Sunday, September 24, 2017

Interview with Mara Walker - COO Americans for the Arts

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on................."

Unsung Leaders Series.  As a sector, the nonprofit arts is fortunate to have a large cohort of leaders who are the public faces of our organizations and our field.  Bright, articulate, experienced - these savvy leaders are the ones who interact with the media, with the public, and are largely the ones we associate with, and think of, when we consider our field and its numerous and various sub-parts.  They are the ones out front and highly visible. But there is an equally large cohort of leaders who operate more anonymously behind the scenes. These leaders are equally bright, articulate and experienced, and indeed, they are the ones who hold our organizations together, and more often than not, enable the public leaders among us to do what they do.  Often unheralded, with little recognition, without them, our field wouldn't be able to function.  These are the sometimes invisible, sometimes under appreciated mainstays of our very ability to do what we do.  Often times the  artistic director of a performing arts organization is the visible one, while the executive director toils without fanfare, quietly behind the scenes. But both are needed for success.  

This interview with Mara Walker, the Chief Operating Officer of the giant nonprofit arts conglomerate that is Americans for the Arts, is the first in a planned series of interviews with these leaders who operate more in the background than the foreground.  They are widely and well known to many of us in the field, but not to everyone.  They are extremely capable organizational managers; not just smart, but wise. I hope to shine some light on a number of these leaders.  

Mara Walker Bio:
Mara is the chief operating officer for Americans for the Arts and is responsible for the overall performance of the organization. Mara has developed programming to meet the needs of a growing constituency of organizations and individuals committed to using the arts to impact communities and lives. She was instrumental in the merger of the National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies and American Council for the Arts that led to the formation of Americans for the Arts and has played an active role in other partnerships and mergers that have grown the organization’s reach. When she first came to the organization there were 5 staff members and a budget of $300,000. Today there are 65 people in multiple offices, and a budget of over $16 million. Mara, a native New Yorker, has worked in arts administration for more than 25 years at a variety of theater companies and arts organizations nationwide. She is currently Vice Chair of theatreWashington and holds a B.A. in theatre from George Washington University and an MFA in theatre management from the University of Maryland.

The Interview: 

Barry:  You have been the Chief Operating Officer at Americans for the Arts for well over a decade.  Your portfolio includes virtually every aspect of AFTA, yet the position is one behind the scenes while others (most notably Bob - Robert Lynch, but also Randy, Nina and others) have been more the public face of the organization.  In keeping the organization on an even keel, steering it through the maze of areas in which it has a stake, and allowing Bob, Nina, Randy and others to do their thing, what have your learned?

Mara:  Let brilliant people do what they do best. At the same time, work to develop the kind of relationships with them that allows you to be honest when they may be taking a path that is not in the best interest of the organization. At a place as complex as ours, when you are moving a lot of different areas forward at the same time, it is important to know when to bury your ego and when you need to use it to muscle forward. Someday I may regret leaving the limelight to others but not yet. Right now, it’s still the work we do that matters most to me.

Barry:  What is the chief skill an arts administrator needs to master to effectively manage their organization?

Mara: A sense of humor? No, well, yes and… It’s critical to be able to recognize that each person at an organization approaches work from his or her own vantage point and that that rich diversity is essential for success. Because of a shared vision, people here may not always do exactly what you anticipate but they will often exceed expectations.

Barry:  Both AFTA and the NEA recently celebrated 50th Anniversaries.  As each faces the future, is this a good time to begin to imagine what an AFTA and an NEA 2.0 might look like, and what do you think each organization might look like in 2025 and beyond?

Mara:  Each Presidential Administration provides a different context for the work of both agencies. It would be unfair to suggest what both organizations should look like in the face of changing societal indicators. It is my hope though that both the NEA and AFTA will continue to use their influence to expand awareness of the value of the arts and arts education and see local arts agencies as core to their work in future years.

Barry:  Arts conferences and conventions are big business for their parent organizations.  They serve not only to network, inform and educate their members, but to position the organization within the sector and (for many) to generate operating income.  For old timers, the major attraction is in networking with established peers; for newbies it is often to begin to understand the “industry”.  But most conferences have now devolved into pretty much the same kinds of sessions and formats.  Is it time to reinvent what a conference is all about?  Do you have any ideas on that?

Mara:  I agree that the day of the 5 panelists making presentations behind a podium next to a screen showing a power point is over, but the idea of bringing together hundreds of people to network, share ideas and inspire new strategies is essential. Our Local Arts Advancement team has been testing new ways to bring people together at our multiple conferences. From small to large in-person gatherings to online workshops and webinars, our field education comes in many shapes so that there is something for everyone. While online training has its benefits, there is no replacing the insight people gain from being together. I wish more funders understood the long-term value of such experiences. Perhaps that is a conference evaluation limitation.

Barry:  At some point Bob (Lynch - President AFTA) will retire.  Has there been any effort at a transition strategy when that finally happens?  Can you elaborate?

Mara:  The organization has a succession plan in place that is designed to guide us through a smooth transition. It kicks in two years in advance of Bob’s departure date which is still being finalized. There’s no doubt it will be a challenging change as we have been fortunate to have such a strong charismatic leader and senior staff for many years. We have a strategic plan that will guide the board in finding our next CEO and while some programmatic priorities may change, it is my hope that the local arts agency field will always remain our core strategy for advancing strong equitable communities through the arts. Bob has built an ever-evolving entrepreneurial organization. Our board and staff will ensure that continues.

Barry:  The AFTA Board has changed substantially from a decade or two ago.  Today you have many more corporate and patron types than before.  How has managing the intersections between the Board, and the Staff changed?  What lessons have you gleaned that might be applicable to all arts organizations in the handling of Board relations?

Mara:  Just as our field leaders work in intersectional ways, so do we. The Board has evolved as the organization has evolved. Americans for the Arts takes a multi-sector approach to our work and the board needs to reflect that. It certainly makes for “dynamic” conversations. Boards need to represent diverse perspectives, set direction and then let staff do their work. We have an amazing Board that does just that.

Barry:  Boomers are retiring in waves within the nonprofit arts now.  How can we maintain the institutional memory of all those leaders who have led the field for so long so that it doesn’t just disappear?

Mara:  I love institutional memory. Not everyone does. Most people want to create the new and now without being tethered by the past. I try not to worry about the history of the field being lost as our senior leaders retire or move on because a) the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has created an archive where materials from the National Endowment for the Arts, National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, Americans for the Arts and others are being stored and made available, b) new storytelling initiatives are capturing our narrative and c) our local arts field has always been resilient and will continue to find innovative ways to use the arts to build stronger communities.

Barry:  And along the same tract, what do we need to do to prepare the next generation of arts leaders to handle the likely very different challenges they will face, and what might those new challenges be?

Mara:  We continue to have such young brilliant minds in our field. It’s really exciting. I was here for the creation of our Emerging Leaders Network and Council and I have always loved hearing their ideas on the local arts field and what it means to be a young leader in it. Over time, emerging arts leaders have always faced challenges that have them question whether they can or should stay in the arts. One example is balancing student debt while making a name for oneself. My biggest advice to emerging leaders is to get yourself known—connect, get involved, ask for time and advice—and to take great leaps and enjoy the ride. New challenges exist for leaders at all levels of their careers and examples include exploring new funding models, new technologies, new languages of partners, new evaluation tools, and new bridges to new relationships.

Barry:  Back when AFTA was still NALAA (National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies), you were involved in programs and operations for Locals.  And as COO of AFTA you have seen all kinds of new challenges facing the Locals.  From your vantage point, what are the biggest changes in the administration of local arts agencies over the past two decades?

Mara:  When I first started at NALAA we were working to get local arts agency leaders recognized for the important work they do. Just getting them to the decision making table was a win. I feel like local arts leaders are at the table now, in fact, they are at multiple tables with enormous expectations placed on them. They are becoming fluid at dealing with all the sectors of their community and prepared to walk as easily into their housing authority, as their transportation authority, as their churches, as their creative industries, etc. Knowing these languages, arguments, and collaborative strategies is what they do best and what they will continue to do.

Barry:  What worries you most about the future of the arts in America?

Mara:  For the long term, what worries me most is funding for the arts especially equitable funding for artists and arts organizations. My most immediate concern, however, is the silencing of the voice of the artist (and media).

Barry:  Years ago, and for many years, there was talk about AFTA opening a West Coast office so as to have more of a “national” presence.  What ever happened to that idea?

Mara:  Having regional or state offices is something we have discussed and it’s not something I would rule out in the future but our members throughout the country are such strong partners that it hasn’t been a necessary expense.

Barry:  AFTA has had remarkably little turnover in those who occupy its principal positions relative to the field as a whole.  How has the organization managed that, and what do you do to retain people?

Mara:  There is no other place like Americans for the Arts with the vision to advance all of the arts to all of the people by reaching into multiple sectors at once. That unique role provides creative staff members with jobs they can’t find any place else. For the most part, staff are the masters of their own destinies here. Operating within the strategic plan, they get to envision and implement their own great ideas. In addition, we have an amazing operations team here that works to ensure we are providing staff with terrific benefits and an engaging office environment. That said, it’s a fast-paced culture and we don’t suffer staleness well, so people are always innovating or they just move on.

Barry:  A common complaint by middle level managers in organizations across many sectors is often about “micromanagement”.  How do you avoid that?  Would you characterize the structure of AFTA as top down, bottom up, centralized, decentralized, layers of satellite areas of interest or what?  And what lessons might arts administrators take from your experience?

Mara:  I am not sure if this makes sense, but our organization isn’t strictly top down or bottom up. Lots of ideas come bottom up. Lots of ideas comes top down. Each department has the freedom to succeed madly on their own within the parameters of the strategic plan and budget. Some call it shared leadership which does work to an extent. For example, as a result of our cultural assessment and cultural equity statement, we created a staff-driven AFTA Learning Lab that designs year-round leadership and diversity, equity and inclusion training programs. Our staff play a huge role in creating the culture here but that doesn’t happen easily. We have to work hard at it together. I have learned that change takes time and complacency doesn’t serve any organization well.

Barry:  How important, and to what degree and detail, is it for an administrator to know what is going on in all the organization’s various departments and affiliates?  Is it better to have a general sense of what is going on, or is it essential to know particulars on an ongoing basis?  How is the delegation of decision making authority handled at AFTA?

Mara:  It depends on the job. I don’t expect Bob to know everything going on inside the organization but Bob expects me to know it. He and I play different roles at Americans for the Arts. He is responsible for setting a vision for the organization, in concert with the board, and I am responsible for making sure our resources are used well to carry out that vision. As everyone knows, Bob gets to say yes, and I get the fun job of having to say no occasionally.

Barry:  AFTA has forged a number of alliances, partnerships, mergers and affiliations over the years.  What is the key to making those work, and to making them last?

Mara:  Mutual respect and shared outcomes makes partnerships work. We genuinely believe that by working with others, and appreciating their needs, we can together create powerful results. Americans for the Arts works with over 50 strategic partners, some more deeply with others, to build recognition for the arts as a tool to help them achieve their goals. We have worked with the US Conference of Mayors for over 20 years and conduct joint programming, advocacy and policy formation to demonstrate to Mayors about the return on investment in supporting the arts. We have worked with The Conference Board for over 10 years through joint research and convenings to teach businesses about the value of partnering with the arts. We work with 89 national arts partners who agree on policy positions that are advocated for all year long. And on and on with groups like the National Association of Counties, Independent Sector, Arts Education Partnership, Grantmakers in the Arts, Council on Foundations, CECP, National Lieutenant Governors Association, NAMM and many others. By following through on what we say we are going to do and through training, communications, and incorporating artists into their work, our partnerships demonstrate the importance of the arts to key decision makers.

Barry:  What areas are not being funded by the philanthropic community that you would like to see funded by 2020?

Mara:  This list is by no means complete but here are few things we need more of: risk taking, new methods for equitable grantmaking, strong social impact arguments that resonate with decision makers, new ways to build cross-cultural understanding, partnerships with the creative industries, methods for partnering the nonprofit and for profit arts, accessible cross-community data on best practices, evaluation tools, and long-term training strategies.

Barry:  What tools do you use to deflate workplace conflict?  And what tools do you have in place to meet unexpected crises?

Mara:  Actually, managing conflict and handling unexpected crises require the same strategies: respecting and appreciating the strengths we each bring to our work and being willing to come together quickly to collaborate to get what needs to be done done. That takes effort and intentionality. A great example is the fast pooling of skills it took to develop our Arts Mobilization Center.

Barry:  What is the biggest lie the arts sector continues to buy into?

Mara:  You like me, you really like me. We can be a competitive bunch, driven mostly by money, but there is a lot of respect and when we work together, we accomplish great things.

Barry:  Complete the sentence:  “The thing that most drives me crazy about the nonprofit arts is________________________________".

Mara:  that we can be competitive with one another, a problem driven mostly by money.
that we are still having to prove the value of the arts.

Barry:  The Lily money changed everything for AFTA and allowed the amazing expansion that has happened in the past decades.  Where would AFTA be had that bequeath not happened?

Mara:  I feel certain the core of Americans for the Arts would have remained the same: to advance all of the arts to all of the people. We would have employed the same strategies we use today which include research, professional development, strategic alliances, visibility and advocacy, just on a smaller scale. We still would have approached our work through a multi-sector lens. The funds have allowed us to take risks, grow a citizen membership and connect to a broader base in meaningful ways.

Thank you Mara.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit