Women Cultural Leaders

With the arrival in 2013 of Jenny Bilfield, the first female president and CEO of the venerable Washington Performing Arts Society, followed this year by Deborah Rutter, the first female president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, people sat up and took notice.

Bilfield and Rutter head what are arguably the two most high-profile arts institutions in Washington.

About to begin a major expansion, the Kennedy Center – with its array of theaters and venues and resident companies (including Washington National Opera, where Francesca Zambello is artistic director) – is considered the nation’s performing arts icon. Washington Performing Arts – with its new logo, shorter name and a sense of expanding mission – is the area’s leading producing organization, bringing world-class artists and ensembles not only to the Kennedy Center, but to venues such as the Music Center at Strathmore and the Sixth & I historic synagogue.

On the museum side, Kim Sajet at the National Portrait Gallery and Melissa Chiu at the Hirshhorn became the first female directors at their institutions this year.

The emergence of women as cultural leaders in Washington isn’t new, of course, but their recent growth in numbers may indicate a trend. It appears to have precipitated a burst of excitement and buzz in the city’s cultural world, especially in terms of possible and anticipated changes.

Arts organizations in cities across the United States face a host of challenges and opportunities. No one-size-fits-all approach is possible, other than the pursuit of excellence and, sometimes, survival.

Even within the visual-arts sphere, the challenges faced by leaders like Sajet at the National Portrait Gallery and Chiu at the Hirshhorn – and, for that matter, Elizabeth Broun at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Dorothy Kosinski at the Phillips Collection, Susan Fisher Sterling at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Judy Greenberg at the Kreeger Museum, Kate Markert at Hillwood and Camille Akeju at the Anacostia Community Museum – assume different forms.

Each museum is distinctly situated as to genre, mission, size, resources, patronage and the need to expand its horizons, what might be called bending the curve.

Our performing arts organizations are just as diverse, and sometimes evolve right before our eyes.

Arena Stage, one of the nation’s top regional companies, is the city’s oldest, founded in 1954 by the formidable and visionary Zelda Fichandler. Artistic director Molly Smith, who took over from Douglas Wager in 1998, oversaw Arena’s 2011 transformation. Joy Zinoman founded Studio Theatre and was its artistic director for more than 30 years of expansion before retiring in 2010 (the current artistic director is David Muse).

This sort of thing – women founding and sustaining theater and dance companies – has been going on in Washington for quite some time. Credit is also due to movers and shakers like the late Frankie Hewitt, who brought Ford’s Theatre back to life, and Jaylee Mead, who supported the growth of Arena and Studio.

Here in Georgetown, we remember Horizons Theatre and its mission of theater for women, led by George Washington University drama professor Leslie Jacobson.

In this issue, we pay tribute to the many talented and resourceful women who are leaders in the world of the performing and visual arts, sharing some of their thoughts below. The newcomers, who bring new enthusiasm, new ideas and a notable spirit of collaboration and partnership, join others already here (also outside the District, such as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Marin Alsop, who became the first female music director of a major American orchestra in 2007; Helen Pafumi at the Hub Theatre in Fairfax, Va.; and Toby Orenstein at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Md.). We regret the unavoidable omissions.

Together, they constitute a remarkable group of women and leaders, gifted with pragmatism, will, heart and vision.

Joy Zinoman, Founder, Studio Theatre: “For myself, some of the defining moments have included going overseas to Asia at age 19, a move that caused me to switch my interest from acting to directing. They also include arriving in Washington at a time when there were numerous industrial buildings in the city, and we had an opportunity to acquire space for our theaters, including the jewel that the Studio occupies now, which includes four theaters at 14th and P Streets. It allowed us to become an anchor of an arts corridor.”

Jenny Bilfield, President and CEO, Washington Performing Arts: “I loved seeing how the gears of organizations worked close-up, and high-level. And so I pursued leadership roles at small and then larger organizations where I could learn a great deal and make a big impact. Also, thanks to my mother, early exposure to a wide range of art forms, experienced in museums, performing arts venues, church basements, alternative spaces. We went to everything! So, being comfortable with many creative forms of expression, and appreciating that great art can happen in ANY location, was foundational for me.”

Kate Markert, Executive Director, Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens: “Probably taking my first art history course. I fell in love, head over heels, with all of art history, from prehistoric to contemporary. Man’s need to create, and the exceptional material examples of that creativity found in museums around the world, never cease to fascinate me. I really need to be in a place where I interact with the art objects themselves.”

Deborah Rutter, President, Kennedy Center: “Sitting in the middle of the violin section performing Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony” (No. 6) was a life-changing experience, one that told me I had to find a way to live my life with music at the center of it.”

Francesca Zambello, Artistic Director, Washington National Opera: “Standing backstage at the stage manager’s console at the Starlight Theater during a performance of ‘The Music Man,’ aged five, watching the scenery being changed, the performers running on and off stage (including my mother) and the sound of the orchestra. Attending the dress rehearsals of Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle in Bayreuth for the Patrice Chéreau production, the world of Wagner opening like a door wide before me.”

Marin Alsop, Music Director, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: “Every time I encountered a major obstacle or experienced a rejection, I tried to use the experience as an opportunity to improve my skills and learn more abut my craft. I never assumed that I did not win a position or did not get an opportunity because of my gender. I was very fortunate to have parents who believed in my capacity without limitations and who encouraged me every step of the way.”

Molly Smith, Artistic Director, Arena Stage: “Moving to Alaska – embracing the hugeness and vastness of life, the cold, the endless days. Surviving cancer – another way of embracing life, choosing to fight for yourself. Directing “South Pacific” – opened my artistic eyes to the grandeur and beauty of the American musical.”

Judy Greenberg, Director, Kreeger Museum: “It was when I was serving as a commissioner [on the Rockville Cultural Arts Commission] that the idea of developing an art center in the city of Rockville was introduced. In the 1980s, I spearheaded the development of the art center and served as president of the board. Today the center is called VisArts and continues to flourish. Because of my experience bringing Rockville Arts Place to fruition, when David Lloyd Kreeger died in 1990 and Carmen Kreeger moved from the residence in 1992, I was offered the position as director of the Kreeger Museum in 1994. In essence, it was building the museum from ‘scratch,’ always keeping in mind the founders, the collection and the architecture.”

Melissa Chiu, Director, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden: “The Hirshhorn is a public institution and a nonprofit so we are more interested in education and programming than commerce per se. We are a 20th- and 21st-century museum. Tradition for our program is focused largely on the early tenets of modernism in the 20th century. My feeling is that in order to understand where we are today we must also understand the past. It is a part of our thinking and, in effect, allows us to see how we can make sense of today’s changes. My goal is to make the Hirshhorn a leader in the conversation on arts and culture.”

Susan Fisher Sterling, Director, National Museum of Women in the Arts: “NMWA’s unique focus on art by women keeps us in the forefront of discussions about empowerment. In the U.S. alone, the data shows that women artists continue to be in the minority in museums and galleries, and yet 51 percent of artists are women artists. If women are left out of our cultural landscape, what does that say about women in society as a whole? We answer that question by offering inspirational exhibitions, collections and programs, featuring exemplary women in the arts from the Renaissance to the present day.”

Kim Sajet, Director, National Portrait Gallery: “My aspiration is to turn on its head the traditional notions of portraiture as commemorating the dead, to that of living people recognizing and identifying with the lives of the people they meet through amazing art. The commerce part of the question is actually a huge challenge, because as a Smithsonian museum, although we have free admission, none of our federal funding covers any of the exhibitions or public programs. We rely entirely on fundraising to have our vision realized. Luckily the philanthropic community up to this point have shared our vision for the future and supported what we do.”

Zinoman: “I think that art, good plays, good works, certainly need to be fresh and look forward, but I also feel that there’s too much value placed on the idea of cutting-edge. Cutting-edge seems now to be everything. Great works of art always have an immediacy. It’s about the thought that art and ideas illuminate contemporary life.”

Alsop: “Trust is the cornerstone of every relationship, including the one between orchestra and audience. We have worked hard to earn and build that trust and, as a result, our audience is very open to and curious about new music. That said, balance and moderation are key in building successful programs, so we strive to present a good mix of the standard, beloved repertoire alongside works by living composers. I believe that we also have an obligation to challenge our listeners to a certain degree while entertaining them.”

Smith: “We do both. This year half of our season are premieres, risky and exciting. Then we’ll have a gold-standard musical like ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ to introduce audiences to this great American musical. Arena has broad shoulders and we can do both in exciting ways.”

Bilfield: “Given how many arts opportunities are available to our audiences, I want us to remain vigilant in designing programs that offer our audiences a sense of context and connection between events and across genres. Whether that happens onstage, or in events surrounding our performances, every experience should be energized and have an authorial perspective. If what we’re presenting could happen exactly the same way elsewhere, in the same context, then perhaps we shouldn’t be doing it.”

Rutter: “My most important role is to ensure that we are able to celebrate and experience the best of the arts long in to the future. ‘Forever’ is a powerful word, and one that isn’t used frequently in our world, but that is the role of the arts: to reflect our world, to speak to the past and the future, to stimulate interchange between people – ‘forever.’”

Sajet: “In my first year, a number of amazing women made it their mission to take me under their wing by hosting lunches and dinners, taking me to important events, introducing me to their friends and inviting me into their offices and homes. I have honestly made more female friends in my first twelve months of living in Washington than at any other time of my life.”

Alsop: “Observing my friend, Senator Barbara Mikulski, I see that women in Washington band together to support each other and are committed to making a difference in the quality of peoples’ lives. Cultural institutions contribute hugely to that quality of life level and I am inspired by the example set by our women leaders in D.C.”

Dorothy Kosinski, Director, The Phillips Collection: “People tend to allow the big industry of government to obscure the importance and vitality of our cultural community. This is a theater town. This is a museum center, with much more than just the federally subsidized institutions. Women see the importance of the cultural life of a great city. It’s good and natural that we step up to the plate to serve.”

Smith: “Ours is a great city that knows how to look forward. Men and women with plans for the future naturally gravitate to this center of our government, and the arts are no exception. It’s a supportive artistic environment full of wonderful artists, of both genders, and we work together to build a thriving cultural community. Just in the past few years more women have been given the opportunity to lead in cultural organizations and that’s good for all of us.”

Camille Akeju, Director, Anacostia Community Museum: “I never see being a woman as an obstacle. I’d venture to guess that most of the women in the same role I am, it’s not in the front of their minds that being a women is something to overcome. Drive is drive, passion is passion, knowledge is knowledge—I don’t care if you’re a woman, a man or androgynous. Perhaps women instinctively know they have to try a little harder and work a little more, but we’re finally in an era where women are getting recognition for the things they’ve done and assuming these leadership roles. And I do think the Washington environment is receptive to creativity and passion.”

Sterling: “Washington is an exceptional place for women cultural CEOs because we serve the most educated public in the nation. Like our male counterparts, we have the ability to forge cultural and social connections that are deep, authentic and build great institutions. These are the qualities people want us to demonstrate in order to maintain the highest degree of public trust.”

Zinoman: “Is it really? I still find that, at least in theater, the culture is dominated by men. There are ideas about leadership that pertain to qualities: men are action-oriented, women are more compassionate. I do feel that women bring a quality of leadership based on relationships, which leads to cooperative efforts.”


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