In this podcast, we explore the unique challenges facing arts service organizations, those important institutions working behind the scenes to help artists and arts organizations thrive. For arts services organizations, changes in the funding landscape in the last 15 years have made sustainability an ongoing challenge, not to mention the Catch-22 these organizations face in communicating their value without taking credit for the successes of those they serve. Despite these barriers, our two guests believe that there are ample opportunities for service organizations to reinvent themselves as hubs within their communities and beyond.
Host Karina Mangu-Ward talks with Jeffrey Lependorf of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and Monica Valenzuela of Staten Island Arts about how these challenges and opportunities play out in their organizations, and gets an inside look at their ah-ha moments and struggles during recent retreat they participated in as a part of EmcArts’ New Pathways for Arts Development, New York City. Monica and Jeffrey reflect on why getting out of the daily grind and question old assumptions is so important (and not always easy!). The full transcript of this podcast is below.
Jeffrey Lependorf, CLMP’s Executive Director, has over 20 years of experience in development, fundraising, corporate sponsorship, and strategic planning. He serves as a shared executive director for Small Press Distribution. His past work experience includes Development Director for the Creative Capital Foundation, Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project, the Poetry Society of America, and In the Life Media. He is also a professional musician and composer, a certified master of the shakuhachi (traditional Japanese bamboo flute), and serves as Director of Music Omi, an international music residency program in upstate New York. His Masterpieces of Western Music audiocourse is available through Barnes and Noble’s “Portable Professor” series.
Monica Valenzuela is a grantwriter, project manager and freelance photographer who specializes in storytelling, community-based project management, and documentary portraiture. As the Interim Executive Director at Staten Island Arts, she works closely with the diverse cultural ecosystem of Staten Island and values neighborhood-based cultural activities. She enjoys identifying alternative spaces for art and coordinates Staten Island Arts’ LUMEN festival, a cutting-edge video and performance art festival on Staten Island’s waterfront.
Karina Mangu-Ward: Hi. I’m Karina Mangu-Ward of EmcArts. Here on the ArtsFwd Podcast we explore the challenges facing the arts sector right now to do things differently, to do things they’ve never done before. In each episode, we look at stories of experimentation and success from innovative arts organizations across the country. Today, we’re exploring the challenges and opportunities facing Arts Service Organizations. In the studio I’m joined by the leaders of two organizations participating in our New Pathways program for service organizations right here in New York City. I’m pleased to welcome Jeffrey Lependorf the Executive Director of The Community of Literary Magazines and Presses and Monica Valenzuela who’s the Interim Executive Director of Staten Island Arts. Hello.
Monica Valenzuela: Hello.
Jeffrey Lependorf: Hi, Karina. Nice to be here.
Karina Mangu-Ward: So as our listeners may or may not know, each of your organization supports and develops the cultural community in a particular place or discipline. You each came into the New Pathways program because you were wrestling with challenges that couldn’t be conquered by simply improving or tweaking what you are already doing. You were looking for an innovative approach through workshops and coaching sessions. You’ve been exploring your most complex intractable challenges, questioning assumptions, and brainstorming new strategies for the future. A few months ago, you each began a deeper investigation of just one key complex challenge. So starting with you, Jeffrey, talk a little bit about what challenge or opportunity you’re exploring in this deep dive part of the program.
Jeffrey Lependorf: Sure. So CLMP in a nutshell, we are a hub for independent literary publishers. All the folks that produce so much that’s really important to our culture but is not always as commercially viable as those top ten and New York Times best sellers so translation publishers, poetry publishers, cultural theory, things like that. As much as we are a service organization that traditionally has largely provided technical assistance, we’ve realized that some of the stuff we’ve done that we’re most proud of is really been in connecting with the community to each other. So our deeper dive has really been in looking at other ways we might form community and facilitate forming a community, largely moving from a, “What can we do for you?” proposition to a, “How might we facilitate all of us working better?”
Karina Mangu-Ward: Great. Thanks. So Monica, tell us a little bit about Staten Island Arts and what was the challenge or opportunity that you guys were exploring in this deeper dive part of the New Pathways program.
Monica Valenzuela: Sure. Well, Staten Island Arts is the local arts councilor or local arts agency for Richmond County back, I guess, two years ago we started – we got a Rockefeller Cultural Renovation Fund Grant in 2010 to do an assessment of spaces on Staten Island. We were attendants at Snug Harbor Cultural Center, a very historic kind of landmark space on Staten Island, but we were in a basement as many non-profits are. So in looking at other spaces and what those kinds of elements should be in our space, we were connected with the Staten Island St. George Ferry Terminal as they were looking to fill the spaces inside. There were a lot of vacant spaces in the new renovation of that building.
Karina Mangu-Ward: That’s the very terminal on the Staten Island side connected to Manhattan, right?
Monica Valenzuela: Correct. It’s a really large transportation hub and the 3rd largest tourist attraction in New York City. It’s the freeway to see the Statue of Liberty but Staten Island is geographically isolated from the rest of New York City and ways of communicating and working with artists were very one-on-one. So we were thinking, “Okay, now we’re going to be on this ferry terminal where 76,000 people are coming though a day.” It’s 2/3 commuters, 1/3 tourists. There’s an incredible opportunity for audience engagement. If this is the first chance when people get off the boat to experience culture in Staten Island, which often is a kind of battling a stereo-type, what would that look like and how could we best utilize 25,000 square feet to do that?
Jeffrey Lependorf: It’s funny some things that we sort of have in common. It’s been nice doing this program with other groups where we can really learn stuff from them. Whereas I would say, similarly our best work has been one-on-one with members and traditionally folks come to us with their problem. We help them work through the problem and that’s still great, but we’re a national organization so how do we keep doing that in a national way. We’ve been trying to explore some ways to deal with groups of people, to put it simply, and here you are also having dealt one-on-one and now suddenly you have this torrent of crowds and how do you capture them in groups. It’s really interesting.
Karina Mangu-Ward: So listening to each other and just from your own experience, how do you see the challenges facing service organizations which have more recently been called Arts Development Agencies as different from those who focus on producing and presenting work for the public?
Jeffrey Lependorf: Well, the immediate challenge is that we don’t generally touch audiences in that easily countable way that at least for now is in the funding community so convenient to talk about and has such clear results. So for us as an organization that serves other organizations, there’s this sort of double and almost triple challenge because we’re helping small publishers who already are misunderstood who then help writers to then reach readers. Our role is this sort of invisible one and it’s only more recently we’ve realized what seems now obvious to us that we need to be as visible in our process to in fact highlight the two ends but also to remain sustainable to ourselves. So we have a lot of hurdles and a lot of explaining to do which makes it really tough.
Monica Valenzuela: I would totally agree. I think that the invisibility factor is something that is hard when you’re trying to highlight some of the constituents that you work with in their work and not affected or tainted in any sort of way. I think there’s something really beautiful especially when two groups are coming together to collaborate and very purposely because of just conflict of interest with our granting program, we take a very conscious effort to not have a hand in a lot of the artistic direction of programs but in terms even of reporting on it and capturing information and demonstrating the impact without taking credit for what the end product is, is always challenging, too.
Jeffrey Lependorf: That really is the catch because even if we reinforce our facilitating role – I mean get folks together to do great things, the idea of taking credit is really a tough one because we want the limelight on them. That’s why we exist and yet, if we don’t get any of that light then we can’t continue to exist. So it’s a tricky one.
Karina Mangu-Ward: So you’re each wrestling with these complex challenges and about a month ago as a part of the New Pathways program, you took an intensive retreat to immerse yourself, your staff, and some other stakeholders in the difficult questions and dilemmas that are arising out of your work around that challenge. So I want to hear from each of you, at that retreat was there a particular turning point or “Aha” moment that really jumps out at you? Monica?
Monica Valenzuela: We’ve had a lot kind of going on and are dealing with a lot of changes at once. I think a lot of that came to a head at the retreat. Having everybody in the same room was so powerful and at the end the “Aha” moment was not having the “Aha” moment but knowing that we had a plan. I think the most powerful point was having everybody in the room and really getting out logistics. So our experiments, we hammered out some timelines and it was not as sexy as a larger vision. I think it was the process of actually working as a group kind of to delineate the path forward.
Karina Mangu-Ward: That’s very meta.
Jeffrey Lependorf: [Laughter] Yes.
Monica Valenzuela: [Laughter] Well, that’s what John said. He was like, “That’s Zen Buddhism where you have the Nirvana that you kind of work towards and then you have just the – everyday you’re not going to see nirvana until it’s behind you.”
Karina Mangu-Ward: Jeffrey for you, what was the turning point or an “Aha” moment in the retreat?
Jeffrey Lependorf: There were a number of “Aha” moments but there was one that came early on that I think has still been informing a lot of what we do. That has to do with our whole [fields] image of itself in a sense and then also CLMP’s image of itself. I think there was a – in some cases, maybe a body dysmorphia image. We think we’re fat and everyone thinks we’re skinny but [Laughter] it really had to do with us really working hard to feeling like, “Poor little us – tiny, tiny service org and small field made up of little things and there are these giant conglomerate publishers and giant book sellers who seem to be against us.” So we worked really, really hard through language, we’re lit people, to legitimize ourselves. I think we assumed we had done this really, really well. So we have been very careful to avoid saying, “Small Press” and instead said, “Independent Literary Publisher” for example. The big “Aha” moment was when we decided to start with just, “Let’s define who we are. Who is this community? We’re saying we wanted to be a community, but who is it? Who are we?” In going to that process, we reclaimed the word small as actually a virtue. The one thing that really makes us different is we are made up of hundreds of small things. So maybe back to the Zen metaphor, hundreds of small things, this beautiful lotus of activity that are somehow all connected through CLMP. That really is something to celebrate and not something to make pretend it’s not the case, like “We’re not really small.”
The fact is that this language we work so hard over the years to construct largely because we thought it is what say, the funded community wanted to hear. I don’t know if that’s true or not but that what we created was something pretty boring and we actually erased ourselves a little bit. The fact is we’re hundreds of small things who are agile and can change and try things and do things that the large conglomerate – equivalence is not that word but parallels to us, actually can’t do. In these particularly challenging times for the entire literary bookselling and literary magazine selling arena – if you go out there to a bookstore where all the books look the same but some are not for profit produced and some are small produced and some are large. That’s actually a key virtuous, so reclaiming the words small for me was a big “Aha” and it moved us to change a lot of our other language into just what things really are which seems so obvious, but it’s hard to do. So we have moved toward trying to say things in a way that human beings actually speak to one another [Laughter] which is hard for folks and it’s funny because we’re practicing what we preach. We’ve worked really effectively in helping so many of our own member publishers, use plain language and talk about passionately what they really do rather than the boring mission statements that they write, that they think they’re supposed to create to put into grant proposals that everyone skips when they read the about page because they’re unreadable. We’ve sort of given ourselves permission to exclaim the actual passion that we have for what we do, which is simple and basic in a profound way, not a way that is not complex enough to legitimize it.
Karina Mangu-Ward: These were – retreats are not always smooth sailing. There are often moments of heat in the room or conflict in the room, moments of real challenge. I think from where I sit, I think those moments can be really useful.
Monica Valenzuela: The retreat was emotionally exhausting. I think what became really clear was the amount of passion that each of the people in the room bring to the table and taking that kind of emotional part out of it as much as possible. Our organization is at a point that our Executive Director had resigned as of the end of the year. So at the end of January for the retreat, we were just a month fresh in trying to figure out what that meant. Whether what that meant in the short term for how are things managed, to how are things managed at the board level, and the amount of work on everybody’s plates to kind of bring the organization to the next chapter I think was on everybody’s skin. Even though that’s not what we were talking about at the retreat, it’s on everybody’s mind. The executive director as a role is the liaison between the board and the staff and so not having that person, that liaison in the room, started conversations that probably have never happened before.
Karina Mangu-Ward: So a big part of our practice at EmcArts is about failing small and failing often and coming out of the retreat, you and your teams each identified some prototypes that you’ll conduct to test our the strategies that you started developing at the retreat. So starting with you, Monica, what’s one prototype that you’re – that you have planned, that you particularly excited about? What is it that you’re going to do and what are you hoping to learn?
Monica Valenzuela: So our challenge is this physical space. The experiment is to pilot four different programs. We have a film screening, we have kind of an unplugged night with a local band who writes songs about Staten Island and uses a lot of history in their work and then two small kind of literary events: one focused on teenagers who hangout in the ferry terminal between the hours of 2:00 PM and 5:00 PM; and a weekend event with younger kids and families. We’re also using some of the funds to document, to show what different things can happen in the space because we do offer the space for programs and events in the community who are approaching us, “Can I do an event in the terminal? What would that look like?” and we’re still figuring that out. So this allows us kind of in a short amount of time to see what that set up is, what the equipment is required, what kind of interfacing, what kind of contracts between artists and also physical documentation and marketing materials.
Karina Mangu-Ward: Great and for you, Jeffrey, what’s the prototype you’re planning that you’re excited about and what are you going to do and what are you hoping to learn?
Jeffrey Lependorf: One of the two main ones we’re doing really has to do with looking at different ways that our community might gather, particularly in places not in our office. So we’re already doing some little experiments around different types of gatherings that are local but the real question is how do we do that on all these other places. We’re national and that’s one of our big challenges, “We’re teeny-tiny,” here we are in New York. So we’re going to be testing some different ways of having people together in person perhaps sending a staff out to another city, and then also some, I think, different virtual ways. So be that a chat room or a Adobe connect or different ways of having communities outside of New York, and even here as well, get together and share knowledge so that we’re increasing our role of facilitating these gatherings of those publishers together and also trying some of these similar experiments with some of our publishers and these other groups of allies I mentioned earlier like, literary agents – we have a speed dating event coming up with agents and publishers. We’re going to be doing one with translators and publishers soon after that and several others.
So we’ve learned and we know this for many, many years. It’s awfully hard to get even a small group of people in one place at one time and it’s a challenge that it’s far harder that anyone who hasn’t had to do it would ever, ever imagine. We’re in a helping profession here. You can’t impose your help on folks. You really have to offer it in a way that’s inviting so that they want to engage with it. Now, what other ways might we open our arms so that others will grab our hands and join us.
Karina Mangu-Ward: Jeffrey Lependorf is the Executive Director of the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses and Monica Valenzuela is the Interim Executive Director of Staten Island Arts. Thanks to you both for joining me.
Monica Valenzuela: Thank you.
Jeffrey Lependorf: Thank you.
Karina Mangu-Ward: Thanks for listening. This is the ArtsFwd Podcast. You can check our more on our website that features multimedia profiles of innovative organizations, a blog and this podcast series and much more at www.artsfwd.org. I’m Karina Mangu-Ward of EmcArts in New York.
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