You recently became the Executive Director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. What is your vision for the Committee and how does your work play into and support the Arts and Humanities in communities throughout the nation?
President Obama appointed me late last year, and my mantra is: No denouement!
Under the Obama Administration, this has been an incredibly activist Committee supporting the arts in America. The Committee runs on passion. One reason is about half the members are working artists like Yo-Yo Ma, Kerry Washington, Chuck Close, Alfre Woodard, John Lloyd Young, Sarah Jessica Parker, Forest Whitaker, Kerry James Marshall and Kal Penn. All the members passionately believe in the power of the arts to improve cultural diplomacy, education and the economy.
Not long after I got here, just one month after the President’s visit to Havana, we led an historic US Cultural Mission to Cuba that will be the subject of an upcoming PBS Lincoln Center Live program. With the Chairs of the National Endowments of the Arts and Humanities and the Secretary of the Smithsonian, we took Usher, Smokey Robinson, Joshua Bell, Dave Matthews and our artist members to collaborate with Cuban artists and extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. Bilateral meetings there resulted in the first government to government collaborations in the wake of the President’s historic speech at the Gran Teatro.
In Education, the Committee sought to prove the value of reinvesting in arts education as part of an overall strategy to make America more competitive. It set out not only to prove that the arts were important to education, but that for the schools in deepest trouble in America, the arts were a uniquely effective tool for education reform.
My predecessor, Rachel Goslins, created a program called Turnaround Arts that has shown remarkable outcomes in the nation’s most fragile schools by infusing the teaching approach with the arts. A report by Booz Allen Hamilton indicated the first 8 schools in the pilot phase outperformed other schools where reform efforts were brought to bear. Math and reading proficiency scores not only shot up, but attendance, parent engagement and community support improved as well. And there were more students headed to play practice than the principal’s office.
This year is about protecting this program and positioning it for scale through a strategic partnership with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It is a perfect match because our program aligns with their national arts education initiatives. We developed a Legacy Committee of funders, partners and artists who have made substantial commitments for the next three years ensuring the program is strong and ready to scale. We are exploring new partnerships with companies like AOL, Google, Estee Lauder, and Deloitte to bring resources, and greater outcome focus as this successful program faces the future.
How has your background as journalist, public policy advocate, and champion for gender equality informed your lens of and passion for the Arts and Humanities?
At bottom, much of the work I have done is about supporting the values of equality and fairness in America. The arts and the humanities are the soul of America. They tell the world who we are. They shout our values, question our character, express our concerns and reflect both our strengths and weaknesses. The arts keep us honest by challenging us.
But the Arts and Humanities are like gender equality. If it is there, you have the luxury to take it for granted. It is almost invisible. But if it is not there, the lack of it can threaten your very existence. It is then that you have the job of trying to explain its value, sometimes to people not inclined to notice it is not there.
When the Obama Administration came into office, the arts were waning due to economic problems. Schools dropped arts programs, even foundations that once supported arts education moved on to other issues, cultural institutions faced funding challenges. This Committee joined the conversation and provided the evidence that the arts and humanities were not only important, but critical. It was done through communication, discussion with policy leaders, convening stakeholders and pinpointing inequities in arts engagement. This is a job I have prepared for my entire life.
What makes you so passionate about the Arts and Humanities?
When I was in middle school I found my home in the theater. I worked at the Old Town Alexandria Community Theater from the age of 12 working props. I loved everything about it: building sets, endless rehearsals, shouting directors, emotive actors, it all made sense to me. In high school and in college I was constantly acting in a play: Arsenic and Old Lace, Lysistrata, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, No Exit, Vanities, Twelfth Night, I cannot remember them all.
Later, I was able to support the arts and humanities as a board member serving the Richmond Ballet, Wolf Trap Associates, Theater Four, the historic Alexandria Athenaeum, the Woodlawn Plantation and WETA television in Washington.
When my husband was Ambassador to Switzerland from 2009-2013, he handed me the public diplomacy portfolio and I worked with the Montreux Jazz Festival, the Locarno Film Festival and Art Basel. I was able to see the strong connections we make through the experience of art, and concluded it was the best way to engage our neighbors abroad.
How would you describe your leadership style, and what leaders do you admire?
I like to be creative and collaborate for a common good. I have spent so many years on campaigns, working to advocate for causes, that this just comes naturally. I admire Christine La Garde who leads the International Monetary Fund, Geena Davis who enlightens Hollywood on the gender imbalance in American film, and First Lady Michelle and President Barack Obama who lead with grace, collaboration, humor and intelligence.
How can people who are passionate about the Arts and Humanities and your work get involved and support your mission?
Just go to our President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanties’ website, www.pcah.org, and read about all the programs this small Committee leads to bring the power of the arts to youth development. We have a National Student Poets program founded by Committee Member Olivia Morgan that selects five top teenage poets to advocate for poetry among their peers. We have another project to give recognition to after school programs using the arts and humanities called the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards. And finally, our signature program, Turnaround Arts, is now in 68 schools—some in Washington DC. The students in these schools now have art supplies, art programs, school plays and every class is taught with song, dance and the visual arts. Sign up for our social media accounts on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to find out about events. Or just call us at 202-682-5560.
If you could take the day off and go anywhere in DC where would you go and why?
I would start the day at sunrise at the Lincoln Memorial, then take a walk around the reflecting pool and spend the day at the National Gallery of Art. There is nothing more nourishing for the soul.
What is your favorite book?
I like non-fiction. It is the old journalist in me. You can have your Phillip Roth, give me Walter Isaacson.
When you were a kid did you ever imagine becoming a journalist, or a national leader in the Arts and Humanities?
I could and did. Imagination is what got me here. Believe in it.