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Richmond is blessed with talented women who are at the helm of most of our arts organizations.

Women in the Arts


"You've come a long way, baby" does not even begin to describe the strides women have made in this century. But look at any list of corporate leaders — lawyers, bankers, CEOs — and you'll still see far more Toms, Dicks and Harrys than Tinas, Debbies and Heathers. The proverbial glass ceiling has not yet shattered, with one prominent exception: the arts.

Take a look at Richmond's major cultural arts institutions — the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Richmond Symphony, Richmond Ballet, the University of Richmond's Modlin Center, the Arts Council, TheatreVirginia, Hand Workshop. All of them are headed by women. Then you have many of the city's private art galleries, the Elegba Folklore Society, The Virginia Commission for the Arts — also run by women.

Why is it that women have been able to achieve so much success in this one field? On Friday, Oct. 22, Style Weekly gathered Susan Glasser of the Hand Workshop; Sally Bowring, the city's public art coordinator; Stephanie Micas of the Arts Council; Barbara Wells of TheatreVirginia; Michelle Walter of the Richmond Symphony; and Kathy Panoff of the University of Richmond's Modlin Center for a roundtable discussion on the state of female leadership in the arts. Here are some highlights from the lively two-hour meeting:

Does it matter that you are a women in what you do? Does it have any great impact on your work?

Susan Glasser: I'll go out on a limb first off. I don't think so and I don't know because I've never been a man. ... The premise of getting a group of women together is, I think, ultimately counterproductive. It is for me a bit of a disservice to think that in 1999 we are still considered a novelty; we're still considered newsworthy. ... I think the reason we are all sitting around this table is ultimately economics, because men with executive experience are not going to work for the kind of salaries that nonprofits can afford.

Sally Bowring: There're also two issues here: There's the arts and there's nonprofits. And in Richmond all the arts are nonprofits, and in other places they're not nonprofits and there's a lot more money, and in those places, there are more men so I definitely believe that it's economics for sure. ... When you go to an arts conference ... there are many, many more women there than men. It's dominated by women.

Glasser: Yes, but then when you go into the ... big, national, high-profile organizations, ... they're all headed up by men. They're still the arts organizations, but they're headed up by men.

Kathy Panoff: The ASOL, the American Symphony Orchestra League, is heavily male-dominated . ... My industry, which are arts presenters ... I'd say it's predominantly men, but women are really making a strong move on the industry.

Barbara Wells: In theater, I would say it's closer to 50-50. We've certainly seen a predominance, or resurgence, of women moving back into leadership roles even at TheatreVA — it's been very male dominated up until now. But on the national scene when I go to a LORT [League of Resident Theaters] conference, I see more and more women, which is exciting — not only in the management but also in artistic leadership which is especially exciting.

Panoff: I think Barbara made a good point that artistic leadership is now being much more diversified. It's very, very important.

Stephanie Micas: I'm going to really disagree with [Susan Glasser's first statement] because if you look at Richmond as an example of a region of this size ... it is extraordinary in a positive way that you have [so many women in leadership roles]. ... It's not just, "Oh, yeah, there are a bunch of women who are executive directors now." It's the kinds of organizations that they are directing and the kinds of positions that happen to all be held by women. ... That collective package is what is extraordinary.

Glasser: But Stephanie, I think that means that we are in synch. I think it is extraordinary. I think it's unfortunate that it's extraordinary.

Micas: Look at the rest of the industries here in Richmond. Look at the law firms, look at the corporations. There is not a collective group of women who are heading those industries.

Does everyone think that the field is becoming increasingly female? And if so, why, and is that a good thing?

Walter: I actually have some hesitations. I don't want to be sarcastic, but none of us makes a lot of money, nor do the artists who participate in our art forms. You look at conservatories now and they're more than 50 percent female ... it's not at all uncommon for us to have an opening and not have any male applicants.

Micas: Well, there is such a thing as the genderization of a profession.

Walter: But why is that happening? My field was so male dominated so I'm really sensitive to it.

Micas: Well, I think you've got more women working. That's number one. And the young women who are coming up these days are thinking about careers immediately. Where, at least in my generation, there was some sort of choice or dilemma or whatever. So you've got bodies in the work force.

Bowring: We never had art management classes when I was in college. ... That's considered a real option and a real industry to go into, and there's a direction for it so I think that makes a big difference also.

Panoff: I think it goes back to what was said earlier, that it's more tolerant culturally for women to deal with a low salary, and maybe it hearkens, I'm sorry to say, back to the day when the socialite was traditionally the board member, but it was her husband who paid the dough. The statistic I've heard is that 85 percent of the arts decisions made in this nation are made by women — for ticket purchases.

Bowring: Women set the social agenda.

Panoff: I look to a lot of these students at UR who are getting out of school ... and they are making more money than I did when I was 40. I also hear what they tell me their parents are saying. ... The guys who want to go into theater and the arts, there's really a problem. And these guys would be great. But I think there is some cultural pressure that maybe the women don't get. That may be just speculation.

Wells: Oh, I'm sure it's true because I've hired a lot of UR men over these last several years, and I've actually spoken with their parents. They've called or sought me out to have conversations about their son in the arts and how they tried to sway them from working in the arts.

Micas: And I think there's something more here. The people I try to hire for contract services or part-time kind of work can afford to go someplace else. They could get another job. But there's something about working for the arts that women, in particular, feel very viscerally that they're contributing, or it makes them feel good, or they love the environment. So there's a little bit more to it than, "Only women are going to take low salaries."

Wells: That's some of what I like about it — the challenge and the unique opportunity to really make a difference.

Micas: I think Sally's [earlier] point that there's another component, and that's the nonprofit component, is interesting. Because if you look at the for-profit world they're finding that women are going into business for themselves at a much higher rate than men. And part of the reason is they like to now be able to run their own environment and run their own thing, and nonprofits do afford women the opportunity to run their own show.

It is commonly believed that women are attracted to careers in the arts and with nonprofits. We talked about the economic reasons for this. But why do you think it is other than economics?

Bowring: For me it's always been about flexibility. I have a priority: My kids. I was always able to work out some kind of deal where I could have flexible hours, and it continues that way. ... Also, it's a very supportive environment. I don't think I would be able to function in a different kind of environment, a more corporate environment.

Micas: In a nonprofit, particularly when you're the boss, you can get a lot more out of your employees if you give them that flexibility. And it seems that for women, that is essential right now, particularly if you are raising a family.

Walter: I'm feeling like we're talking about structure, and what are the structural reasons that it works for you to work in the arts, instead of the [real reasons] for it all. Sally, you're a painter. You didn't sit down when you were 17 years old and say, "Someday when I have children this will be a flexible career."

Bowring: It was my mentality. It was the '60s. ... I wanted it all to make sense. I wanted it fully integrated in my life. For the past 20 years I've been lucky. ... I've been able to make it feel like it's not work. It's meaningful, my work is meaningful.

Walter: And that's what I was starting to say — there's something about feeling like what you do means something, and means something in not just a community context, but in a lifelong context. That you're making a difference and leaving a legacy. ... It's much more about passion.

Glasser: For me, my interest in the arts has nothing to do with being female. For me, I have figured out who I am through my experiences in the arts. They have helped me discover myself. They have helped me make sense of the world. I wanted to have a life that would allow me to do that forever. ... It has nothing to do with being a woman.

Wells: I agree with Michelle, that some of it may be something about community and wanting to be supportive of the community and improve the community in which you live ... and this is an opportunity in a real hands-on way. Of course, if I were a teacher, I would have the same response as working in the arts.

Glasser: I think the other thing is ... this idea of leaving a legacy. I want the Hand Workshop Art Center to become something amazing for this community, and I want to be a part of that. That's a huge part of it, that I'm going to do something that helps to leave a mark on this city. I'm not just going to go in and get a paycheck and have great vacations twice a year. That legacy is a very big part of the motivation for me ... because it's the arts that last. ... It's through the arts that everything gets remembered.

Do you think that you ever benefit from being a female in your field?

Walter: I get invited to participate in a lot of boards ... so very often I'm the only woman on the panel, and I just wonder.

Panoff: I'm often the only woman, too ... I just think my gender might be a point of entry sometimes, but I think fundamentally that your survival past the point of entry has only to do with what I'm genuinely bringing to the table.

Micas: I would say that our boards probably respond to us because we are women, and in a very positive way. They like having a woman as an executive director because we're a little bit more attuned to personal relationships.

Panoff: One of the things I find in the industry, probably in any industry, in terms of [gender] differences is in my business there's a lot of negotiation going on ... and the women negotiators are generally the tougher ones. ... If I'm doing business with an agent in New York and he's a guy, I know I will get the fee I want. But I think I am perceived, especially in this town ... tough women are considered to be ball busters. Bitches. Shrews. Wenches. And I find tough men are not normally assigned those kinds of labels. I happen to think I'm an expert negotiator.

Walter: I find that my male board members will compliment me on a job well done more often when it's something like that.

Do you think that your organizations are more open to working together because you're all women?

Walter: ...When I came to Richmond in 1991 the symphony was universally perceived as extremely arrogant. ... We were also in a time of financial crisis and it made good business sense to take stock of the situation and say, "Well, if we're not even perceived as a good community partner we're basically not going to get anywhere." I don't know how much of, in my opinion, the complete turnaround is due to my own philosophy, the business needs of the organization at the time, or a gender influence. I suspect gender would probably be the least important.

Bowring: 1708 was also perceived as an elite club. I think one of the reasons they chose me [as director] is because [of] my nature, and I don't think it is because I am a woman. ... My nature is to work and play well with others. I like being inclusive. It was very important for 1708 to change that club persona and enter the community.

Panoff: I just think it makes good business sense. I think it's not gender-specific in any way. We live in a very small town with a whole lot of arts organizations. All of them are thriving, and that's good.

Walter: I think all of them are thriving due in part to the collaboration.

Panoff: I agree. It's really been a case of what is good for individuals is good for the collective. ... Likewise, so many of us share board members and we share patrons. To not collaborate, I really can't even imagine it. Plus, it's a hell of a way lead your business life. You can't exist in a vacuum.

As we look forward to the new millennium, where are Richmond's cultural arts headed? Where would you like to see things go?

Walter: One of the things that excites me most is the fact that we've all worked so hard with the MAPS [Metropolitan Area Projects Strategies] process, and the city actually came to us and said we really need to talk about the inner city and how to revitalize the area around the convention center and that we're perceived to be such a benefit to the community. That's a real step forward to me.

Glasser: I really do think that it's not hyperbole anymore that Richmond can become a cultural Mecca. D.C. is not it. You've got New York but look up and down the East Coast — there's nothing else.

The programs already exist here, the organizations already exist here, the infrastructure of working together and getting a critical mass is starting to fall into place. I think some things still need to happen. The arts need to have a higher profile with the media, I think we need to get the schools behind the arts more strongly ... but so much is already in place. I think within the next 10 years this place is going to be on the cultural map of the country. I truly do.

Bowring: To make a better citizen that has a real sense of culture and ... where they are and what they can contribute and what they can take away, the arts are essential.

Panoff: To me it's all about reach. In every way we're reaching deeper, we're reaching longer and stretching out into our respective communities. ... I think we are on the precipice of really gaining a lot of national attention that will be good for Richmond. This is not just the capital city of Virginia. The thing I hear most often from the artists that come in ... and these are artists that are world-traveled — the first thing they say is, "Who knew?" And it's not just about ... the Modlin Center, it's about ... seeing everything that's going on here. ... I'm so proud of how we conduct the business of the arts in

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