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John Lamb, Published January 20 2012

Artistic license: Women run the show in Fargo-Moorhead arts world

If you go

What: Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra Masterworks Concert 3

When: 8 tonight and 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Festival Concert Hall, NDSU

Info: Tickets range from $15 to $35. (218) 233-8397.

What: Reception for Jay Hopkins’ exhibit, “Down Home”

When: 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Sunday, with a 2 p.m. gallery talk

Where: Rourke Art Gallery, 523 4th St. S., Moorhead

Info: (218) 236-8861

FARGO - When Tania Blanich was named director of the Rourke Art Gallery Museum in December, it brought one fact into focus – in the local arts scene, women run the show.

Directors of the Plains Art Museum, Fargo-Moorhead Symphony, Fargo Theatre, Trollwood Performing Arts School, Bluestem Center for the Arts, Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County are all women.

Add in smaller, but vital organizations like the Spirit Room and Theatre B and the advocacy group, the Arts Partnership, and the local voice for community’s culture is overwhelmingly female.

The trend is not lost on any of these leaders.

“It’s not so unusual that women end up being nonprofit managers,” says Blanich. “I think women gravitate toward service. … Women traditionally are more comfortable starting at the bottom and working their way up.”

The Fargo native returned to the area from Lexington, Ky., where she was the chief operating officer of LexArts, the council and fund for the arts in the city.

And in Blanich’s 30-year career in nonprofits and city administration, four of her six bosses were women.

Nonprofits in general and the arts in particular have long been equal ground for women professional, compared to the business world.

“Nonprofits are lean, feisty organizations,” Linda Boyd Coates, executive director of the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra. “You have to be frugal, creative and hard-working to be successful and that figures into women’s leadership styles. They’re good at that.”

Pulling the strings

Coates is part of the rule in the world of symphonies and orchestras.

According to the League of American Orchestras, of which the FM Symphony is a member, a survey sampling of 315 adult and youth orchestras, shows 161 female executive directors to 131 male executive directors in the 2010-’11 season.

Overall job numbers lean to the male side in the museum world, according to an American Association of Museums study released in November. Of the more than 400,000 people employed by American museums, there were slightly more men working (52.5 percent) to women (47.5percent).

Those numbers, however, cover governmental, for-profit and nonprofit institutions and count for staffing throughout an organization, including custodial and grounds keeping jobs that have been traditionally male dominated.

Dewey Blanton, senior manager for media relations at AAM, says that when he goes to meetings with museum administrators, the room is about 80 percent female.

Colleen Sheehy, director and CEO of the Plains Art Museum, points out that in her native Minneapolis, women preside over the Weisman Art Museum, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Institute for Arts and Minnesota Museum of American Art – the latter three appointing women directors in the last five years.

She says there are more women museum directors now than at any other time, though for more than a century women have found a home working in museums.

“In the late 19th century, early 20th Century, that’s one way women could have a leadership role, working in cultural entities,” Sheehy says.

She came to the Plains in 2008 from the Weisman where she worked as director of education in addition to some curatorial work. Over the past couple of decades she says women dominated educational roles in the museums because they are, “a natural area for them to move into. … It’s really the guts of what museums do now, education.”

Sheehy adds that it’s not just a matter of women staffing museums, but in some notable cases conceiving them.

“Women were instrumental in starting museums in the United States,” she says.

She points to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney who founded the New York institutions the Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art, respectively.

Locally, women like Katherine Kilbourne Burgum, Ruth Landfield and Emma K. Herbst were champions of the arts.

“People here value strong women,” Sheehy says, noting that the new Center for Creativity at the Plains Arts Museum is named after Kilbourne Burgum.

Sheehy claims that women even have an advantage in their approach to leading, saying, “Because women have had to fight their way to be taken seriously as professionals, scholars and artists, we’re more open to innovation.”

Not in it for the money

Sheehy and others speculate that the limited salaries of nonprofit work may be a deterrent for men, though she says her income is enough to support her family.

Coates says the real pay-off of her position doesn’t show up on her income tax returns, but rather the influence she can wield.

“The payback for women is to be influential in the community. To be Margie Bailly (former director of the Fargo Theatre) or Vicki Chepulis (former executive director of Trollwood Performing Arts School) is to be an important voice in the community. It puts women at the table of decision making,” Coates says.

She says as more communities see the importance of the cultural sector, arts organizations play a part in development.

Coates has been on both sides of that table of decision making. After first serving as FMSO director from 1993 to ’96, Coates served as a Fargo city commissioner from 2004 to ’08. She returned to the FMSO in ’07.

“I don’t think I could’ve been elected to the (Fargo) City Commission without the experiences running the Symphony gave me,” she says. “I have a stimulating job doing something that matters, that’s pretty great.”

Her enthusiasm is echoed by others.

“I’ve long had an interest in nonprofit management simply because I care about what I do with my time,” says Maureen Kelly Jonason, executive director of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, Moorhead. “I just want my time to be used to make the world a better place. … The fact that I get to work in art, culture and history is a huge bonus.”

Another bonus is that now Kelly Jonason gets to work closer to her close friend, Blanich.

Kelly Jonason sent Blanich the job notice for the Rourke position.

“I feel like I won the damn lottery,” Blanich says about her new job.

Sheehy also says the addition of Blanich to the Fargo-Moorhead arts scene is “exciting,” though she may think it’s less about luck and was just a matter of time.

“Women have paid their dues, they’ve put in their time in curatorial and education,” Sheehy says. “I welcome my sister directors.”