The way forward

After a bloodless coup, the Fund for the Arts eyes … itself?

Jun 22, 2011 at 5:00 am
The way forward

It would be imprudent to wholly compare Shannon Westerman to the young Tunisian who set himself on fire and started a revolution. After all, for his protestations, that fellow paid the ultimate price. But when Westerman co-signed the letter that prompted Fund for the Arts President and CEO Allan Cowen to angrily threaten Westerman’s job, a firestorm of sorts erupted. And by the time it burned out — things finally turned to gray ash when Cowen announced his retirement at a March 21 board meeting — the outcome was extraordinary in its own way.

During his 35 years at the Fund, Cowen was the most controversial figure in the Louisville arts scene, lauded for fundraising acumen and lamented for dictatorial tendencies. His last day was April 30. Barbara Sexton Smith, who’s been at the Fund for 13 years, is the acting president and CEO as the board of directors decides what to do next. Currently, 10 people, including board members and representatives from various arts groups, sit on a committee charged with evaluating the Fund’s modus operandi and recommending its future course.

Initially, that “strategic visioning” committee will conduct a public survey — a link on the Fund website went live on June 9 — and benchmark the Fund against a number of peer cities. The committee will then write a job description for the new president and CEO, a deliberate chronology meant to fit a new leader to the Fund’s vision for 2011 and beyond, not the other way around. The committee has set a soft Oct. 1 deadline for reporting initial findings. When it concludes, a search committee will look to fill the president/CEO chair.

“We’re treating ourselves as if we have a clean slate,” says Angela Leet, a Fund board member who is heading the strategic planning committee.

A bridge too far

For much of his tenure, Cowen was a lightning rod. He was known as territorial — he wouldn’t allow the Fund to publicize non-member events, for example, even if they were offering free tickets to underprivileged kids — and for hitting back hard when crossed (i.e. the call to Westerman surprised no one). In a profile in Business First several years ago, former Kentucky Center for the Arts President Marlow Burt famously called him a “prickly little shit.” About 10 years ago when I edited LEO, we heard about Southern Indiana arts leaders, frustrated by a lack of Fund support, who were considering starting their own united arts fund. Cowen got wind of it, and those who’d been talking for the story suddenly stopped. Cowen wielded that kind of power, which only grew when former Courier-Journal publisher Barry Bingham Jr., who was on the Fund board, tried unsuccessfully to take Cowen down a decade ago. (Bingham raised many of the same complaints that came out in the recent flap, but could not persuade the board to back him. In hindsight, his efforts might be described as body blows that softened Cowen, though the knockout punch was another decade in coming and could be described as self-inflicted.)

As Louisville’s current visual arts scene burgeoned in the late 1990s, we also heard growing complaints from visual artists about low funding from the Fund, relative to Louisville’s performing arts groups — typically less than 5 percent. Cowen maintained the Fund was bound to accede to donor demands, and that the data — attendance — indicated Louisville is a performing arts town. Hence, the four-pronged beast — Louisville Orchestra, Louisville Ballet, Kentucky Opera and Actors Theatre — must be fed, first and foremost. And so they were. (Cowen also countered criticism of the Fund’s allocation process by saying visual and other non-performing arts received residual support through partnerships with local schools and other efforts. His critics never bought that.)

Cowen also was known for raising money. Louisville consistently ranks high on the list of 60 cities with united arts funds. In 2009, for example, according to Americans for the Arts, the Fund for the Arts raised $8.63 million, placing it third behind Cincinnati ($11 million) and Milwaukee ($9.1 million) and ahead of Atlanta ($8.61 million) and Charlotte ($7.2 million). Cowen was paid handsomely — his total annual compensation reportedly approached $350,000. That rankled people who pointed out that his counterpart at Metro United Way, which like the Fund raises money through payroll deduction but typically raises about three times more, earns about 57 percent of what Cowen made.

Westerman’s letter, which was signed by two others, appeared in Business First on Feb. 11, 2011. Cowen quickly left a voicemail for Westerman saying the LVAA director was “way out of line” and should be fired. He went on: “Do me a favor. Please skip calling me back. I will talk to Benton (Keith, LVAA board chair), and we will move forward. I think you have gone way beyond the light fantastic. Good luck in your future career.”

Westerman and Keith went public. The Fund board’s executive committee eventually reprimanded Cowen, drawing criticism for not taking the problem seriously. Marlene Grissom, an executive committee member, wrote a letter to The Courier-Journal criticizing the committee and calling for Cowen to go. An artist-led group protested outside the Fund. For reasons that may never be known outside of a tight circle, and to the surprise of many, Cowen bowed out.

Reached for this story, Cowen says he feels fortunate to have worked with so many talented artists, administrators and volunteers, and he believes the Fund will continue to prosper. He’s proud of the Fund’s growth over time — in 1977, it raised $600,000 from 5,700 donors, numbers that grew to $8 million/26,000 today — and cites the renovation of the Brown Theatre (née: Macauley Theatre) and ArtSpace as huge successes for the community. He plans to stay in Louisville for the foreseeable future, possibly consulting. He didn’t want to rehash the past.

And he’s right. That was then. This is now. Those interviewed for this story said, in varying degrees, that Cowen deserves a great deal of credit for his work. In the next breath, most also said the aftermath of the inferno provides the Fund a phoenix-like opportunity for self-examination, or as Leet calls it, a clean slate.

How that slate looks after a makeover, of course, is where the greasepaint meets the face. (Rim shot, please.)

Questions about questions

Angela Leet walks into Java Brewing on Frankfort Avenue, stylish but casual in jeans, heels and a fashionable top. She’s blonde, taller than I expected, and younger, a youthful 42. She has a master’s degree in engineering and an MBA and co-owns Chamberlin Enterprises, a property development firm. About the time the company’s first facility, an office building, went up, the economy tanked, and she has used the slowdown to increase her philanthropic work. She’s on the boards of Habitat for Humanity and Edge Outreach (think water purification/Haiti), and about five years ago, impressed with her work as a volunteer fundraiser for the Fund, Cowen asked her to join his board.

Leet enjoys a challenge, and she got one when she was “voluntold” (her description, offered with a laugh) to head up the strategic planning committee. It has met three times and will meet twice a month going forward. Leet has also sought out conversations on her own time, though she declined to elaborate on what she’s hearing on the stump out of concern for skewing the self-evaluation process.

She’s heard the criticism of the Fund and is eager to dig in and see what the community would like from it going forward. She’s encouraged that people are taking the online survey, which includes a handful of open-ended questions that allow for candor. “We’re excited to see what the input will be, and it should give us a good gauge of what the next set of questions should be,” she says. The committee should begin assessing initial responses within 30 days and possibly seek outside analysis as well.

Hat, meet horse

A common theme in Louisville arts, particularly among Fund critics, is the desire for democratization. That notion runs a gamut of ideas: downsize the Fund’s massive board, diversify it by including artists, and make them voting members; spread Fund largesse to more groups; and find a way to fund individual artists.

The Fund board is huge — more than 70 people if you include non-voting members — and largely made up of big hitters from the corporate world. There’s a rationale behind that — those people deliver money. But there may be a downside. Former Speed Museum Director Peter Morrin, now an executive in residence at the University of Louisville, notes that the Fund board includes several of Louisville’s sharpest thinkers, but he believes the sheer size of the board (and the executive committee) dilutes its effectiveness and shifts power to the CEO.

Westerman would also like to see a smaller, more hands-on board. “I realize there are a lot of great people on that board,” he says, “but I don’t know they’ve had the ability to make decisions. With more than 50 people, how effective could that be?”

Kevin Connolly, executive director of the Louisville-based Center for Nonprofit Excellence, says organizations with a fundraising mission tend to be larger. “Where the problem comes in is exercising meaningful oversight of the CEO,” he says, noting that the Fund’s 27-member executive committee is “a little more akin to the upper range number for a board.” He adds, “Although a CEO drives action, he or she should be responsive to the board. There’s no owner of a nonprofit, but the moral equivalent of an owner is a board, which should represent community interest and exercise fiduciary responsibility.”

Louisville metalsmith Craig Kaviar, who organized a demonstration outside the Fund office before Cowen announced his departure, has been vocal about wanting to join the board. “I think that’s part of the problem, why it got so out of hand,” Kaviar says. “There’s no one from the arts community on the board to keep a reality check on what the art community needs.”

Board chairman Ronald Murphy says broadening representation is a matter for the strategic visioning committee to consider. “Keep in mind, the members of the board and their employees represent an enormous part of the campaign, so you generally get community and corporate leaders on the board who represent major parts of overall giving,” he says. As for individuals who’d like to join, he adds, “You say, OK, that’s good, but what have you done? Have you served on other boards? Are you a donor? Have you given to other things? You have to make sure it’s not just an axe to grind.”

Board and executive committee member Grissom, whose letter to The Courier-Journal calling for Cowen’s ouster signaled the beginning of the end, agrees the board may be unwieldy and says there’s been talk of paring it. But, she says it will be difficult to broaden representation while reducing overall numbers and maintaining the presence of the big hitters. “I’m not sure how you do that,” she says.

Some Fund board members have said they can’t see giving grants to individuals because bylaws stipulate that funds go to nonprofit groups. “They always say they can’t fund individuals,” says Paul Paletti, an attorney and photographic gallery owner who helped start the fledgling Louisville Fund for the Visual Arts last year. (The group now refers to itself as The Visual Arts Fund.) “But they can fund nonprofit organizations (that) can in turn use the money to put artists in schools, hire artists for projects or support the Visual Arts festival — things organizations can do if they’re funded to do it. That filters down to paying individuals to do things, just like the Louisville Orchestra pays musicians ... (The Fund) funds individuals, but through the auspices of organizations.”

Westerman and Fund board member Gill Holland would both like to see the Fund carve some of its annual allocations out for smaller, non-member organizations. Such groups might qualify for one-time or biannual grants, they suggest, in modest amounts based on merit. “They’d have to earn it,” Westerman says, “but imagine if Squallis Puppeteers or Blue Apple Players could get $10,000. For the Puppeteers, that might let them do four more presentations a year — going to local elementary schools to talk about gun violence. That would have a huge impact in the community.”

Holland mentions the Louisville Film Society, which operates on less than $100,000 a year. “$5,000 for them would be huge.”

Looking around

For one example of how arts can be democratized, one need look no further than Chattanooga, Tenn., a city of about 168,000, in a county of about 310,000, about 300 miles southeast of Louisville. In the wake of a dustup at Chattanooga’s united arts fund, a couple of former staffers broke off and started the nonprofit CreateHere.

That umbrella organization has a component called MakeWork, which gives grants to individuals, with a broad notion of who qualifies. For example, in keeping with the city’s growing culinary arts scene, grants have helped fund artisanal cheese-makers. MakeWork has distributed about $675,000 since 2008. CreateHere also led a community-wide visioning process, drawing more than 26,000 responses to a four-question survey about what they wanted for their community.

CreateHere formed “because we thought a couple things weren’t happening,” executive director Helen Johnson says. “No. 1, we were not focusing on individuals in the community, so we turned the fundraising model on its head. Instead of raising money from individuals and giving to institutions, we now raise from institutions and give to individuals. We think investing in creative individuals comes back to you tenfold.

“Another thing we realized is, there needed to be more intentionality in combining arts and economics. Raw creativity is an economic driver.” As such, MakeWork grantees must participate in “sustainability” sessions, learning to write business plans and read profit-and-loss statements, and to network with the business community so, for example, they know who can help them with their taxes rather than relying on an institution as they may have previously.

Interestingly, CreateHere is designed to go dark after five years — at the end of 2011 — with the notion that its most worthwhile efforts will find a way forward under other auspices. “We’ve seen nonprofits lack relevance after five, 10 or 15 years,” Johnson says. “Our board has a good idea of what initiatives should go on, and they’ll go on in their own right and evolve in ways they wouldn’t have under an institution.”

CreateHere works on an open source platform, Johnson notes, and anyone may employ the template “and improve upon it.”

The Anti-Allan antidote anecdote

Barbara Sexton Smith exits the elevator and bounds into the smallish lobby of the Fund for the Arts headquarters, on the third floor of a handsome old office building on West Main Street. Wiry in stature and kinetic, she wears heels, a skirt, a blouse and a short jacket. She apologizes for running a little behind; it’s late May and the Fund’s annual employee-giving campaign is funneling toward an end. She’s been up since 5 a.m., and her day started out with a personal pitch to city sanitation workers. It went well. “They love us,” she says. “They are big supporters.”

We sit in the conference room that faces Main. Four long tables form a contiguous rectangle and fill most of the room. Smith sits at the western-most table, near where Cowen always sat. It is not her style to sit still, nor to always take the same seat; in recent meetings with Fund staff, who’ve been understandably shaken by recent events, she’s worked this room, embracing their uncertainty, inviting and even cajoling them to share, then writing their queries down in colored marker on a big flip chart. She knows they have questions, and she wants to hear them. She walks back to her office, then returns with a stack of monster sticky notes from those sessions.

“How will we use this opportunity to rejuvenate the energy between the Fund for the Arts and our member groups?”

“Will FFA staff be involved in strategic planning?”

“What’s being heard on the campaign trail?”

And so on. To the latter question, Sexton Smith says many people simply aren’t aware of the controversy, but acknowledges one common complaint concerns a lack of transparency. That’s vexing, she says, because there is ample information available about how the Fund makes its allocations. She believes the “question of how we do what we do” relates more to communication style. “A lesson learned — how we communicate and the style in which we communicate becomes very important going forward.”

Earlier, as we began the interview, I suggested Sexton Smith has stepped into a particularly difficult situation. She brushed that aside by sharing an utterly convincing story. Fresh out of college — a child of the South End, she was the first in her family to complete a four-year degree — she got into the Wendy’s management training program in 1979, when you could still hang out with Dave Thomas.

One night in 1980, she was the manager on duty at Bardstown Road and Grinstead Drive. The store was closed and she counted money in the office as four teenagers cleaned up. Someone went out to the Dumpster. A masked man with a sawed-off shotgun forced his way inside. He smashed Sexton Smith in the back of the head and demanded she open the floor safe. She fully intended to comply, but couldn’t see, much less call to mind the actual process of opening the safe. She was 23.

“Finally, he said I had one more chance to open the safe,” she says. “The cylinders are buried in the floor. I can’t hit the numbers because of the blood. That was the most defining moment in my entire life to this day — it probably always will be. I put my hand on that safe and spoke to something greater — I had not hit one number. Then it opened.”

The nut job got his money and didn’t kill anyone. After she got out of the hospital, Sexton Smith asked to be sent back to the same store.

That, she says, is pressure.

Nonetheless, she grasps the gravity of what’s she’s been asked to do. She was and is fond of Cowen and appreciates what he did for her, bringing her on 13 years ago. She didn’t always agree with his style, but who doesn’t have friends who make you scratch your head now and then? She loves the Fund and would love to be named to the job permanently. But that is months or more down the road, and the job now, today, is to keep doing the work. The campaign ends June 28. She is a laser.

“We have reduced our expenses for the current year and reduced our projected expenses next year in anticipation of what we might do if we raise less money this year,” she says. “Our goal is to maintain current levels of funding to groups and our children’s initiatives.”

To call Sexton Smith the anti-Allan Cowen seems too obvious. But there it is. She’s been called a breath of fresh air. She’s easy to talk to, accessible, with a sense of humor. She is full of “Barbarisms” and spouts them often:

“We’re full of hope as an acronym — Having Only Positive Expectations.”

“I believe in the rhythm method of worth control — every individual determines their self-worth by the rhythm they choose every day.”

“What are you doing with your dash — the dash on your tombstone?”

Finally, I tell her I am struck by her hairdo, admit it’s beyond my descriptive abilities and ask how she would describe it. She laughs. I call it a force of nature. She puts that on her regular Friday blog post. She mentions a recent anonymous note from someone who’d seen her make a campaign presentation. The writer was sweet but said her hair needed a makeover. “Why does Barb have this hair down to her waist?” she asks, cracking up. “I’ve had it since I was a child. I come by it naturally. My mom, who was orphaned, came from Fighting Hollar in Whitley County, not too far from Butcher Hollar. I love my mountain roots.”

But she’s been wearing it up since she got the letter. “That says Barbara is open to receive new ways of looking at and doing things.”

Fresh air, indeed.

The accidental hero

Shannon Westerman was born in Louisiana, but his family moved often. He worked for Humana in Louisville in the 1980s and has maintained ties ever since. After 12 years in New York City, he was ready for a change. He sold his part of an advertising agency and moved to Louisville on spec in late 2007, wooed by the city’s new arts energy. “Before you know it, I was at Jack Fry’s for dinner, accepting a job offer,” he says, laughing. Westerman, 50, laughs easily and often. He’s been the executive director of the Louisville Visual Art Association for three years.

He quickly came to believe what others had said about visual arts getting short shrift when it comes to Fund allocations — less than 5 percent annually, a figure he says is significantly higher in every city he’s studied. Still, he bided his time and tried to recall what a longtime arts supporter told him early on: “He sensed my frustration and said, ‘Shannon, you have to realize one thing about Louisville. Louisville is a very self-satisfied town, and if you don’t realize that, you’re going to be very disappointed in what you’re trying to achieve in the arts community.’”

So when Westerman co-signed the letter to Business First, which offered the seemingly innocuous suggestion that people might support the arts beyond giving to the Fund, he didn’t exactly anticipate Cowen’s infamous voicemail. Nor did he take it personally. “I’m a realist,” Westerman says. “I’ve been through a lot in the business world.” But Westerman had promised his board he’d do things differently, and in this case he did — he pushed back. With support from his board chairman, Benton Keith, they went public. “All we knew was that it was not morally right,” he says. “If he did it that one time, what else was he doing?”

Westerman says he’s no accidental hero, and he harbors no ill feelings against Cowen, but he does think it was time for him to step aside. “Thirty years of power becomes ingrained. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It should be about community. It has to be about transparency. We all have to play by the same rules for the benefit of better good. When you don’t, someone has to call you out on it eventually.”

Westerman is also relentlessly upbeat and excited to be working in the Louisville arts scene. He believes arts are a transformative force that can help resolve a community’s sociological challenges and spur its economy. “We have big problems in Louisville with gun violence, and education and dropout rates,” he says. “If we don’t attract new companies and new people and new blood, I’m afraid the pipeline will eventually empty.”

Left brain, meet right brain. Or, Louisville, meet yourself

Back in 1998, Playboy played a little joke on Louisville when it included the city on a “hot list” as a music mecca. Austin, Texas; Bristol, England, and Louisville. That was news to music folks who complained no one was going to shows anymore, and it was funny to watch people try to grasp the “significance” of that designation, while forgetting that magazines constantly make things up to start arguments and fill editorial space.

Nonetheless, it seemed we were missing an opportunity for a broader discussion about what kind of city we wanted to be, and, more to the point, how one cohort of the community — say, people who wear ties to work and patronize the ballet, opera, orchestra and theater — can work with and learn from the contingent that, say, wears T-shirts and believes Tewligan’s was a holy site. And vice versa. Actual synergy.

Maybe that’s where we are now.

In many ways, these ongoing disagreements around arts in Louisville are arguments about objective reality. Tom Noland, a Humana VP and longtime arts player who is now on the Fund board, says the Louisville arts scene is our major leagues, particularly as it relates to regional competitor/peer cities like Cincinnati, Nashville and Indianapolis, all of which have professional sports teams. But plenty of people would say that’s based more on legacy than what’s happening today. The signs of apocalypse cannot be missed. Regardless of where you come down on the Louisville Orchestra controversy, there’s no escaping the fact that its existence is in jeopardy. The Bach Society just called it quits after 47 years. The Ballet is in dire straits, its Main Street headquarters mortgaged to the hilt. (Many arts observers think Louisville may not sustain all of its large arts organizations and predict the future includes regional collaborations.)

Meanwhile, the world around us has changed, and that’s had a huge impact on what we define as creativity. Gill Holland moved here from New York expressly because of the city’s funky creative vibe, and he wants to see that leveraged in new and meaningful ways that might turn today’s preschoolers into tomorrow’s Google-inspired entrepreneurs. Cities that don’t do that risk becoming irrelevant.

Louisville has had its share of studies that talk about arts as an economic engine, noting that unique vibe. Look over some of those studies — the Wired 65 Report, the Greater Louisville Project, the Cultural Blueprint — and it will probably strike you that they’re all saying many of the same things.

The economy is a huge factor. Governmental support of the arts has dropped. Yum!, Brown-Forman and Humana pony up big time, but many would like to see more widespread corporate support. Look at recent fundraising efforts across the country: St. Louis is $500,000 short of its $145 million goal for expanding its art museum, and Sacramento just raised $120 million for the Crocker Art Museum. And some argue regular folks can do more — Sexton Smith notes there are nearly 600,000 individual paychecks in the city; the Fund gets a donation from about 24,000 of them.

There is an ongoing effort to change state tax law to allow localities to capture portions of a tax and designate it for arts programs, as many cities have done. A LEO story from 2006 talked as if that were imminent here. But it does not seem to be.

Taken together, these factors may point out the need for a paradigm shift — many want the Fund to transcend its traditional fundraising role.

Jennifer Bielestein, managing director at Actors Theatre, director of Arts and Cultural Attractions, a Greater Louisville Inc. offshoot, and a member of the Fund’s strategic planning committee, says: “We’re at the moment to step back and look at the community capacity to support a thriving arts community. We’re not at the point of being specific about what that will look like — it will take some assessment. When you have organizations that function similarly over time, you don’t have the data you need. In the long term, a question to ask is, is there capacity to support greater need?”

Some wonder if the Fund apparatus has the capacity for deep change. Westerman — who lauded the Fund board for taking its time choosing a permanent CEO (he and the heads of the other Fund member groups signed a letter expressing faith in Sexton Smith) — isn’t one of them. “I’m not skeptical at all,” he says. “They’re reaching out to the community. It will take time. Change and transitions are tough.”