To Lead in the Arts as a Woman

Posted by Afa Sadykhly Dworkin, Oct 05, 2018 0 comments

To lead in the arts as a woman today is to pay tribute to those who came before us. We have not been alone: we stand firmly upon the mighty shoulders of Gertrude Vanderbuilt Whitney, Hilla von Rebay, and today’s (s)heroes like Thelma Golden, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Tania Leon and others. Some of these names even we have to look up, due to the passively invasive power of assumed patriarchy; we don’t learn about many of them, we forget about some, we do not recognize nor celebrate them enough. In my home community of Detroit, several arts non-profits are or have recently been led by incredible women. Anne Parsons (Detroit Symphony Orchestra), Patricia Mouradian (The Henry Ford), and Juanita Moore (Wright Museum), among others. Their individual paths, wisdom, and accomplishments have helped shape my thinking on leadership, accountability, and service. Part of my role is to pass that knowledge on to others, men and women alike. If I look broader to other inspirational leaders nationally, I think of Deborah Rutter of the Kennedy Center, Denise Saunders Thompson of The International Association for Blacks in Dance, Amy Fitterer of Dance/USA, Teresa Eyring of The Theatre Communications Group, Catherine Dehoney of Chorus America, and Deborah Borda of the NY Philharmonic, to name only a few. The lesson here is to know these leaders, to know those who inspired them, to learn from them, and to build the next generation of women who rock the nonprofit world of the arts.

To lead in the arts as a woman is to forge the path for our daughters and their daughters. It is to identify, to mentor, to support, to hold accountable, to encourage, and to connect. At Sphinx we call it building families, referring to our network of artists, alumni, and partners as La Familia. One of the ways in which I am inspired and challenged is my continued learning through and from young women who aspire to enter the nonprofit world and make a difference. My job is to share everything I know and learn what I don’t—and what better opportunity is there than mentorship? I am inspired by my friend, violinist and humanitarian Rachel Barton Pine. Through her foundation she created the groundbreaking Music by Black Composers collection, which will change the way we teach music to young violinists. She started with her own daughter, Sylvia. While I do not have daughters of my own, I am proud to show my sons Noah and Amani that women lead through hard work and dedication. I hope that their worldview is abundant with such sensibilities. Together with my female and male colleagues around the world, I hope to create a network that offers opportunities for women, especially women of color, to climb the ladder and shatter every glass ceiling.

To lead in the arts as a woman is to make the creative case for diversity, one where “otherness” is seen and acknowledged as not just additive but as necessary to attain excellence. Having gender diversity makes us better, more informed, more creative, more effective. Maria Lopez De Leon, president of NALAC, models this aspect by giving voices to creating networks of countless Latinx artists around the country.

Finally, to lead in the arts today as a woman is a privilege and an honor. We live during a critical time. There is much discord, fear, apathy, and concern for our field and its value in our society. We have the opportunity to stand up and use our bully pulpits thoughtfully. When those do not exist, we build new ones. When we are not heard, we can amplify one another. Through her own Canales Project, Sphinx Medals of Excellence recipient Carla Canales launched Hear Her Song, giving voices to other remarkable women.

Women leaders remember integrity: when we fight for something, we use every resource available to understand the issue and go about solving it with passion as well as responsibility. Every choice we make is seen through a finer lens and has more riding on it. We must turn that into an opportunity to seize the moment and act with courage when it counts.

In the words of Malala Yousafzai, “I raise up my voice—not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard … we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.” I count myself blessed to dedicate my life’s work to the voices of those who are not heard enough and where I have a chance to be a part of a whole community that is building a larger chorus of our society.


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