Lessons Learned From a Life in the Arts

Sixteen years ago, when venture capital frenzy was sweeping the country, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and its partners decided that our nation’s boldest, most inventive creative artists would also benefit from many aspects of the venture capital approach, such as providing comprehensive, flexible, and ever-evolving structures of support. They launched Creative Capital and hired Ruby Lerner as its founding executive director to lead what was touted at the time as a major new experiment in supporting individual artists.

Ruby Lerner has spent a lifetime in the arts since her graduate student days acting and producing theater in North Carolina. She went on to work at Manhattan Theatre Club, Alternate ROOTS, Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, and for the past sixteen years at Creative Capital. The GIA Reader asked Ruby to look back on lessons learned during the evolution of Creative Capital and to share her thoughts with independent consultant and fellow Southerner Melanie Beene on funding individual artists and on her life in the arts.

Melanie Beene: For the benefit of newcomers to the field of arts philanthropy, can you sketch out the personal trajectory of your long career in the arts? Where did you start, and what steps did you take to get where you are today?

Ruby Lerner: My interest really started in grad school, running the student-run part of the theater department at UNC Chapel Hill. Then I managed a summer theater in Charlotte, worked at a community college in western North Carolina, and then moved to New York in my late twenties. I studied acting and did a bit of directing, but running the department was actually more rewarding than performance work. Basically, I’m bossy! So for me to be an actress waiting to take direction from somebody is… well, you can imagine how well that sat with my personality. And I was pretty good at running things. I think arts organizations are art projects too. That is certainly how we think about Creative Capital.

It was the late 1970s when I moved to New York and worked at the Manhattan Theatre Club as their first audience development director. I learned so much — about discipline on the management side and about a fierce devotion to artists and to new work. I was mentored by the great folks at TDF [Theatre Development Fund] and at TCG [Theatre Communications Group]. I was a protégé of Danny Newman. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I was really being groomed. A lot of people were making investments in me. Are there the same opportunities for leadership development now?

After four years in New York City, I was starting to feel homesick and headed back to the South to run Alternate ROOTS. ROOTS taught me everything! I remember first getting there. I think we had about a $30,000 annual budget, and I called Hugh Southern at the TDF and said, “Hugh, can you tell me what a deficit is because I think I might have one!” I learned so much about the value of community, and that is the biggest lesson I imported into Creative Capital. When I was hired, I said to Arch [Gillies, then president of the Andy Warhol Foundation], I will have to have the money to bring people together, and he said but this is a program to support individual artists, why would you need to do that? I said, trust me, if we don’t do anything else, this will be the most important thing we do. That is the genesis of our fabled artists retreat.

After ROOTS, I consulted for a few years. At that point in my career I found consulting frustrating — you aren’t in a position to implement the things you demonstrate need to be done — so I took a job running the local media center in Atlanta and really got a grad school education in indie film just at the moment when indie film was exploding. I did that for four years and then moved back to New York to take over the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF), which was in a lot of trouble financially. At my first meeting with the staff they said we hope it’s OK, but we authorized the subtenant to replace the window that was shot out by a sniper over the weekend. Oh, and what should we do with the eviction notice that was on the door this morning? I learned a big lesson there—ask more questions before taking a job!

I was at AIVF for seven years, and in retrospect it was pretty rough. But then Arch Gillies called one day and took me to lunch and hired me on the spot to come develop this brand-new thing that became Creative Capital.

I think the biggest lesson for me in all these positions was to go into each situation anxious to learn something and then to move on when I felt I had learned what I needed to. Creative Capital has been ever changing and endlessly fascinating, and there is always something to learn!


Melanie You’ve had quite a ride. If you were starting out today, nearly forty years later, what piques your interest?

Ruby: Oh, if I had the aptitude, I would be working in the science or technology field, and I say that “if I had the aptitude” because I believe I have no aptitude in that arena. I was just seeing something on TV that said in the world we’re in now, there’s going to be a convergence of artistic creative skills with technology and science and math, and all that is going to come together. I think that is going to be the future, and I think that’s the arena I would want to make my way in, had I the aptitude.

Melanie: So to sum up, I wonder, off the top of your head, what three adjectives you would use to describe yourself?

Ruby: Hmm, “curious,” “alert,” you come up with the third!

Melanie: Well, I thought about this before I asked the question. My first three were “fun,” “fun,” “fun.” But then I added “alive” and “engaged.”

Ruby: Oh, I love that. Thank you. Well, you know, in Chapel Hill, I did have the nickname “Fun Queen.”

Read the full interview with Ruby on the Grantmakers in the Arts website.

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