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Women take the helm of Charlotte’s arts groups

Dorlisa Flur’s husband tells her she has a problem saying “no.” That’s how, he jokingly surmises, the busy Belk executive came to chair the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art’s board this year.

Flur is one of about half a dozen women now leading Charlotte’s major arts organization boards. While women in leadership roles is nothing new, convergence has taken over this year.

When Flur began her term this summer, she came it at with the same focus and direction she uses in her day job as executive vice president of Omnichannel at Belk. In that role, she helps Belk connect with customers across stores, digital and mobile. She’s responsible for the retailer’s supply chain and customer, strategy and innovation areas.

She led her first board meeting in August and developed a theme for her agenda. “Maturing as a Board” was designed to “build a dynamic board … capable of supporting the Bechtler’s continued growth and sustainability over the next five years and beyond.”

Jo Ann Peer themed one of the meetings she led as the Mint Museum’s board chair. “At our recent annual meeting, I declared this fiscal year to be ‘The Year of the Donor,’ ” she said.

In Flur and Peer, the Bechtler and Mint have proven business leaders who know how to set an agenda (literally) and follow through.

Just a coincidence?

Why are so many women at the helm now? Peer said the question inspired her to explore. She discovered that five of the Mint’s past 12 board chairs have been women: Patty Norman, Mary Lou Babb, Pat Rodgers and Bev Hance.

Said Opera Carolina’s Mary Tabor Engel, who with her husband, Rob, are the first co-chairs in the group’s 66 years: “This generation of women, many of whom graduated college in the 1980s, is an ambitious one and was urged from the get-go to break glass ceilings.”

Barbara Laughlin, chair of the McColl Center for Art + Innovation, said, “Women have been progressing – though not nearly as quickly as I would like – to leadership positions in many areas. I look forward to a day when this isn’t cause for a story.”

Arts & Science Council Senior Vice President Katherine Mooring said the prevalence of female leaders makes sense. “More and more women (are) ascending to top leadership positions on both the professional and volunteer sides of the cultural sector,” she said. “In addition to the growing numbers of board chairs, nearly half of ASC’s operating support grantees are now led by women executives.”

And ASC has seen a trend in their Cultural Leadership Training program of more women applicants than men – sometimes as high as 2-to-1.

Cheerleaders-in-chief

Board chairs often assume the role of head cheerleader. Some have an evangelical zeal.

“The McColl Center for Art + Innovation has literally risen from the ashes,” Laughlin said. “Fifteen years ago, Bank of America Chairman Hugh McColl rallied local corporate and private donors to restore the burned-out church. So when you come to the McColl Center, you will be going to church.”

Engel calls opera “an elegant platform for classic storytelling, art, drama, fantasy – not to mention incredibly cool sets, crazy plots, awesome wigs, outrageous costumes, tortured love, unforgettable death scenes and general silliness.”

Tracey Hembrick of Charlotte Ballet said the dance company is part of a cultural mosaic that helps make Charlotte attractive to businesses and people considering relocating here.

And the Bechtler, said Flur, “makes us more worldly without ever leaving home. It provides us with access to the same internationally acclaimed modern artists that we would usually have to go to the great European museums to see.”

The business of art

Board chairmen (or women) need financial savvy these days. When the United Way board dissolved after an executive director’s mismanagement, community boards – and the people chairing them – had to renew their commitment to accountability.

Most of the women leading Charlotte’s major arts boards are, or were, business leaders. Board chairmen have to focus on fundraising. And giving to the arts isn’t always a given.

“Shortly after I joined the board, the global financial crisis unfolded, and arts organizations experienced a decline in ticket sales and contributions,” Hembrick said. “Charlotte Ballet weathered the storm.”

There’s more to leadership than business acumen, though. Do women have an edge with the “soft” people skills? “There is research asserting that ‘feminine’ leadership styles may be more likely to emphasize characteristics like consensus-building, collaboration, coaching, empathy and a more participatory approach that encourages others,” said ASC’s Mooring.

But she adds, “I’ve seen men lead with many of these qualities, as well. It’s most important to have a truly engaged, informed, accountable and thoughtful volunteer leader.

“As a woman, though, I have to say I find it personally exciting to see so many female faces at the helm.”

Saying ‘yes’

It takes an accomplished, savvy multitasker to lead an arts board. One thing that isn’t necessarily required, though, is deep knowledge of a specific medium. Flur said, “When the Bechtler first asked me to join the board – and again when they asked me to chair it – I’ll admit I asked, ‘Do I have to be an expert in modern art?’ ”

The answer: No.

Not being an expert may be a benefit. When the Bechtler was still in the planning stages, leaders discussed their potential audiences. “We knew we wanted to reach millennials,” said Flur. “We knew we wanted to reach young families. But we also said we wanted to try to reach the ‘I hate modern art’ segment.”

So, Flur and her team challenged themselves to reach people who don’t like – or think they don’t like – the very product the Bechtler is known for. Not being completely immersed in the world of modern art may help Flur reach people who say it’s not their thing.

From the beginning, the Bechtler sought to be more than an art collection. “We’re anchored by a great collection,” Flur said. “But we do a lot more to engage people. (CEO) John Boyer and I use the ‘test and learn theory.’ A jazz series was a test that worked. So is our architectural film series. We’ve always said we’ll feed what works.”

The Bechtler is moving into a new phase of marketing. “We’ve been focused on how to get people here for the first time,” Flur said. Now, they’re looking to sustain the momentum.

Flur is willing to try new things. And she doesn’t readily say “no.”

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