With the click of a mouse, my advisor connected me to Jenny Bilfield, the newly-appointed executive director of the Washington Performing Arts Society, one of my favorite performing arts organizations in Washington. A year ago, I never would have imagined that by attending AU’s Arts Management Program, I would meet some of the city’s most influential arts leaders. I expected to be slaving away in an ivory tower, and to a large extent I am, but thrilled that it has been accompanied by the real world of Arts Management.
In my Cultural Leadership class, our assignment was to interview an arts leader of our choice. When I met with my advisor, I mentioned the leaders I was particularly interested in meeting. He casually mentioned that he knew one of them and offered to introduce us by email. Thus began an unexpectedly adventuresome morning with Bilfield.
I met Bilfield early in the morning in front of the Wilson Building downtown. I began my interview by asking her what she thought made an arts leader effective and, in particular, what qualities she possessed that enabled her become executive director of WPAS. Her answers were animated and clear, and I was struck by the passion she felt for her work. She described how leading an arts organization gave her the opportunity to be a spokeswoman for the arts in general. The immense need for the arts and the benefits they provided, she explained, engaged her energies and devotion as no other field could do. It would not be possible, she continued, for her to advocate in any other field with the same dedication as she did for the arts. She also thought her success was partially due to the fact that she never set limits for herself. Other factors that contribute to success, she noted, were being able to see the broad picture of organizations, working tirelessly to accomplish one’s goals, finding a mentor and not hesitating to ask people for advice.
In closing the interview, she described herself as a leader that couldn’t be put in a box. She thrives on diverse art forms and doesn’t let herself be contained by other people’s limited views with respect to her interests.
Interviewing Bilfield was an exhilarating experience, but it did not stop there; as I was thanking her and getting up to leave, she suddenly invited me to join her for the rest of her morning. As you can imagine, I leapt at the chance — perhaps this kind of creativity and generosity is another aspect of a good leader, I thought.
I followed her to a conference room where she said she was speaking on behalf of Rhona Friedman, a board member of the D.C. Commission of Arts and Humanities, in front of some city council members. Wide-eyed, I listened as Bilfield and Friedman stated their case, following which Councilman Evans and Councilman Grosso gave their opinions on the arts helping to build a creative economy. The meeting was then adjourned and, in a daze, I said my goodbyes. What may have been a mundane morning turned into an experience I’ll never forget.
I hope this experience is a harbinger of what’s to come at AU and beyond; from what I’ve seen so far, I think it is.
Laura London is a first-year student in AU’s Arts Management program and serves as this year’s Marketing Assistant on the EALS Committee.