“I'm someone who's looking for a reason to hope, and for me hope looks like feminine systems of governance being instated in the institutions and throughout corporate and civil life.” – Antony Hegarty
An executive director of one of the most exciting London theaters once told me that women are too busy helping each other, while men are building their own careers and climbing speedily to the top ranks. While it may sound as a bitter observation of gender inequality in the workplace, I now think of it more as a comment on the advantages of embracing the female leadership styles and collegial professional ethics. Wouldn’t the world be a much more cohesive and progressive place if we were truly supporting each other? Imagine how much more you would get done. Isn’t it incredible that we have any women leaders at all, given they are also committed mentors, friends, caregivers, partners, activists, volunteers, and the list goes on? An idea of a nurturing, supportive female leadership is not entirely revolutionary. However, it often remains in the realm of management theories and artistic concepts, rather than being institutionalized and embraced by those in positions of power.
Bringing it closer to home during a month celebrating women’s achievements meant creating an opportunity to hear from some of the most inspirational female leaders in NYC’s cultural sector, and give us all some food for thought and ignite further action. We’ve been very honored to have had five accomplished leaders representing a variety of art forms and organizations participate in the panel conversation Aspire, Inspire, Create: Women Leaders in the Arts on March 23, 2017. The speakers for this panel were:
Rachel Chanoff, who runs her own curatorial consulting company in performing arts and film, THE OFFICE performing arts + film, and is the Artistic Director of the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! festival;
Katie Hollander, Executive Director of Creative Time, who has previously served as Deputy Director at Creative Time, and as Executive Director at ArtTable;
Ginny Louloudes, Executive Director at Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, and a long-time champion for non-profit theater in NYC and nationwide;
Mara Manus, Executive Director at New York State Council on the Arts, whose previous roles include Executive Director of The Film Society at Lincoln Center and Director of Playwrights of New York; and
Pauline Willis, Director at American Federation of Arts, who has significantly grown the organization and expanded its international collaborations.
Moderated by Jessica Ferey, the co-founder of Gender Equity in Museums Movement, the discussion focused on some key lessons the speakers have taken away from being a female leader; some common challenges they faced as women when advancing in their career; the idea of mentorship and supportive environment in the workplace.
Some helpful practical tips we left with included the idea of openness to the opportunities and challenges. Your next career move may come from a less expected source of ‘inspiration’: from being dumped, to becoming a mother, as well as from breaking through your own stereotypes. While our panelists admitted the unachievable nature of the illusionary “have it all” concept, they have also shared how their experience of juggling personal and professional sides of their lives is inherent to being a woman, and how these can create new ways of working and achieving your own, even if somewhat imperfect, balance.
While proactively seeking advice and mentorship is encouraged, it is a career sponsor who can really empower you, help you become more visible in your field, and get you in the right place at the right time. All of our speakers admitted to finding a lot of value in having their own ‘soundboard’ of peers and colleagues from other organizations who they regularly catch up with. Finding and maintaining supporting networks and mentors not only among those senior to you, but among your peers, is crucial for a rewarding professional life.
Support in a workplace that is, ideally, encouraged by the organization’s leadership, comes in shape of informative feedback, creating environment that recognizes and builds on each individual’s interests and potential, and, above all, recognizing that the people you work with, or who work for you, are first and foremost human beings, for whom work is only one part of their lives. It may be equally more tricky to create such environment in larger, more formally structured organizations, or in informal startup-style companies, but the shift can in fact come from more junior staff. As our panelists pointed out, coming up to those in leadership positions is the first step towards more flexible ways of working, so important to many of us seeking the elusive work-life balance, and towards a more satisfying work life.
One of the questions from the audience of over a hundred professional women working in NYC’s arts sector was about starting your own new cultural organization in a field that seems already saturated with arts enterprises of all shapes and forms, and where policy and funding is still too often dominated by elitist patriarchal groups. Is starting a new arts nonprofit destined for a failure? The answer was to stay enthusiastic and believe in what you are doing, and also remembering there is a whole world outside NYC worth venturing out to! There is also a growing number of funding opportunities for women-led projects and companies, so now can be the time to do your own thing.
We also hope that now is the time to build on this conversation and create more opportunities for emerging female leaders in the arts. We will be running tailored mentorship sessions by and for women working across different art forms and roles in the coming months – stay tuned and check back ELNYA website and Facebook page for updates!
2017 ELNYA Fellow