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Female heads of arts groups say gender doesn't determine success

| Sunday, March 6, 2011

As Jane Werner hears the list of women who head area arts and cultural organizations, she has just three words to say:

"It's about time," says Werner, executive director of the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh since 1999.

Whether the title is artistic director, executive director, president, CEO or some variation on that theme, it's become increasingly common that the name that follows the title is female.

Aside from a National Endowment for the Arts report done in 1987, there's little to no statistical information to draw on. But a recent, casual search of area arts and cultural organizations headed by women quickly found several dozen with budgets both large -- $24 million at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh -- and small -- $600,000 at Quantum Theatre.

"I would like to think it's normal," says Ann Metzger, the Henry Buhl Jr. co-director of the Carnegie Science Center. "Women are 50 percent of the population so they should be 50 percent (of administrative heads)."

But, hold on a minute, says Tracy Brigden, who is celebrating her 10th season as artistic director at City Theatre Company.

It's not the new normal yet.

"That you are asking the question means we're not quite there yet," Brigden says.

Even with more women in charge, there's still an imbalance, says Quantum Theatre founder and artistic director Karla Boos.

"Do I think there are more than 20 years ago when I started• Yeah," she says. But, she adds "If you look broadly, you will see the largest cultural organizations are still run by men."

As an increasing number of women take their place at the head of the conference table, what changes?

Not much, says Barbara Luderowski, who founded the Mattress Factory in 1977 and now shares the director position with Michael Olijnyk.

"I don't think women bring a different set of skills," Luderowski says. "I don't think it's an age thing or a gender thing. It is what you make of it. ... It has more to do with ideas and how you implement them."

Metzger voices a similar belief.

"You can't think of women just as women," she says. "Different women bring different skills. When you look beyond gender and race, you see the skill sets."

Metzger points out the danger of making sweeping generalizations about gender differences.

"I have worked with many men who bring a spirit of cooperation and men who do not," she says. "But that's personality driven, not gender driven. With my co-director (Ronald J. Baillie), I have seen compassion and sympathy that I have admired."

Judith O'Toole, in her 18th year as director and CEO of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, says gender hasn't been a problem in doing her job.

"I never felt my being feminine has hindered my ability or access in getting in to talk to foundation heads or donors in Western Pennsylvania," she says. "Whether that's me or Western Pennsylvania, I don't know."

If there are gender differences, it may begin with in the willingness of women to take a job in a not-for-profit cultural organization, suggests Werner.

"Women are much better at following their passions than men," says Werner. "They may go into an arts or cultural organization because (they) want to change the world, and women are more willing to take less money."

When Werner became director of the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh in 1999, few men worked there. She's now proud that the there's an almost equal balance of men and women on the payroll.

"Everybody brings something different, and we respect each other's talents," she says. "It's not about who gets credit or power. We keep the focus on the kids."

For Boos, her gender has a big impact on the art she creates.

"I feel I'm very much in touch with my own emotional life and a collective unconsciousness. I feel an empathy that has played out in my work comes from being a woman and a mother, my choices and the things I don't understand," Boos says."It's the art part where my feminine side plays out. ... I feel like, in a weird way, I make a home for art."

Boos sometimes finds herself at odds with the oft-voice perception that women are more comfortable sharing power than men.

"They say women are better at empowering," she says. "I often feel these are things more challenging for me. There are people who are good at that, and I'm not one of them.

"I aspire to being better at empowering people and (the idea) that every person's contribution makes the whole," she says. "I feel very strongly about everything. It's hard for people to make their contribution in this office."

But that's not a male or female leadership trait, says Luderowski, who believes it's important for any leader to encourage staff input and participation in the decision-making process.

"I think it's incredibly important to share. I'm as far horizontal as I can get and still have a slight tilt to it," says Luderowski, who acknowledges that the ultimate decision remains with her -- or as she puts it: "They get the credit, and I get the crap,"

And those who believe women can't make the tough decisions had better check their assumptions at the door, O'Toole says.

"Many people, when I came here, felt I would be a pushover," she says. "But I know when to listen and gather information and when to make the hard decisions," she says. "Sometimes, women ... expect we should not say hard things to each other. ... If we have got to say tough things in meetings, we do -- and we don't go back to our offices and cry about it."

Leaders' gallery

Barbara Baker : president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium since 1990

Karla Boos: artistic director of Quantum Theatre, which she founded in 1990

Tracy Brigden: artistic director of City Theatre Company since 2001

Betsy Burleigh : music director for the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh since 2006

Rene Conrad: executive director of the New Hazlett Theater since January.

Michelle de la Reza: founded Attack Theatre with Peter Kope in 1994. They serve as artistic directors.

Jackie Dempsey: founded Squonk Opera in 1992 with Steve O'Hearn. She and O'Hearn serve as artistic directors.

Ellen Fleurov: executive director of Silver Eye Center for Photography since 2009

Dawn Keezer: director of the Pittsburgh Film Office since 1994

Barbara Luderowski: founding director and board president of The Mattress Factory, North Side, which she founded in 1977. Since 2008, she and Michael Olijnyk have served as directors.

Barbara K. Mistick : outgoing president and director of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh; a position she's held since 2005.

Ann Metzger: Henry J. Buhl Jr. co-director with Ronald J. Baillie of the Carnegie Science Center since 2009.

Judith O'Toole: director and CEO of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art since 1993.

Greer Reed-Jones and Susan Sparks: artistic director and executive director, respectively, of Dance Alloy, since 2009.

Janera Solomon: executive director of the Kelly-Strayhorn Theatre since 2008

Jane Werner : executive director of the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh since 1999.

Lynn Zelevansky: Henry J. Heinz II Director of Carnegie Museum of Art since 2009.

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