"And the beat goes on............."
Note: I will taking off for the next few weeks as I have two upcoming surgeries. I have prepared several blogs to post during the period, including an upcoming Exit Interview with Bob Booker. I hope to be back soon.
Laura Zucker is the consummate arts administrator having led the field for two plus decades of major accomplishments in the local arts agency sector. I asked her to sit for an Exit Interview last month, and she graciously accepted.
Laura Zucker Bio:
Laura recently stepped down after 25 years as executive director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. The Arts Commission funds more than 400 arts organizations, implements the regional initiative dedicated to restoring arts education to 81 public school districts, funds the largest paid arts internship program for undergraduates in the country, and manages the county's civic art policy. For more than two decades she led the revitalization of the Ford Theatres and was executive producer of the Emmy® Award winning Holiday Celebration.
She recently completed a strategic plan for Cultural Equity and Inclusion that resulted in actionable recommendations, five of which are being implemented now: https://www.lacountyarts.org/ceii-report. In 2013, Ms. Zucker spearheaded the addition of Los Angeles County to the global initiative, the World Cities Culture Report and Forum, a report that features 23 major world urban centers and contains a wealth of information and data on arts and culture never collected in one place before. In 2017 she was part of the first World Culture Summit, which brought together cultural leaders from 80 countries held in Abu Dhabi in 2017.
Her leadership helped shape the regional cultural calendar on ExperienceLA.com, which is now part of DiscoverLA.com managed by the Los Angeles Convention and Tourism Board. Ms. Zucker headed the California Cultural Tourism Initiative, which marketed the arts of California’s three urban regions domestically and internationally. She is the author of a regional study of individual artists as part of the California Arts Council’s economic impact study on the arts.
Prior to the Arts Commission, she was executive director of the Ventura Arts Council and producing director of the Back Alley Theatre for ten years.
She serves on the boards of Grantmakers in the Arts, and the Trusteeship, the Southern California Chapter of the International Women's Forum. She is also a member of the LA Coalition for Jobs and the Economy. She is a past board member of the Association of Arts Administration Educators and was a founding member of the board of Arts for LA. She received a B.A. from Barnard College and attended the Yale School of Drama.
Here is the Interview:
Barry: After 25 years leading one of the premier local arts agencies in the country, what is your biggest takeaway as an arts administrator?
Laura: The arts community’s resiliency, inventiveness and resourcefulness are limitless.
Barry: What do you know now, that you wish you knew when you started? If you could do it all over again, what would you do differently?
Laura: I was going to say that I would have tried harder to stay on the right side of some politically connected people, but then I thought of this quote from Winston Churchill: “You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.” I stood up for the equitable distribution of public dollars. It might have been good to know at the outset what that would cost in the long run, but I don’t think it would have changed anything I did.
Barry:Your agency uses applied research, evaluation and data mining to support your work. Explain how you do that and how important is it to your success?
Laura: How can you know how to strategically address a challenge if you’re not clear about the root cause? If you start off by trying to determine what problem you’re trying to solve, it actually makes things easier. It’s always going to require some research to figure this out. This was certainly true when we started to tackle arts education in LA County. We sent a team out to interview someone in every one of the 81 school districts and found out that although everyone thought arts education was important, there were real impediments to implementation. So our arts education initiative didn’t have to focus on changing hearts and minds; it needed to find ways to help school districts actually implement programs. And, of course, evaluation is the key to determining if what you’re doing is actually moving the needle. Research tied to evaluation has been our template for everything we’ve done since, including our recent Cultural Equity and Inclusion initiative. First we did a literature review, and then we surveyed the field to learn the state of things. As in arts education, we found a lot of belief in change, but not much strategy, so we focused on actionable recommendations that we could implement. I think we’re the only local arts agency in the country that has hired a full time director of research and evaluation, and we subsequently assembled a research/evaluation team to support all of our initiatives. It’s impossible now to imagine being effective without this team.
Barry: You and others were instrumental in creating Arts For LA - one of the country’s best run and most successful local arts advocacy organizations. How was that put together, and why has it been so successful? What’s your best advice for other metropolitan areas which want to replicate Arts For LA’s success?
Laura: Like most successful ventures, Arts For LA started with passion and a vision. Senior arts administrators in LA met for years informally and began to realize that there was just so much that could be accomplished on a volunteer basis. At the end of the day if you want to really move the needle you need paid staff. Jonathan Glus and I put together a viable business plan, which included arts organizations committing to paying dues, to support the first paid position. We incorporated and with the financial help of Americans for the Arts and the Arts Commission were able to cobble together an initial revenue package to hire an ED for a year. Of course it helped that we hired the right person, Danielle Brazell, and the rest, as they say, is history. The critical underpinning was that LA has a super collaborative arts community, and many of us were there over years to ensure that Arts For LA succeeded. That was and is the essential ingredient. We’re still there for Sofia Klatzer, who has succeeded Danielle, and is leading the organization in new great initiatives.
Barry: Why is the NEA attacked every year and how can we change that history? Or can we?
Laura: Not sure that it is true that the NEA is attacked every year; in fact it has usually fared well under Republican administrations. This year, of course, is different, as so many agencies are under attack. The fact that even with this extreme rhetoric the agency is still being funding speaks to its ability to withstand almost anything.
Barry: Los Angeles County has scores of separate school districts, making it a disparate quilt of different approaches and outcomes for arts education, yet somehow arts education is doing better in your territory than in a lot of others. Why and how?
Laura: We’re an arts education laboratory! Because we have 81 school districts from large urban ones to small rural ones, and everything in between, we’re able to see how strategies play out in many different settings. Our vision has remained constant: that every child in public school should have quality arts education, but we’ve learned to pivot based on new education imperatives and opportunities. The LA County Arts Education Collaborative, recently renamed from Arts for All in honor of the initiative’s 15th anniversary, helps all school districts adopt policies and plans for arts education. The Arts Commission then provides a robust suite of services to help districts implement these plans, but it’s not one size fits all. Each plan is distinct so each school district fully owns it.
Barry: Two part question: 1) How did you go about building a strong staff team? To what extent was it accidental and sheer luck, and to what extent can a leader consciously go about recruiting and retaining and motivating the best and brightest? 2) How does one build a solid, workable relationship with their Board ? Commission?
Laura: No luck involved! We search for mission driven people for whom working at the Arts Commission is their dream job come true (this is not a day job!). We set the bar high, but give staff the latitude to get the job done the way they want. We find out what’s important to staff and try to make sure they get the rewards that matter to them, including lots of freedom to fly on their own and be recognized for their achievements. That’s why we have the A team.
Boards, which are self-selecting, and commissions are two very different animals. Commissions are harder because you have no control over the appointments, which range from smart people with a knowledge of the field to those who are only there as political pay back. You just hope that the adults in the room outweigh those with self-interests. It takes a big investment of time and energy on an executive director’s part to keep politically appointed commissioners or council members on track, but if they become effective advocates the pay off can be significant.
Barry: What makes an effective arts administrator?
Laura: Most arts administrators start as artists, so they have much more in their tool box than they often realize, particularly when it comes to understanding process and getting a diverse group of people to work toward the same goal. If arts administrators would approach their challenges as artists do they’ll often find they know just what to do. That includes taking risks; artists aren’t afraid of taking leaps and neither should arts administrators be.
Barry: What are the biggest challenges facing arts philanthropy - both public and private?
Laura: I assume this question is about the challenges of growing arts philanthropy, and that’s where I see only opportunities. Unlike foundation funding, which only grows based on the foundations corpus, public funding is never a zero sum game. There’s almost always a way to grow the pie. The same is true for private individual philanthropy: the sky’s the limit.
Barry: Placemaking is now a decade old approach. What is your assessment of its impact? Does it still have legs? What changes will it make in the next decade to move further along the continuum?
Laura: This is probably a better question for ArtPlace. They’re doing some interesting thinking about the sustainability of creative placemaking as they prepare to phase out in 2020.
Barry: Besides a meaningful and consistent revenue stream, what three factors are the most important for a local arts agency to produce tangible results for its community?
Laura: Find out what’s keeping your arts community up at night and make those issues your priorities; never forget you work for them.
Ask what you can do as a local arts agency that no individual organization or artist can. Focus on the macro issues.
Bring people together at every opportunity. Integrate ways for different size organizations and disciplines, as well as arts organizations and those from other fields, to interact with each other in everything you do. Local arts agencies are the connective tissue of a creative community.
Barry: More and more Boomer arts leaders are retiring. How are things in arts administration likely to change as the baton is passed to the next generations, and what challenges are they likely to face short and long term? Are they prepared? How might the sector better prepare them?
Laura: Arts administrators do face more challenges today. They need to operate in an increasingly global environment while being effective locally. That means being able to operate with hyper-specificity and great statesmanship simultaneously. But I think this next generation of leaders is up to the task. I’ve been really encouraged by my interactions with up and coming arts administrators in the Masters in Arts Management program at Claremont Graduate University. They’re smart, prepared and really care about how the arts can make the world a better place. I go to sleep peacefully at night knowing they’re going to be in charge.
Barry: Executive Directors of discipline based arts organizations have, over the past two decades, increasingly spent their time as fundraisers, leaving them ever scarcer time to lead their organizations in other visionary areas? Is that a problem and how can the sector address it?
Laura: It’s not just EDs of discipline based arts organizations, it’s leaders of all nonprofits that spend a third or more of their time sourcing revenue. I include myself in this mix since my job for 25 years has been to convince LA County to expand its support for the arts, and LA County was already the largest supporter of the arts of any county in the United States. In that sense I was working with one big primary donor. But I don’t think this is necessarily bad. It means you have to stay tuned in to what your authorizers and customers think is important. You need to stay relevant to ensure people want to invest in what you’re doing.
Barry: But for the chance to see people one hasn’t had the opportunity to see for awhile, have conferences become a waste of time? Are they more valuable for established leaders or for the newbies? How might they be reinvented?
Laura: Conferences are critical to the field, particularly for those entering. I know how important they were for me when I was trying to figure just what a local arts agency could be. Remembering that pushed me to continue attending as I became more senior in the field so that I could provide that same context for others. And it is always great to catch up with people. A network is really a net of people you can fall back on when needed.
Barry: What would you like to see GIA focus on in the next five years?
Laura: Continuing work on current priorities: racial equity, capitalization, arts education and individual artists, all of which are interconnected, will be important. And with new dynamic leadership coming to GIA in the fall, there’s going to be a wonderful opportunity to assess new opportunities. I’ll be ending my second term as a GIA board member in 2017 and have great confidence that this board and the new executive director are going to do a superlative job steering GIA over the next decade.
Barry: Are politicians too much, or too little, involved in the affairs and the health of public local arts agencies?
Laura: Hmmm…this is a tricky one. Like board or commission members, you want political authorizers to be interested and involved in policy issues, but leave the operational management to the professionals. That’s what they pay us for. Folks who have wrapped a sprained ankle know they’re not qualified to perform brain surgery! Yet it’s amazing how many people who’ve had a little experience in the arts think they’re producers.
Barry: If you had never worked at the LA County Arts Commission, where in the sector would you have preferred to have landed?
Laura: We never can see the story of our lives when it lies ahead of us, but the thread becomes so clear looking back. I couldn’t see it when I began, but I was destined to be in a job that utilized my inner policy wonk along with my producing skills. This job fulfilled a deep desire in me to enable artists to do what they do best. The Arts Commission job was meant to be for me.
Barry: What will be the biggest three issues for arts administrators in 2020?
- Ensuring all students everywhere receive a quality arts education. It’s a social justice issue.
- Valuing diverse cultural traditions equally, really equally, in terms of opportunity and resources.
- The democratization of culture: creating opportunities for the arts to be accessed by everyone, like breathing.
Thank you Laura - not just for the interview, but for all you have contributed to a healthy arts ecosystem for the past 25 years. Things just won't seem quite the same to me with your absence. Wishing you all the very best.