Our Conversation with Nan Plummer – First of Many

UnderMain would like to welcome Nan Plummer to the position of LexArts President and CEO.  What you are about to read is a recent and very casual conversation between Nan, my UnderMain colleague Tom Martin, and myself. Nan is a new-arrival on Planet Lexington and there is so much to discuss with her about the arts in our community as well as the broader Central Kentucky region. UnderMain is committed not only to opening this dialogue, but to continuing it in a series of discussions throughout the year. In future interviews, I hope to expand upon some of the concepts raised, including the viability of a United Arts Fund model for raising and granting monies and what that means for area arts organizations large and small; the role of the non-traditional arts from dance to music to the visual arts; the current state of theater; our specific history with public art; and our present and future opportunities for both the public and private sectors. Just as we consulted some of you about questions for this initial interview, your opinions and input are necessary for this conversation to evolve. We invite your thoughts via the UnderMain Facebook page.

Nan with her daughter, Maggie.

Nan with Communications Director Maury Sparrow and Operations Manager Alma Kajtazovic.

Nan with Nathan Zamarron, LexArts Community Arts Manager, and J. David Smith, Jr., Stoll Keenon Ogden and LexArts Grants Chair

Nan with Liz Swanson, artist, designer, and Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Kentucky College of Design

Nan with Allison Kaiser – Executive Director, LexPhil

Christine: Welcome Nan, and thank you for joining UnderMain today. Let’s begin by learning a little about your background and what attracted you to this position with LexArts.

Nan:   There are a bunch of things that drew me to this position. My whole career has been in the arts, mostly the visual arts, and in museums with really strong performing arts components, performing arts, and music especially. I’ve been on a diversion into being a full-time, frontline fundraiser for Arkansas Children’s Hospital – a place I have adored for a long time. And, it was just time for me to get back into the arts and take what I’ve learned in the training ground that was ACH back into something where I knew a lot more. I’ll be 60 on my next birthday and I know what I know and I do what I do. And, it occurred to me that not only would this make me happier, but I think that my best contribution will be taking what I’ve been doing for all this time and combine it with what I know and love in the arts. LexArts, because it helps so many people and so many organizations in such a broad context, just looked delicious and – you know – it just seemed like the perfect thing.

Christine: Yes, the role of the organization appears very broad in general. Do you see any real successes that you would like to continue or anything that you would like to eliminate with regard to LexArts’ recent history and its role in supporting the arts in our community?

Nan:  The big task ahead of us – because there are so many things that organizations like LexArts can do and does do across the country – is to find out what Lexington and Central Kentucky need LexArts to do right now. There are a lot of things we are very good at. The United Arts Fund model of raising money, for instance, for general operating support is not what it was in the 60’s and 70’s, but it isn’t broken and it’s still generating lots of income. So, raising money for the arts is something that I think LexArts needs to keep doing.

Tom: In that regard, LexArts has not seemed welcoming to the non-traditional music community in Lexington and I’m not sure why that is. I’m not finding fault, because I’m sure that there is some structural reason for that. Speaking for those of us who are not classical players, but nonetheless are working musicians with significant investment of funds and time and creativity, we do not feel supported by LexArts.

Nan: What would support  mean to you? Money? Which is important.

Tom: Well, it is, but it’s more than that. The compensation for what we do has to come from the market. I think we need help with marketing to the masses the fact that we have an historically vibrant music community here. Lots of songwriters, lots of musicians across a wide spectrum of genres.

Christine: It has been noted that for some in our community it appears that LexArts’  holds a primary allegiance to larger, more established organizations.

Nan: And here is the second thing I think LexArts needs to do, along with being clear about its mission: to remind people about its history. United Arts Funds were established to fund those big, grand, pillar organizations. In the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s those were the organizations that communities believed needed support in order for the arts to thrive. I think as time has gone on, people in general in UAF have figured out that an art scene is not only those great big organizations. But what would the arts be like in Lexington if those ceased to exist? So, the trick for LexArts is to remind people, this is how we got started. We don’t sit in the room and pick favorites. This is how we got started and we have to now broaden that. We tend to broaden our support maybe less quickly than the arts community springs up around us. So, while it may appear that way, it’s not a bias. Here is where we started and we can’t change where we started. That’s historical fact.

Christine: Let’s turn to our attention to the annual fund. The actual amount of funds raised for the annual fund, aside from the city’s contribution, seems very limited for a city of our size in a region as wealthy as ours. Nan, Is there anything that you think we could change to generate more giving?

Nan: Oh, absolutely. I think that there is a lot of potential to raise more money and I think that’s one of the reasons I was brought here, so that I’d spend a long time learning how to raise money. I’ve raised a lot of money for the arts in my other roles. So, sure, let’s go. There is no perfect leader for an organization, ever. No one is perfect.  Organizations, boards over time hire a series of imperfect and incomplete people whose strengths we hope  match the needs of the organization at that time. How many – have there only been two other directors?

Christine: Jim Clark was director for 14 years.  Dee Fizdale prior to that.

Nan: And the organization has changed a lot. It was founded under Dee, Jim changed it a lot. And so, they brought things that certainly I couldn’t have brought. I’m not the founder type and I’m learning everyday what my predecessor was good at that I’m not quite so good at. But, what I hope to be good at is fundraising and growing – growing the funding base and maturing LexArts’ fundraising ability so that it’s on par with the artistic activity here in Lexington. I think there’s a lot of potential. And getting back to the first question: why did I want to come here?Potential is really the core word; there is so much waiting to happen here. I’ve never seen a downtown like this, I really haven’t. It’s just the right size. I’m thinking about the skyscrapers and the lawyers and the bankers and, oh my gosh, all these artful places within walking distance. I know that there are other places like this, I’ve just never been this close to one.

Christine: And this growth, this particular sort of vibrancy is very new for Lexington. In fact, it has changed the conversation in Lexington about LexArts as a funding organization and specifically about transparency. Do you see how that that might be addressed in a more formal way? For instance, many non-profit organizations supply a 990 (a Form 990 is an annual reporting return that certain tax exempt organizations must file with the IRS).

Nan: Oh, we all must.

Christine: To my knowledge, LexArts does not make that readily available.

Nan: Of course we do – we must. If you walk into the building and ask for it, I am legally required under federal law to provide that to you within twenty four hours. You can also get it from the IRS website and you can also go to GuideStar and get it, so it’s publicly available.

Tom: This question came from somebody who’s been looking at the websites of similar organizations and found their 990’s readily available.

Nan: Oh, some organizations put it on their own website?

Tom: Uh-hm.

Nan: Making a note. Yeah, this is public information and I guess that what it always comes down to for me is, it’s not our money. If you work in a non-profit organization, it is not your money. And neither is the city money that we re-grant or the state money that we re-grant or the federal money that we pass through the other organizations or the federal money that we spend on public art projects. It’s not our money. And that’s why non-profit boards really need to take their fiduciary duty very, very seriously. I take it very seriously. And so I think part of the misunderstanding about LexArts’ affection for non-traditional arts groups is a lack of proactive transparency – education about how we make grants with the money that we raised and the money that we received.

Tom: That’s a two-way street. There will be those who just love to complain.

Nan: Yes.

Tom: But when you say, “Okay, what are you going to do about it? What are you willing to invest?” they often seem to disappear.

Nan: That’s human nature.

Tom: I think it would be really interesting to see what would happen if LexArts were to put that challenge to the non-traditional community and say to them, “We want to engage with you, you have to tell us how and you also have to tell us what you bring to the table; what can you do – you want us to do for you, what can you do for us?” Which creates…

Nan: It is a collaborative…

Tom: I’d love to see what would happen.

Nan: I’ve had a couple of conversations where arts group leaders have essentially said LexArts has favorites, ‘you sit in the room, you pick the big guys, you just – you like classical music to the exclusion of just about everything else.’ That’s not how the process goes. It’s an open grant process. There are five general operating support partners who are the core going back to when the organization was formed. And then, other organizations of almost every size may apply for project and program support. We serve as fiscal agent for organizations that aren’t even incorporated as 501(c)(3)s yet to help them get going. And so, if we’re not supporting you or we don’t seem to be interested it might be because you’ve never come to talk to us or looked into the process.

Tom: Would you say that those organizations who would like to see support from LexArts are not stepping forward and basically need to sharpen their pencils?

Nan: I think so and I think that that process, the way I understand it is that process has been ongoing – that Jim (Clark) did a great job at that, really professionalizing the application process because again, it’s not our money and when we give it away we aren’t just saying, “Oh, we love you, here you go,” “Oh, you bother me, go away.” No. They are as objective as we can make them. It’s not who we like better and who we don’t. Everybody who works at LexArts and everyone who sits on the grants committee – and it’s a committee, not the LexArts staff who makes the decisions – is a human being, last time I checked.  And so, we – we have emotions and preferences and are not immune to the things that other human beings respond to when they made judgments. So that’s why there is this process.

I’ve told my colleague, Nathan Zamarron who’s our programs guy that I think he’s brilliant, that he is a very, very good bureaucrat and that is a compliment. In fact, I would like to restore the nobility of that term. It’s a French term like amateur and dilettante that’s gotten a bad rap. A bureaucrat is someone who practices the art of the office, the art of administering public goods for the common good. And we are trying to do that really well at LexArts.

Christine: I have a specific interest in public art and have for a very long time, from Dynamic Doors in 2002 to Horse Mania to the Outdoor Mural Project and more recent developments like the murals being installed by PRHBTN. Do you have any insight there as far how LexArts might encourage more conversation about public art?

Nan: Great, great question. I am not hearing, “Okay, we’ve got enough public art, you can stop now.” I’m seeing a lot of enthusiasm and it was really exciting to me that that article in Herald-Leader, which I was looking at online in the period between my hire and my arrival, that the lead story on Sunday above the fold with a big color picture is about art, I thought, woo-hoo! So it’s controversial.  Art is a topic about which thoughtful, intelligent, loving, well-educated, wonderful people can and will disagree. That’s the point. So, not everyone is going to love everything that goes up in a public or publicly visible private space. I don’t think everybody loves Bernini either. I’m not sure everybody thought that The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel was totally thrilled with it at first. So this is a process. And contemporary art is a conversation and while it can be absolutely beautiful, most artists are really asking you to engage with their idea, not to admire their technique.

Tom: One recent development that has received publicity is LexArts sponsoring a new theater group. Isn’t this a conflict of interest for an organization that has community arts organizations vying competitively for funding from LexArts?

Nan: Supporting a new theater group?

Christine: Athens West.

Nan: Support is a spectrum at LexArts and financial support for competitive grant process is not the only way we support arts organizations. Maybe some folks think it should be the only way we do that. I guess that’s the question, but it hasn’t been. And so, the short answer is: it’s not a conflict of interest, it’s a different interest. It’s a different way that LexArts supports the arts here. And it kind of goes to the question of well, how many things can you be to how many people? There are lots of resources that LexArts brings to the arts community. One of them is funding, and another is expertise. We’re a staff of five at this point, so every function has somebody’s name on it. The community has invested us with this (and by the community, I mean the whole nation) IRS tax-exempt status – it is conferred upon an organization by the people. So we use that to benefit organizations that don’t yet have them. So, that’s a long answer to that question.

Christine: The question arises at a very tumultuous time for other theater organizations.

Nan: Oh, yeah, yeah, absolutely.

Tom: Theater, like many art forms in Lexington, ebbs and flows and at the moment we have some new companies that are beginning to rise. And then, there’s Balagula Theatre which has brought really provocative content to the stage.

Nan: Yes, they have been a general offering support partner at LexArts. Part of my job is getting out to see all that I can. Imagine getting paid to do that. In December, my daughter and I got to see Venus in Fur on a Friday night before the announcement of (co-director) Ryan Case’s resignation. And I was just flabbergasted because it was so good. I’ve been a theater kid all my life and while I don’t see nearly as much theater as I would like, I like to call myself an expert. I like to think I know what’s good. That was really good. I thought it was wonderful. That’s me as an arts consumer. My next task is to really get to know them as an organization and learn how can we help.  So, yeah, lots of ebb and flow at the moment and I guess Lexington should consider itself lucky that there are folks who are coming to theater.  Not everything succeeds and that’s one of the reasons that LexArts exists: to level the playing field. One of the things that I would love to see happen with increased funding to LexArts is to fund artistic startups – entrepreneurial creative endeavors.

Christine: Sure. But one of the things I think is a very serious problem is the development and retention of audience. Frequently it will be to the downfall of the organization because there’s nobody coming, there’s no one attending. Goes back to marketing…

Nan: Yeah, Michael Kaiser who wrote The Art of the Turnaround and then two more books – a kind of trilogy on arts organization management, has brought forward a model to every organization that he’s helped: great arts, aggressively marketed. The two need to exist together for success. You could have something that is aggressively marketed and if it’s no good the audience figures that out pretty fast. So, they go hand in hand. I’m not sure what that would look like in Lexington, but  think that’s something that – we already do work at, you know. For the visual arts, for example, Gallery Hop has been going on for a long time, it’s one of our oldest programs, I think.

Christine: Very successful.

Nan: Very successful. We talked about how – like every arts organization, perhaps – we need to upgrade our website.

Tom: See if my impression is correct just of your vision because I think I’m hearing something here that’s a little…

Nan: I hope I’m being consistent.

Tom: You are.  It sounds to me as if you view LexArts’ role as one which creates that level playing field and makes it possible for individuals, groups, organizations to merit consideration because they are good at articulating what they want to do. It makes it possible for them to receive support based on merits versus ‘who you know.’

Nan: Um-hm. Yeah. I like the way you said that. I think that the call from the community is: we need more, we need more, we need more. And growing an arts organization – even one like LexArts that has a long history and is sort of an institution – is a little like building Brunelleschi’s Dome: you build one course and you stand on it to build the next. It’s incremental. So, it’s matter of learning what needs most to be done next and then being able to build the resources to do that, because the temptation is to say, “Sure, we will. Oh, we’d love to do that. Yeah, let’s try.” And then, you’re not doing well at anything for anyone. And, so we need to avoid that, resist that temptation and really learn strategies about saying no to a whole bunch of good ideas. And so,  figuring out our strategy based on what we can do and who are. ‘We’ are five people, ‘we’ are this board, ‘we’ are an arts organization, ‘we’ are the organizations that feed into us, ‘we’ are our donors. You know?

Tom: One last question that was raised during the search for new leadership: Is LexArts strictly about fundraising? Or is it, in addition to fundraising, also about advocacy for the arts? And can those two things be balanced without conflicting?

Nan: (LexArts board chair) John Long has said that LexArts’ mission and vision came under scrutiny at this transitional point and they thought about it a lot. Funding and advocacy are there together. And that conflict is the nature of human existence I think and again, transparency is the best solution for when those conflicts appear. If they appear, you name them: ‘uh-oh, these things are in conflict.’ That’s not necessarily bad. Conflicts get resolved all the time. And so, if there’s a perceived conflict, call it and look at it.

Christine: Under Main exists to examine things a little more thoroughly – take them a little deeper. In fact, I would love to see a series of meetings with you that incorporate video or audio about the various topics that we’ve only broached today. We thank you Nan for your time and your dedication to the arts and look forward to what lies ahead.

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