Five Minutes, Five Questions: Marlene Ibsen of the Travelers Foundation
Past BCA 10 honoree Travelers has been a long-time advocate of the arts. In 2013 alone, 17 percent of Travelers’ overall corporate giving went to arts and culture organizations. The company’s belief in the power of arts is also held by its employees.
Marlene Ibsen, President and CEO of the Travelers Foundation and Vice President of Community Relations at Travelers, recently talked to Americans for the Arts about the Travelers Arts & Diversity Committee, a group of Travelers employees who are out in the community and use the arts to encourage diversity.
Patrick O’Herron, Business Committee for the Arts Coordinator, Americans for the Arts: Can you start by giving me a quick overview of the Arts & Diversity Committee?
Marlene Ibsen: The Travelers Arts & Diversity Committee is comprised of employees in our St. Paul, Minnesota office who are looking to provide first-hand support to the region’s arts scene. They allocate funds to various arts organizations that are committed to supporting diversity.
Though funding is a substantial portion of what they do, their work doesn’t end there. Some committee members have prior experience in the arts, and they use that background to occasionally help produce local live performances. Their passion for both the arts and their neighborhoods’ appeal makes this group a strong–and highly visible–component of our involvement in our communities.
PO: Where does the committee find inspiration for the various programs they fund and support?
MI: The Arts & Diversity Committee has been around since 1996, so their vision has been evolving over the committee’s near 20-year existence. In Community Relations, we stay current on its progress, but the group has proven over the years that it is able to target programs that stimulate creativity, build multicultural understanding and positively contribute to neighborhood vitality. These are the components we seek when Travelers and the Travelers Foundation consider funding any arts group.
PO: Can you give me some examples of the Committee’s recent work?
MI: The committee recently funded the Stories project by Mu Performing Arts, a project designed for high school students who have immigrated to the U.S. and are learning the English language. These students get to write, rehearse and, eventually, perform their immigration stories. These performances can be both stimulating and cathartic for students and their families.
The committee saw Stories as a great way to help these students develop self-esteem, interpersonal skills and make learning English–no easy feat in high school–a little more fun.
For a number of years, the committee has supported the East Side Arts Council Artmobile, a vehicle that tours the streets of St. Paul during the summer and offers free art classes taught by professional artists. The Artmobile reached more than 1,000 kids in 2013 with the help of Travelers and other donors.
But, like I mentioned earlier, the committee is about more than just funding.
PO: Since that’s the case, how else does the committee get involved?
MI: In recent years, they’ve been heavily involved with the West Side Theater Project, a community-driven effort to bring a series of live music and performances to the west side of St. Paul. Committee members met with producers, writers and directors on a regular basis and provided whatever help was needed to get that show ready for Opening Night. It could be orchestrating a casting call, playing different roles in rehearsals, selling tickets or ushering at performances.
When it’s time for the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra’s annual performance in West St. Paul, you’ll see the Travelers Arts & Diversity Committee there as ushers and serving lunch to disadvantaged youth who were invited to attend.
Having that direct impact with the community is how the Arts & Diversity Committee differentiates itself from other organizations. These are people with full-time jobs and families who, in their limited free time, dedicate themselves to their city’s art scene. It’s admirable.
With the committee so heavily invested in these types of partnerships, it enables a deep connection with the artists, the audience and the greater St. Paul community. We like when they take calculated risks and try something different. Even if that doesn’t go exactly according to plan, it’s an experience that keeps the committee motivated and ready to tackle similar projects in the future. After nearly 20 years, the committee is really tuned in to the city’s arts needs.
PO: How does that on-the-ground experience feed into what the committee is looking to accomplish next?
MI: There’s always more that can be done with engaging the city’s underrepresented youth. If you’re in St. Paul, expect to see the Travelers Arts & Diversity Committee refining and strengthening an artist-in-residency program for a couple of St. Paul public elementary schools where more than 90 percent of the students qualify for some type of government aid. The committee will work with the district and use art to enhance the educational experience for these kids.