw the power of the platform, and got that for what it was worth and used it and did not expect any matching money. They thought the value was in the platform itself. I’m hoping that in our region folks will realize the value of that platform. Somebody once said to me: “But the match money’s running out. Why should we post a project? We could just do that ourselves.” And I said, “You know, you’re exactly right. Have you?” And people won’t do it themselves. They don’t get the other traffic coming through.

AL: I have heard a lot of discussion that Power2Give started off really strong and a lot of attention was paid to it and you were working with organizations that you hadn’t had a relationship with before. But there’s a perception over time that it’s lost some of its momentum. It sounds like it hasn’t from what you’ve just been saying. But why do you think some people think that, and why do you think some projects do so much better than other projects that really struggle? What do you think makes the difference?

BSS: Okay, the site, the overall site, Power2Give, has not lost momentum. The overall site is very successful and is picking up momentum. Certain people and certain organizations have lost momentum because they’ve gone on to do other things. So they, for whatever reason, have decided not to continue pursuing that as a fundraising strategy for that period of time. I think that’s a mistake that organizations make. Some groups say, “Well, we don’t want to wear out our donors. We’re having donor fatigue.” They don’t want to keep sending emails about Power2Give. But then, I get other organizations who keep posting projects that are wildly successful. They say, “Barbara! I got to get a project up! Hurry up and approve it, ’cause my donors out here are wanting to know when they get to go on that site! They’ve got friends!” I mean, it’s a whole attitude. If you want to embrace it and run with it and use it, you’re going to say it has the momentum. But I think it’s only going to pick up more momentum as time goes on.

AL: Do you think there might be some way to educate some of those groups that have struggled by showing them how it’s worked for others? I mean, we can look and see that somebody raised money for a group. But for them to actually teach other groups? To show the example of “Here’s what we did? We didn’t just put it up and wait.” What did they do that made the difference?

BSS: Yeah, we have to do that. That’s a great idea. I think with the Fund for the Arts, now that we’ve got this last campaign wrapped up, one of the strategies going forward is we need to do best practices. And we need to bring folks together and have some groups sharing, and have folks see what was really successful – how it worked and why it worked. Because there are some examples out there and if you just follow their model, we will guarantee every project you put up could get fully funded.

AL: Do you think that sometimes maybe it’s just not a good fit to a particular organization? I mean, some arts organizations, by their very nature, can sometimes be so individual in their mission, in their aesthetic, that maybe it just doesn’t work for everybody?

BSS: Um, no, because, see, I think it’s a much bigger question. I think, basically speaking, every human being desires a sense of belonging, and every human being desires a sense of connectivity. And so if you look at your job, or your trade, or your skill, or your place where you work, or the mission you set for your life or for your organization, it’s all about connecting to other people. And the power of social media allows you to tell your story. I mean, that’s who we are. As human beings…we set ourselves apart, maybe, in three ways. We’re prehensile…we’re the only animals on the planet that have that. We have the ability to reason; we’re the only animals that have the ability to do that. And then we have this powerful sense of wanting to be connected to other people. So I would debate, and I’m going to take the position that anybody can be successful on Power2Give if they want to be successful on Power2Give. Of course, I believe anybody could be successful in life if they want to be. You know what? Success is just a state of mind, anyway, which you achieve by enriching the lives of other people. That’s what it’s really all about.

AL: Well, I think you’re definitely on record as being a “glass half full” kind of person.

BSS: If the glass – if the meniscus is rolling over the top of the glass…

AL: The meniscus?

BSS: The meniscus. The meniscus is when you fill the water all the way up – I don’t know if it’ll work on this or not. [There is a pitcher of water and a partially filled glass on the table in front of her, which she fills to the brim.] And it gets all the way to the top and it is a little bit over – see? There it is. It’s a little bit over the brim, but why doesn’t it fall over?

AL: That’s the meniscus?

BSS: That’s what’s called the “meniscus.” That ever-so-small space between the top of the glass and the top of the water, and it’s minute in the example we’re looking at right now. But now you’re getting into entropy, and I could talk all day about physics. That’s what people don’t know about me. I’m probably a physicist long before I’m a fundraiser or an art person. I’m much more interested in entropy and what causes things to connect and hold together, as I’ve already been talking about here today. You like that, don’t you? I wonder how high I could get this. [She pours more water into the glass.] Next thing you know, we’re talking about thermodynamics and entropy.

AL: You might lose me there. Another complaint often heard is that the Fund has attempted to influence programming development within the member organizations. For example, pushing traditionally free programming to begin charging fees or tuition? Is this overreaching?

BSS: I don’t think it’s the Fund for the Arts’ business to determine programming for the organizations. We’re an umbrella fundraising organization. That’s what we know and that’s our place. Now, I do not think that we should tell any program or any organization what their programming should or shouldn’t be. Everybody should be able to stand up and be counted, be who they want to be. Every organization should develop their own mission, their own program, their own format, and go out here in this community and do the best they can possibly do. Now with that being said, how will the Fund for the Arts’ influence be felt or change over time? We’ve made it very clear during the last 18 months that we’re going to fund mission-consistent initiatives. We’re looking to fund things, programs and initiatives that are aligned with our brand. It’s very important, and some of the arts groups are struggling a little bit with understanding this. So we’ve spent the last year and a half working with an allocations review team and educating the arts groups’ leaders on how to write their applications and develop their submission packets for the Fund for Arts board to review that would show how they were aligning their mission with our mission – how they were aligning their brands with our brands. The purpose of requesting funding – we’re not saying you have to line up and be who we are. We’re not saying you have to agree with everything we’re doing. We’re not saying you have to do it our way. We’re saying that we, as an umbrella fundraising organization that is donor-led and volunteer-driven, are going to fund things that are consistent with that economic development, education and creating a better quality of life for all our citizens. So we’re very committed to that.
           
Another conversation that has been going on all year – the first thing we did, we popped out and we did some town hall meetings and discussions. I had an open door. I still have an open-door policy. But we did conduct a survey and more than 1,000 people responded in about four weeks. I asked my board what they wanted. I asked the donors what they wanted. I asked the arts groups what they wanted. I asked everybody. And the answer came back with full force and clarity:  everybody wanted the Fund for the Arts to be relevant, innovative, and evolutionary. Now, those are three words that we are adding to our vernacular. Those are three words that we’re going to talk about every bit as much as we talk about our founding principles and our mission. Are we relevant? Are we innovative? Are we evolutionary? Because people were asking, “Should the Fund for the Arts even exist? And if it does, what should it be?” They were saying, “Should the Fund for the Arts be nearly a ministerial organization that has money flow in and then money flow out and do nothing else?” What’s our responsibility? To whom? Are we going to tell people what to program? Absolutely not. No, we’re not. But we are going to be asking folks, “Are you relevant? Are you innovative? Are you evolutionary?” And we have included that language in our allocation submission packets this past spring, where folks were able to start getting comfortable with that.

AL: So you’re looking for growth in the organizations that you work with?

BSS: Yes, we’re looking for growth. We had to say, “What’s the thing? Give it in one phrase. What are you here for?” It’s about community building. Creating a vibrant community where citizens thrive and neighborhoods grow and prosper. Businesses move here. Why? Because we have a strong and vibrant arts and cultural community. And then, once they move here, they can find a challenging workforce to hire because, how do you get a talented workforce in your population living there? You have to have an interrelated, arts-rich education program that’s broad-based. The Fund for the Arts will play a very key role in that throughout the Jefferson County Public Schools system, Bullitt County, Shelby County, Oldham County, Greater Clark County, and West County. And we’re open to other school systems. We’ll work with the archdiocese as well. We’ll work with the independent schools and the home school association. A lot of folks don’t realize that close to $3.8 million was spent by the arts groups collectively, and the Fund for Arts, during the last year on interrelated arts-rich program. Why is that important? We need kids to stay in school. We need them to get the lessons. We need them to be able to do well on the ACT and SAT scores so they can get into college or into a trade school. And we’re doing our part to do that.

AL: One of the other common observations is that the Fund favors the performing arts over visual arts, with only two percent of the budget being distributed to two visual arts organizations. It seems a valid criticism. But other than just giving those agencies more money, how can the Fund impact the visual arts community in Louisville?

BSS: Well, that’s been a common observation for quite some time, and the Fund for the Arts does not show favoritism, qualitatively or quantitatively, to any particular organization – or for visual or performing arts. You know, the question about what percentage of the budget does the Fund allocate to an organization…I don’t think that’s the best question to ask. And the question that we are starting to ask, we’re going to start hearing more conversation in the community about this, is when you look at a non-profit organization, you have to look at earned income versus contributed income of a particular non-profit. And when you’re an umbrella fundraising organization such as the Fund for the Arts and you give money to other non-profits, what we need to ask ourselves is, “What percent of the contributed income of a particular organization is the Fund for the Arts providing?” Now there’s a question that anyone that receives funds from us should ask themselves. It’s not so we can control the conversation. It is so the organization does not increase their dependency ratio. That’s another phrase that’ll be new for the community to hear us talk about. What is the dependency ratio of an organization on the Fund for the Arts? We don’t know the exact answer yet. We have an expert financial panel that’s been working with us all year. And they’re working with our chief financial officer to evaluate this and determine what is the ratio that is acceptable and that doesn’t put a non-profit in jeopardy when you look at how much they receive of their contributed income from a diversified portfolio versus how much from the Fund for the Arts.

So more specifically, what can the Fund for the Arts do that might impact the visual arts community? The same thing that we do to impact the entire arts community. And that is to carry that brand that we’ve developed and keep it strong. So we make well over 1,000 presentations every year at more than 225 companies. We are on television and radio just by virtue of the interview process, and magazines and newspapers. We keep the art brand alive. We are constantly communicating to the region that contributing to the arts is important and it’s not just for corporations. Personally, I’m able to lift up and promote the visual arts because anyone that knows me or has ever been to my home or has read any of the interviews of me knows that I am a crusader for promoting the local visual arts scene. I believe that we should buy local. I believe that we should support our local artists. I just don’t say that – I live it. I don’t know, we’d have to go home and count them, but I’m going to guess I probably have 35 pieces hanging in just a few rooms in my home right now. That’s in a little apartment up here on Main Street. And I’m proud to say every bit of that artwork in my home came from a local artist or a local gallery, with the exception of four pieces that my husband had before I met him and brought into the marriage. But I let him keep them because they’re pretty spectacular pieces of art.

The other thing that the Fund for the Arts did was Power2Give, you know, and I’m going to keep coming back to that. But the visual art community, I think, has a rich opportunity through Power2Give. I had a vision last December when we launched this program that more than 500 individual artists would approach a non-profit organization. For example, an artist could go over to the Home of the Innocents. Or they could go to the Center for Women and Families. Or they could go to the YMCA or to Big Brothers Big Sisters or, you know, pick any one of these non-profit organizations and convince them to partner with the visual artist to create a visual art project. It could be anything. It could be an outdoor sculptor. It could be classes for the students. It could be photography. JCTC did a photography project for Power2Give. And I would love to see 500 artists get a project and a dream funded by working with another not-for-profit group. LVAA [Louisville Visual Art Association] is a great example. You have LVAA, Western Middle School, PNC Broadway Across America, and Tara Remington. They all partnered up and we had that amazing $8,500 project, which I think we raised $5,500 of it on Power2Give. And when it went up on the steps of the Kentucky Center for the Arts, that was like the coolest thing we had all year! People love that! The coverage in the newspaper was unbelievable – the coverage for LVAA and for Tara – and I talk about Tara everywhere I go. I’m talking about her today. So what can the Fund for the Arts do? The Fund for the Arts can keep telling the story. Help promote it.


Tara Remington and Barbara Sexton Smith in front
of the Blue Man Drum. Photo by Aron Conaway.

AL: Do you feel, though, that part of the extra burden for visual arts, when you talk about that ratio of earned income and looking at those kinds of percentages, that performing arts groups might have a greater advantage because they are selling tickets to events, which is something that is not inherent to visual arts? Both LVAA and KMAC [Kentucky Museum of Art & Craft] do events, trying to remedy that. Does that maybe throw that ratio and that barometer out of whack a little bit, between those two types of arts organizations?

BSS: That’s a really good question. That’s why we have this expert financial panel looking at it. So it’s not just left up to two or three of us trying to figure out the answer to the dependency ratio question. But, you’re right to point it out: They [performing arts groups] do have the opportunity of earned revenue, which is why you have to break it apart. So you can compare apples to apples. Now there was a time when the Fund for the Arts vigorously tried to partner with the Speed Museum as the large visual art anchor. That’s the largest visual art anchor in our community. And we saw a way to lift up the conversation, elevate the conversation of visual arts. If the Speed Museum would have partnered with the Fund for the Arts, then the whole conversation for all of the visual arts community would have been lifted. I was not personally involved or engaged in those conversations, but I understood that they broke down almost as fast as they began. That doesn’t mean they can’t start again. So, I looked to Cincinnati then, and I tried to see and learn what is the Cincinnati United Art Fund doing that we’re not doing? The major visual art anchors in Cincinnati are all part of the United Art Fund. And I don’t know why our major visual art anchor did not want to partner with the Fund for the Arts.

AL: Do you feel like there’s any possibility that what the Speed is about to go through, being closed for three years, might open up new opportunities to have that conversation?

BSS: Oh, I always think...evolution. Remember, “Are we relevant, innovative, and evolutionary?” I think evolution always opens doors for things to change. It’s always possible. Charles Venable and I, we’ve not sat down and talked about it. Maybe that’s something we could do. Maybe we could do that together. Plus you’ve got the International Contemporary Art Foundation, which is housed at 21c Museum Hotel. Number one hotel in America. Number six in the world. You’ve got to look at that. The whole reason that ICAP exists is to lift up contemporary artists across the globe. How cool is that to have that at Seventh and Main Street in downtown Louisville? I would think all of our artists in our town would embrace that as something that they may want to be a part of. So maybe there’s a bigger and broader community role that the International Contemporary Art Foundation might be able to play with us here locally. I don’t know the answer to that.
           
You know, I love the Open Doors and Children’s Fine Art Classes that Louisville Visual Art Association has, and those are programs that the Fund for the Arts has funded for years and will continue to fund. And I know that we fund a sizeable portion of the budget for those programs, and they’re not in a position – there’s no earned revenue from what I understand. I think there could be. I think there could be. I know Shannon [LVAA Executive Director Shannon Westerman] and I had a conversation last year about this.

The other youth groups in our community, such as the Louisville Youth Orchestra, Louisville Youth Choir, Walden Theatre, and West Louisville Performing Arts Academy – those organizations all charge students to participate. And those organizations all have significant at-risk populations, contrary to popular belief. A number of those children come from an at-risk population. There was a homeless child at the Louisville Youth Orchestra last year. There was a homeless child with the Louisville Youth Choir last year. So those students can find funding or find scholarships available. The organizations found scholarship money to pay for those students who can’t afford to come. So the Children’s Fine Art Class program, as I think about it, what could the Fund for the Arts do to be helpful? It could encourage the folks to think about maybe having a fee for those students similar to what the other youth programs charge. If you have 800 students in the program, you could charge the average of what the other groups are charging, which is anywhere from $325 up to $450 a year. Just do the math; the next thing you know, you’re at $120,000.

AL: What you’re saying seems to makes sense. But you can take a program that’s been, in effect, free for 85 years and push it towards being a tuition-based program, even with the allowances for scholarships for at-risk students. Wouldn’t that be an example of the Fund trying to change an organization’s programming at a fundamental level?

BSS: Oh, yeah. That’s a great observation. I can see why someone would think that’s what the Fund is doing.  But no, we’re saying, “Here’s an idea, but you don’t have to do it. Your funding’s not based on it.” That’s just a suggestion. It reminds me of the first year, 14 years ago, when I went to work for the Fund for the Arts. The most bizarre thing to me was when they showed me the pledge card. And on the pledge card, all it took was one look and I knew what was wrong with the fundraising. But they had always done it that way. This card had always said, “How much do you want to give per pay?” And it took me three years of vigorous debate with the leaders of the Fund for the Arts to get them to change the language on that pledge card. And the reason they gave for not wanting to change the language was that is what they had always done and they had been doing it since 1977 when they ran the very first payroll deduction campaign and raised $2,777. That’s a lot of sevens. I said, “But it’s different. Things have changed since then.” They said, “But we’ve always had that on there and we don’t want to change it and we’re not changing it now.” So after three years, I was able to convince them to write on that pledge card that we’re going to ask them to give so much per week. That’s all I wanted to do, instead of “per pay.”

AL: So then everybody’s pay schedule’s the same.

BSS: Right. For example, you go to LG&E and you pass out pledge cards. The folks in the union get paid every week, so you ask them for $1 per pay; you’re asking them for $52 a year. Management was paid every two weeks; so you’re asking them for $26 a year. You go to the 12 senior officers in that company, and they’re getting paid once a month; and we’re asking them for $12 a year. You talk about a regressive tax? That’s regressive fundraising. It made absolutely no sense. And then – that isn’t really my whole motivation and driver for it. What I was trying to do was raise more money – substantially more…. So if you ask somebody for $1 a pay, you’re going to get 26 bucks. If you ask them for $1 a week, you’re going to get 52. So now, give me some proof? Back then, the average gift to the Fund for the Arts from the payroll deduction campaign was $74 a person per year. That moved to $81 a person the next year. It moved to $96 a person the next year. It moved to $114 a person the next year. It climbed on up and got all the way as high as $165 per person. Why? We just started asking people for more money as we went. And it changed everything. We went from raising $6.8 million in 2000 to raising $8,140,000 reported this last year. And it’s that payroll deduction campaign changing the language that people didn’t want to change.
           
But no, an organization doesn’t have to change. That’s just my suggestion.

AL: At a public forum in January, as Interim Director, you spoke very candidly about the importance of restructuring the Fund board to increase its diversity. That is certainly change at a fundamental level and opportunity spurred by controversy, if you will. Now that you have the job on a long-term basis, do you anticipate being able to institute equally fundamental alterations of policies?

BSS: Okay, some fundamental changes. One, we talked about restructuring the board and we have been able to make some changes on the board moving in that direction. The diversity on the board is changing. We’re bringing on six new board members. I believe we had eight board members rotating off. We’ve implemented term limits on the officers on the board. We now have a chair-elect, which we’ve never had before. That person’s in waiting to take over the following year.
           
Other fundamental changes were complete realignment of internal operations. That was the key right there. That was the first thing we did. And so we looked at positions and the position descriptions for every one of the jobs that were required to get the campaign to where it needed to be to run the organizations. So we rewrote job descriptions and realigned all the internal operations. That’s what I mentioned earlier. We went from fourteen down to ten employees; and we believe our sweet spot is going to be eight full-time and four contract employees, which seems to be working.
           
Another fundamental change we made: how we allocate the funds. We do two things: we raise money, and we allocate money. So fundamental change – how did you change the way you raise money? Well, we did that very quickly and very effectively. We started broadening our base of support, meaning we went and found new payroll deduction campaigns. In any given year we’ll have three, four, maybe five, six new campaigns. We had to change drastically. We’ve got 28 new businesses this year, and those 28 new businesses brought us $133,000. Fundamental change. That was called “share prospecting.”
           
The next fundamental change was implementing Power2Give; then fundamental change in working to have a highly engaged board in the fundraising. That was a question a lot of people asked:  “How engaged is your board?” Well, the Art-A-Thon, which was a telethon, proved that the Fund for the Arts board and the cultural partner board members could come together and raise funds, and it generated $422,000 in four nights. Fundamental change in how you engage volunteers.
           
Fundamental change: the second thing we do, we distribute funds. Well, we changed that drastically in the last year through this allocations process. So now what we’re doing going forward is we’re offering, in addition to some base operating support, we’re offering to current cultural partners challenge grants. That’s new. Fundamental change.
           
But what it does is it sets a dynamic for the cultural partners who receive money from us to do the same thing that our funders have done to us this last year. I had several funders tell us that they weren’t going to give us the money unless we raised a certain amount of money. And I got several all-or-nothing proposals. We had one individual tell us, “We’ll give you a $200,000 challenge grant, and you have to match every bit of it or you get none of it.” We did that. That was the Art-A-Thon. We had the Ogle Foundation in southern Indiana say, “We’ll give you your normal annual grant, but we’re also going to give you a challenge grant with stipulations on it.” Nobody likes to be told what to do and how to do it; but if somebody’s giving you money, I will listen all day long. Ogle Foundation said, “Barbara, Joe, we’re going to give you $25,000, but you have to match it in this way: you have to raise the new money in southern Indiana, and you have to get it from individual corporations who have not given a gift to the Fund for the Arts since January 1, 2009.” So there is no low fruit. We had to go out and find it. Was it easy? No. Did we do it? Yes, we did. And I want others to be able to do that.
           
AL: The last question: At one point, there was a document about 10 things, mostly visual artists, that they wanted to see the Fund change. And a lot of what you’ve done does seem to respond to the points on that document. What are you doing to continue that dialogue and to get input and reaction from those same people, the artists, whether they’re in formerly member organizations or whether they’re on Power2Give or whatever? How are you hearing from those people now?

BSS: That’s a great question. We have a very active social media program, and Nicole Bright has done a wonderful job guiding me through that because I knew nothing about social media. I don’t know that I know anything about it today other than it seems to be working for us. So we try to stay very active on Facebook. We try to stay very active on our website. And I do the video blogs usually every week. And so those are wide open for comments. And I am not afraid to make myself or the Fund vulnerable in the sense that we do want to hear what is on people’s minds. We do want to know what people are thinking, and we want people to be part of the solution. We want to give people an opportunity to do that. So anybody can weigh in 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and tell us what they’re thinking and what’s on their mind and put their comments out there on Facebook or on our website, on the Courier-Journal. Articles will go out. I’m kind of surprised, though, how few people really do that. And then we pose questions on our homepage from time to time.

AL: A lot of people do what?

BSS: I’m surprised at the lack of comments on the Courier-Journal’s website to, really, any articles that they write. That’s probably more of a conversation, “What are Americans interested in?” That’d take it somewhere else. So, we’re doing that. Would I host, would I participate in another town hall? Absolutely. Oh gosh, I would welcome that. And another thing that we do:  My team and I have been out, as I’ve said, to more than one thousand companies and organizations all across the region. You know, talking with groups. And any time we stand up and talk with a group, people get asked questions. So yes, I welcome the opportunity to do town hall meetings if somebody wanted to do that. And – oh – I am out speaking publicly; it seems like at least once a day, somewhere, as a keynote speaker.  For example, this morning I was the keynote speaker at the University of Louisville for the Breakfast of Champions. That’s a group that Dick Wilson gets together. I have no idea or control, and I wouldn’t want it, of who’s going to be in the audience. I’ve spoken to the entire body of the Louisville Chapter of the Society of Human Resource Managers. And you say, “Well, you’ve got to be a member of those different places or an employee of those companies to be there to say something.” And that’s true, but anybody can come. I’ve had churches ask me, “Will you come out and talk about the arts landscape for our Sunday school class?” I’ve gone and done that. It was an artist that signed that document to come to their Sunday School class, and that’s what I did.

AL: Is there a way to involve artists directly, either by trying to get them involved in the board or creating some sort of artists’ advisory committee, or something like that, something slightly more formal than what you’re talking about?

BSS: I think anything like that’s possible. I think anything like that’s possible. You know, I also think what’s really important is that, with any business or any project you have to stay very focused. It’s very hard to stay focused…it’s very easy to get out of focus, I guess I should say. If you’re not careful. So I have to keep coming back to “What are the founding principles of the Fund for the Arts? What are we?” We’re not all things to all people. We’re not going to be able to identify every problem. We’re not going to have a suggested solution for every problem. As much as I would like to think I could help save the world, I know we can’t do that. That’s not realistic. But what we want to do is to keep the brand of the overall arts very strong.
           
Something the Fund for the Arts has been able to do for arts organizations and those who make a living working in the arts and for the artists, something that has gone missing on a lot of people, are some statistics that have come out just recently. And they are this: When you look at united art fund cities across America – there are 56 cities that have a united art fund – we’re one of them. Of those campaigns, 40 percent of the money that is raised in a united art fund city comes from individuals. But in our community, 64 percent of the money we raise comes from individuals. Why is that? We’re not dependent on a handful of major corporations. Because when a corporation decides to change its focus, go out of business, or stop their funding, you have no recourse. So we’ve used the brand of the Fund for the Arts and expanded it all across the region, so we keep the Fund supply up while other united art funds are not. How did we have an 11 percent increase this year when Cincinnati, 105 miles up the road, had only a 1.8 percent increase in their fund? The Milwaukee Fund for the Arts is the second largest Fund for the Arts in America. They only had a 1.8 percent increase. Why did we have an 11? I think it’s that brand – it’s so strong. And why is that? We keep very focused on our founding principle. Eight percent of the individuals in America give to charity. But 80 percent of the people that give to the Fund for the Arts never go to an art event. Eighty percent of the people that give to the Fund for the Arts do not go to the events, the exhibits, or the performances. Why is that? We’re out there telling the message.

Conversely, 85 percent of the people that support the exhibits – buy the performance tickets – 85 percent of those people don’t give to the annual campaigns. Why is that? So, are the have-nots subsidizing the cost of the arts for the haves? I don’t know. I don’t know, but I do know we have a very generous community, and I know that the per capita giving average in the 56 united art fund communities  is $2.34. But here in Louisville, Kentucky, per capita giving to arts is $6.71. Why is that? There’s a strong brand here. Did the Fund for the Arts do it by itself? Absolutely not. No. Never. It never was one person or one organization. It was the community coming together. And this thread we’ve got that goes through all the school systems – we shouldn’t underestimate that. That’s something we’ve got to keep strong. Because the July 15th Courier-Journal article, which was very well-written – I love what Elizabeth Kramer did with “The Greying of America” – how do we stop that? Well, we keep the arts alive with the younger population. The children’s fine arts program is a wonderful example of what we have to keep alive. Because then that keeps the young audience interested. And they’ll go to the arts when they get older.

AL: That is a challenge, and there’s a lot of discussion about that, even before her article. What the orchestra’s gone through is perhaps an example: its core fan base is of an older age level. That’s been the talk around town for years. They’re not connecting to a new generation.

BSS: Okay, so now that takes us, for the third time – let’s come back to this:  Should the Fund for the Arts position itself to engage in what the programming should and shouldn’t be? I take the position “No.” I take the position we should not do that. However, sometimes I sit here and I think, to me, it’s so simple. You could change up some programming, and I’m not saying dumb down the programming. Do not do that. Because people know. I don’t care who you are, how uneducated you are, when you walk into a museum and look at a fabulous piece of art, you know you’re looking at something fabulous. I can sit somebody down in front of, you know, a piece of art, and they will get it. They may not understand it, they may not know what it means, and they may not know whether it is from the Baroque or Renaissance period; but they know they’re looking at something that’s absolutely spectacular. You can put them in a music hall and let them listen to a composition – you know, Mozart, Rachmaninoff or Beethoven. They may not have a clue what they’re listening to, but they know it’s fabulous. And they know it’s powerful. Because they know how it makes them feel. It makes them connect to something that’s much greater than they could ever be by themselves. That’s why I do what I do. 

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