The Year Of The Women

Four who hold the reins at art institutions in the city compare notes

December 28, 2008|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Think of it as the ultimate fantasy dinner party, even though it occurred in the middle of the morning, the "food" consisted of just muffins, and there was no wine.

With Debbie Chinn's arrival in the fall to become Center Stage's managing director, for the first time in history, the city's three largest arts groups are being headed entirely by women. At Center Stage, Chinn joined Irene Lewis, who has overseen the artistic direction of Baltimore's premiere regional theater for 18 years.

In September 2007, Marin Alsop made headlines internationally when she was appointed music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. A highlight of Doreen Bolger's 11 years as director of the Baltimore Museum of Art was the introduction of free admissions in 2006.

Never before have women in Baltimore's art scene held so much power.

The Baltimore Sun couldn't resist bringing together these four leaders to talk about mutual challenges and joys. Serendipitously and coincidentally, all four came attired in black and red. For more than an hour, they brainstormed, laughed, and dished about the perils posed by the economy, the difficulties facing female executives and using technology to appeal to a younger generation.

The meeting ended with the four promising to get together regularly to trade ideas - though future discussions may unfortunately be held out of earshot of the media. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation:

It's the economy, stupid

All four of you share a commitment to producing new work. But these shows are risky at the box office. In these tough economic times, has there been any pressure from your boards to program surefire crowd-pleasers, such as The Mousetrap, or Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, or a Renoir exhibit?

Lewis: : These economic times are challenging, but they also are opportunities. There's been a lot of looking at the bottom line, but not dictating artistic goals.

Bolger:: The big issue is not whether we'll be "allowed" to do great artistic work. The real question is access, is maintaining the ability of everyone in the city to partake of what we have to offer. That requires a lot of support, not just from our trustees, but from every single person who loves the arts.

Alsop:: Don't you think that now is the time to step out, and be bolder in a way? From a musical standpoint, I think a lot of interest has gone to the West Coast. It's been pretty sleepy on the East Coast, and we have an opportunity in Baltimore to really shake things up, to create something that's exciting, innovative and thought-provoking.

Lewis: : : If I hadn't thought 18 years ago to look around the community in which the theater is situated, which is 80 percent African-American, and to program as such, I'm not sure we'd be in the financial health that we are right now. Seven out of 10 of the top-selling shows at Center Stage have been African-American. They have been a very loyal audience, and I am very grateful to them.

Alsop : [Referring to the partnership between the BSO and Darin Atwater's Soulful Symphony]: Clearly the symphony has started down this path. But when I look at the makeup of the orchestra, the musicians do not reflect even remotely the diversity of the community. Getting into the schools in kindergarten and reaching the kids early is the only way. They don't have the opportunity to partake in the same way the rest of the population does. It's our responsibility to somehow turn those odds around.

It's lonely at the top

What's it like to be a female arts leader in Baltimore?

Alsop: : My immediate answer is it's fantastic, it's wonderful, but there are a lot of issues. The discussion of women's leadership issues is even more repressed in America than the discussion of race. [She proposes a future city or statewide festival addressing the topic of women in management.] It need not be spoken in an extremely pointed way, but we could subtly celebrate the achievements of women. It could help young women coming up to move ahead.

Chinn: : It could also be an opportunity to build more arts leaders of color. It's very rare to find a managing director of color unless you're part of an African-American or Asian-American theater company. They're going into accounting and marketing and fundraising, but for some reason, there are very few managing directors of color in this country. I'd like to explore why that is.

Lewis: : Being a woman informs my work, but it doesn't define it. I came up at a time when it was so much harder than now; I don't feel thwarted in any way. I was invisible for so long, or tried to be, so I'd slip through. When I was at Hartford Stage in the 1970s, I was accused of taking a man's spot: "This is a do-or-die situation for women. We don't really think you can direct."

I like men. I do appreciate their humor. But, for an opening-night gift, they gave me a box of Midol. At Yale, one professor moved every woman from set design to costume design.

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