Over just a few weeks this past spring and summer, a succession of women announced their departures from cultural leadership positions in Vancouver.
Even from the hazy distance of my summer vacation, I felt a twinge of concern – it’s hard not to, in this #TimesUp era – but in fact, when I spoke to them individually, each had a different story to tell, and in large part, the news was good. There were new jobs, fresh opportunities. Or it was just time.
That doesn’t mean their careers have been without leading-while-female friction, though.
On July 8, the executive director of the Vancouver International Film Festival, Jacqueline Dupuis, revealed she would be stepping down after the 2019 festival. On July 11, Ballet BC announced that artistic director Emily Molnar would be leaving to become artistic director of the internationally renowned Nederlands Dans Theater at the conclusion of the 2019-20 season. On July 24, Vancouver’s Chutzpah! Festival artistic managing director Mary-Louise Albert announced she would leave after this year’s festival. The resignations followed the departure of Kathleen Bartels as executive director of the Vancouver Art Gallery, announced on May 28, and the June 5 news from the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra that president Kelly Tweeddale was leaving to become executive director of the San Francisco Ballet.
Speaking to each of them about their experiences, it was clear that there were some shared challenges – although each had her own take, and her own takeaway, about what it meant to lead as a woman.
When I asked Bartels, four months after her exit, if she had encountered any misogyny in her position, she laughed.
“Oh yeah, of course. We all experience it, right? Women our age,” she said. “I think that’s just part of the turf, right? But you overcome it.”
Tweeddale also laughed when I asked her if she had experienced any particular challenges in her career as a female leader.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been patted on the head and then told, ‘Let me show you how to do your job.’ I don’t know if men get that; maybe they do. But I think it has come with the territory.”
Tweeddale’s resignation, after less than four years in the job, was a surprise. She came from Seattle Opera in 2015, replacing long-time VSO president Jeff Alexander. She had a busy, if abbreviated, tenure, overseeing the 100th anniversary of the orchestra, increasing outreach and, most significantly, bringing in Otto Tausk to replace long-time and beloved music director Bramwell Tovey. When the offer came from San Francisco, she knew the timing wasn’t right, but it was a dream job.
When I asked Tweeddale, who has more than 30 years of experience, about running an organization while female, she said she has come up with ways to change the narrative in order to prevent that head-patting scenario. For instance, she asks for opinions, rather than advice. “When you ask for advice, it does change the hierarchy,” she told me.
Molnar turned around Ballet BC, joining when it was on the brink of bankruptcy and turning it into an internationally sought-after contemporary ballet company that opened the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow dance festival this year and performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and last year performed at Sadler’s Wells in London. She says with the company thriving, it’s the right moment for someone else to take over.
When I asked Molnar about producing all of this success, she said one of the keys to leadership – no matter the leader’s gender – is having good support.
“We … need to look at how we are helping to support leaders, because they’re so busy supporting everybody else. Who’s supporting them? And I think that’s a big question and maybe we could have people lead for longer if we were looking at that.”
Chutzpah!’s Albert mentioned the need for good support, too – something she has had from her board, she says.
Dupuis, who concluded her final film festival this month, came to VIFF with a strong business background, and she loves to geek out discussing business of the arts and ideas around leadership. In her view, having women in positions such as hers is only part of the solution.
“I think [the fact] that we had that many strong female leaders of arts organizations [in Vancouver] speaks to a lot of things, but I think we need to look at who’s governing those organizations – who is actually in power,” she said, pointing out how crucial it is that boards become more diverse to match the audiences they’re trying to attract.
“There’s a lot of female leaders in not-for-profits, but who are their boards? So who’s really in charge?” she says.
“The buck doesn’t stop with us; it stops with the board.”
Tweeddale also pointed out that most of her board leaders have been men.
Albert is leaving her position because, at 64, she says it’s time. But being a woman her age, she adds, has meant facing particular challenges.
“I have always felt that I’ve had to have sharper elbows than maybe men had to have. And that bothers me,” she says, saying there have been examples of when she felt she was spoken to or treated differently than if she had been a man. “I’ve had to compensate for that at times, and I wish I hadn’t had to,” she says. “Yes, I do have strength and I’m kind of fiery … but I have a very kind and big heart.”
These women have all left a cultural legacy in Vancouver, and their departures can be read, in some cases, as a vote of confidence in Vancouver’s arts scene. At the VSO, which has hired a search firm to find its next president, board member Étienne Bruson says he sees Tweeddale’s early departure as an indication that she – and the VSO – have been doing something right (although he adds he hopes the next president stays longer). Ballet BC recently closed its application process and has received applicants from around the world, according to Molnar. The Vancouver Art Gallery’s search committee recently hired the firm Odgers Berndtson to begin its search for a new director. At VIFF, the senior leadership team is now acting as the governing body at the staff level while the board looks ahead to its long-term leadership plan. And Chutzpah! has also launched a search.
Whoever comes next in these roles, what’s clear is the need for mentorship – something all of these women talked about: how being mentored helped them and how important it is for women to mentor other women.
At the VAG, Bartels says she went out of her way to hire women – from curators to financial administrators. And she added, to program work by women. Among the exhibitions she oversaw was WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, featuring work by more than 120 female artists. I like to think of this work as a different sort of mentorship – offering a female-filled picture to all the women and girls who come through the gallery to look at art.
Bartels’s exit, as her contract was coming up for renewal a mutual decision, she told me, by her and her board – comes as the VAG continues to try to fund and build a new gallery, something Bartels has been working toward for much of her 18 years in the position – sometimes to a fault, some might argue.
“I’ve always been this tenacious person, eyes on the prize. And you keep at it. Maybe some people didn’t like that. Maybe that made it difficult for me at times,” Bartels says. “But that’s just part of being an ambitious woman.”
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