The Story of Restoring the Historic Academy Center of the Arts
with Geoff Kershner
Geoffrey Kershner is the Executive Director at the Academy Center of the Arts (Lynchburg, VA) and the founder of the Endstation Theatre Company in residence at Randolph College. He is the winner of the 2015 Vice Mayor’s Young Adult Award of Excellence (City of Lynchburg) and was named a 2016 “Top 20 under 40” by Lynchburg Business Magazine. Under his leadership, Endstation was the winner of the 2012 Rising Star Award (Virginians for the Arts), the 2014 Cultural Organization Award (James River Council for the Arts and Humanities), and the 2014 Good Works Award (Downtown Lynchburg Association)
In his time at the Academy Center of the Arts, the organization increased need based scholarships for arts programming by 124%, increased the overall operating budget by 110%, and completed a capital campaign for a 30 million dollar historic theatre restoration project (the theatre is scheduled open this December). Geoffrey has served on Virginia Commission for the Arts (Area 2, state wide) grant review panels, was a member of the National Arts Strategies’ 2014-2015 Chief Executive Cohort, and completed the Arts and Culture Strategy course through the University of Pennsylvania and National Arts Strategies in 2017. He served as a faculty member at Florida State University, Daytona State College, and Lynchburg College. He earned his BFA from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA and his MFA from Florida State University.
Read the Interview
NPE Geoff Kirshner
Hugh Ballou: Greetings and welcome to The Nonprofit Exchange. This is a series of interviews with community leaders engaged, inspiring, facilitating, lots of different words, community leaders that are active in fostering how people work together, collaborating, affiliating, joint venturing, partnering, whatever we call it, there are ways where people work together in a community that is larger than any one entity can do for itself. Russell, you are way out there in Denver, Colorado. You have these young mountains. We have the old mountains here on the East Coast. We are in the Appalachians in Lynchburg.
Russell Dennis: They have also been trampled over, so they are a little bit shorter than the ones we have out here.
Hugh: That was a cheap shot. Oh man.
Geoff Kirshner: My grandfather was from Denver. He always used to say to me when he would come visit us here in Virginia, “Those aren’t mountains. Those are hills.”
Hugh: They’re just jealous. We have great scenery. That is the voice of Geoff Kirshner. Really good voice. Let him tell you. Geoff, you’re in a really important position in the history of Lynchburg, Virginia, but you weren’t always there. Tell us a few sentences, your background. You have an important background that prepared you for the work you’re doing and the work that’s ahead.
Geoff: I think the big thing is I grew up in the community that our organization is serving. That gives me a particular vantage point on who our community is, how it operates, and what it needs. I grew up here. I went to college in Philadelphia and lived there for seven years. I spent a lot of time in Florida where I went to graduate school. I got both the perspective of this particular community, but also had the experiences of living in other communities. Especially when I was in Philadelphia, that was a time of a lot of downtown redevelopment, right in the area where my college was. Seeing that, but also having the experience of being from here has had a lot of impact on what we do here.
Hugh: You spent a lot of your life on stage, didn’t you?
Geoff: I spent some time on stage. My father is a theatre professor. I grew up very often in the back of rehearsal rooms watching rehearsals take place. As a high school student, I was an actor. When I went to college, I decided directing is what I wanted to do. I think what I was most attracted to was creating experiences for an audience. Crafting and curating an event is what I was drawn to. I found my way from being in and around the theatre to orchestrating it to arts administration.
Hugh: Arts administration. Love it. Your office is sitting in the middle of a historic complex. Tell us what it’s called and what is the short history of it.
Geoff: Our organization is the Academy Center of the Arts. We are an arts organization whose service area is the Greater Lynchburg community, about 250,000 people. Our facility is made up of multiple buildings, all with their own history, which I could go into at length. But I’ll save it for another time. Our anchor is an historic theater built in 1905, which we are just finishing the restoration of now. That will be one of two theatre spaces in our facility, the other being a warehouse that is converted into a flexible black box space as well as a gallery space, a pottery studio, an education facility, art studio spaces, and dance studios.
Hugh: This historic theatre was closed for a number of years. What was the story there?
Geoff: It’s been closed for 60 years. The story of the theatre really is the story of downtown America. It was built in 1905. It actually burned in ’11 and was rebuilt in 1912. It was a thriving theatre during the vaudeville area. It was a major vaudeville stop. As the advent of film came online, the theatre really transformed into a second-rate movie house. At one point, there were nine theatres in Lynchburg, and this was one of them. Now it’s the only one left standing. In 1958, we saw the deterioration of downtowns across America for a number of reasons, which could be another conversation we could have. Now, there is a renewed interest in the downtown and its development, and this theatre is still here. It’s still sitting here because it was designated as a historic landmark in the 1970s to stop the Virginia highway system from bulldozing it. It has sat here empty for 60 years and will reopen its doors in just a month.
Hugh: A fascinating historic marker. This week, the opening week, starts with a couple of events. Russell, Geoff and I got acquainted when I went to meet with him and his staff about a concert on December 11 in 2018. The symphony is performing, and they have asked me to conduct this very special concert. It is really a community gathering around the celebration of Christmas. We have recruited a community choir, children’s choirs, a black gospel choir. Geoff, this opening week, and we are an early part of that, it’s the first time in history that this theatre has been racially integrated, right?
Geoff: That’s right. It was a segregated space in 1958 when it closed. It also has still in its architecture an original separate staircase and separate ticket booth that led up to a second balcony, which was the separate balcony. We have been really conscious of this. The very first event that happens in the space is a celebration of the integration of the space. We have been working directly with our local NAACP and black fraternities and sorority groups and youth programs. Diamond Hill Baptist Choir will be performing. Leland Melvin, the astronaut, is hosting the event. A new artist Devin Gilfillian who just released his new EP Truth is opening for Mavis Staples. We recognize that we are only going to reopen this space once. We really view ourselves as a service organization who is here for our entire community. Only having one opportunity to open, we wanted to send a clear message that this was not the space of the past, but a space for the future, and is inclusive of everybody.
Hugh: We’re continuing that in the symphony with the black gospel choir from the RAMP church here. We have the choir that is singing who represents the makeup of Lynchburg. So we are continuing soon after your opening. Your opening is on the 6th, and we are performing on the 9th. Saturday is a movie day, and everybody can come in for one ticket and see as many movies.
Geoff: All day. They can come in and stay as long as they want.
Hugh: That’s great.
Geoff: Talking about economic accessibility. We set out that if you wanted to see this theatre, we wanted you to have the ability to do that. There are a bunch of price points throughout the week. We have a total of about 10 events throughout the week with various price points. Lincoln Center Jazz, Wynton Marsalis will be here, too. Obviously that is a pretty high price point. Even with that, we have been working to make sure that with individuals who may not be able to afford that otherwise.
Hugh: That’s awesome. This is the whole stuff about the academy now. When you started this project, there was a sizable amount of money that was raised. A lot of people in the community got behind that. I would say this was a very high-level collaborative effort. Would you call it a partnership, a joint effort? What would you call it when people came together with a vision for making it happen and for raising the funds?
Geoff: It was definitely a community-wide effort. One thing that has been special about this project, and I think the reason it has been successful, is it is a $30 million renovation project in Lynchburg, Virginia, which is not a large city. The way it is possible is that all sectors are involved. Individual donors, the city, the state, with the historic tax credits, the federal tax government as well, corporate entities. Most of our largest corporate entities in the city participated. There was a view and a coming together that this was something that was going to unify our community. We saw that in the fundraising. It wasn’t always easy. They struggled to get this project to happen. There were a lot of reasons why. Some of that is the development of downtown and how far it has come in the last 5-10 years. Certainly in the last two years of our efforts, we saw everything come together.
Hugh: Russell, they call Lynchburg the Hill City. There are parts of it that remind you of San Francisco, but it’s a lot cleaner here. There was a Civil War battle in Lynchburg. Down the road here is where it all ended. There is a history here. Before the Civil War, Geoff, it was a pretty giant economic force. Wasn’t it one of the top wealthiest cities in the nation?
Geoff: It was. We were known for shoe manufacturing. Originally, it was a crossing.
Hugh: Technology never leaves us, doe it?
Geoff: My phone and my computer are linked up. It is problematic.
Hugh: Sometimes it is helpful.
Geoff: Sometimes. Sometimes it is. It was originally a crossing for those who were moving west. Tobacco. We are on the James River that runs out to the Atlantic. It was a way to get tobacco up and down and throughout Virginia to the mountains. Later, we became a textile center. You can see it in our historic neighborhoods in and around the downtown sector. There are these large massive homes. A lot of wealth that came to the city due to the manufacturing. It is still a lot of the DMA of the city. It is built into who we are and how we operate.
Hugh: I’m sad we have lost some of our historic buildings, but I am glad we have protected some, like the Center where you are. What point did you come on board? There are people who are sitting in places where they can see there is a project I could be the champion for. Let’s talk from the leadership perspective. By the way, everybody on your team there who I have dealt with has the same spirit of hospitality you do. One of the attributes of fine leadership is that the culture reflects the leader. I commend you for that. You show up in a service mindset. Everybody else in the culture models that. I am recognizing Geoff Kirshner as the leader of the pack there. That is your influence.
Geoff: I appreciate that. I think we also really are lucky right now that we have a board as well that has bought into that. I don’t think I would have agreed to come on to the organization if the board leadership at the time I agreed to come online wasn’t who they were, too. It all trickles down.
Hugh: When did you come online, and why did they choose you? Move onto your own leadership mandates as you went forward with this new job.
Geoff: I came in 2015. The organization was pretty broken at the time. I came on at a time that there was a sense among city leadership that this was sort of it. They were either going to get this figured out or money raised within the next couple of years, or the value of this property was going to be too high, and this building was going to become something else. I was in Charleston recently, and I wandered into an Urban Outfitters that had formerly been a vaudeville-era theatre. I thought, I don’t know if that would have been an Urban Outfitters, but the value of the property as downtown continues to develop could have become something else. A special events space that wasn’t necessarily a theatre. It could have been a lot of things.
When I came on, the organization was struggling. In my mind, at that time, there wasn’t really a clear identity of the organization. There also hadn’t been established what the value of the organization was. When I came on, I knew that those who wanted to make sure this happened valued it, but everyone valued it for different reasons. We needed to find a set of values that we could translate out to the world and internally that linked all those things up. There was a lot of disjointed motivations behind why we should have this arts center. Some was oriented around the historic nature of the building.
We are actually a merger of two separate organizations. There was the Lynchburg Fine Arts Center that was the arts center for the city that merged with an organization that was here to restore the historic theatre. Those two organizations had two different missions. One was to restore the historic theatre, and the other was to provide fine arts culture for the city. Those things have been at odds. It won’t be until next month that they will come together into one. We had to figure out a way to bring these people together. What the decision was when I came on was that we were going to push hard this notion that we were a service organization. A service organization, if our mission was to improve the health of our community at large, then we could really make that fit within all the desires the individuals had in and around the theatre being renovated. Someone who cares about the historic nature of the building itself, we can have discussions around tourism, economic liability in terms of the city at large, but for those who care about the arts and their benefit to a community, we can speak to that in terms of service as well, specifically who we are, who we are partnering with, how the arts provide a mechanism for other organizations to promote what they are doing, whether that be education or improving quality of life. Shifting the mission was key.
We also changed the name of the organization during that time, too. It had been called the Academy of Fine Arts. The branding and the visuals around the organization felt old school. We really wanted to brand something that felt vibrant, relevant, new, and symbolized our future, which was a more inclusive, accessible, open, welcoming environment. We created this multi-colored open logo and changed the name to being the Academy Center of the Arts, with the idea that a center is a gathering place. it is a place where people come to congregate and form community. We thought that sounded more accessible, which was confusing. Was the Academy of Fine Arts a school? Is it something for visual arts? What is that? I don’t understand. But a center of the arts, we can understand that somewhat. That evokes for people something they can get their head around relatively quickly.
We also had a lot of culture changes we had to face internally. We can certainly get into that, too, if you want to talk about that.
Hugh: I want to talk about the leadership challenges in working with lots of different people because this happened because a lot of entities got behind it. $30 million. That’s the first time I heard that number. That’s more than pocket change.
Geoff: Yeah. It’s a lot of money, a lot more money than I had ever experienced being a part of before. It’s one of the toughest things for me. There are aspects of it for me that are difficult when I try to bring multiple groups and organizations together for a common goal. The common goal is what we try to return to. We are having conversations about what we are trying to achieve and making sure the goal is clear. If we keep our focus on that, we may differ on how we are going to get there, but if we can continue to focus on the goal, we can compromise and find a place where we all land that we can find tie-ins to one another and get to that goal ultimately.
It’s hard, too. Sometimes you can’t make everyone’s desires and wishes come true, just because there are realities to running the organization, and there are choices we have to make that are difficult and tough sometimes. On the whole, we know there are more people on the bus, the better off we are going to be.
Hugh: And the bus is going in the right direction. Russell, I heard some of our common themes here. You have a culture that is so important. The identity, not just the logo, but the branding he spoke about. Who are we? And the value proposition. What is the value we represent? Being anchored in those purposeful initiatives, Geoff. You didn’t say this exactly, but some people aren’t going to be happy that we are very clear on where we’re going and we have some energy around that. The energy around the city of Lynchburg and the pride around us and this center is pretty substantial. It’s a part of our pride of being citizens. It’s a great city. It’s smaller than yours, but it’s got oomph for its size.
Russell, do you want to comment on this stuff? I have been dominating this conversation. I’m sure you have observations and maybe a question. How do we unpack our duty in the line as a leader when we have all these different elements involved? Russell, why don’t you weigh in here for a minute?
Russell: What we are looking at is collective power, and that is what makes collaboration so effective. As a leader, the first thing we have to do is check our ego at the door because there is a greater purpose, a greater common good that we can all agree on. When you have that many moving parts, that internal value, those core values that drive everybody, you have to have that agreed upon value. What is the most important thing here? That is something everybody comes in to agreement with. Having that center there is very important for everybody has different motivations, but when you look at all these motivations, the champions emerge. You have people working in their wheelhouses, their genius is starting to show in different areas, and the total is greater than the sum of its parts. That is remarkable. Bringing people together is what you do as a conductor, as a director. It’s bringing people together with different types of genius and making something beautiful together. It’s something that’s effective. There is a lot of growth in there. There are wonderful things going on.
I think the question I would have for you as you were looking at this whole thing, a lot of things go through a leader’s mind. Maybe this is too big for me. What would you say was the one thing that went through your mind as you made that decision to take this project on? What was the one dominant thought that was going through your mind, especially after you said yes? Was there an Oh, what have I got myself into? What was that one dominant thought that was in your mind at that time?
Geoff: I don’t think there is any doubt I have had moments of pulling up to the parking lot, sitting in my car, taking a deep breath before I walk into the building. There are some days that were tougher than other days. I think that one benefit, this maybe speaks to what Hugh was saying earlier, and this will hopefully answer the question. One thing that was always really clear to me when I came online is I had a really fantastic board president at the time I was starting. Sackett Wood, who is the presidency of Moore and Giles Leather, which is a company here in town. I never felt alone. I think that one of the motivating factors for me moving through is I knew I had my part to play in a larger story. There were a lot of individuals doing their part. I felt my obligation that I needed to do my part for this larger organization. Sackett Wood really instilled that in a lot of us. There was a major city leader, George Dawson, who was leading our capital campaign. And Sackett was getting the board and everybody else online. We had Rob Taylor running our construction committee. We had George Zippel running the tax credits. There is $9 million of tax credits tied into this. I think a lot of it was an obligation to team. You talked about a collective and people coming together. It’s the same. I felt an obligation to the rest of these individuals that I owed it to them that I got through this and did it. Got me out of the car when I was sat in the parking lot.
Russell: Those moments. Out of all of the people with all of these different interests, what is the one thing that all of them asked of you? Is there a common thing that all of them asked of you, and what would that be?
Geoff: I think that they definitely asked of me to provide a vision for what the organization was about and what it was meant to do. I certainly think I was entrusted to do that, and everyone has expected me to do that. Also, to their credit, I was given the room to do that. There was no point where anybody was telling me, “No, you can’t do X, Y, or Z. It’s not what we are.” At the same time, I was thoughtful of what our different constituencies needed and what that meant. But that would be what I would say.
Hugh: I apologize, Geoff. I forgot to warn you that Russell comes up with the hard questions.
Geoff: These are great questions. I love them. I am going to turn that. I have the sun in my eyes here.
Hugh: Those are really great questions, Russell. We sometimes, and I know in my career, there have been opportunities where I have surged forward and thought, Oh, I forgot about this, or I didn’t think about this. There were hidden perspectives. What is Sackett’s last name?
Hugh: A piece of trivia. His mother was a famous opera singer, and the plaque for her is in my hard.
Geoff: Yeah. Small town.
Hugh: Small town. She was an internationally known opera singer. Her son Robbie lived where I live in this house for a while. My first week, it was dedicated to her.
There is a lot of important influence here, and certainly Geoff Kirshner is a person of influence. This is really key, the part you mentioned about having a board chair, but also a board that interfaces with you and is supportive. As you are bringing in external partnerships, collaborations, community efforts, how important is the board’s role in that process?
Geoff: They’re crucial. They are my boss, and I certainly view that relationship in some regards in that way. But I also view them as an extension of our overall team. We need to work to keep them engaged and involved in what we’re doing, and keep them caring about what is going on. We are in the middle of a transition with the board. We are being strategic in this. They are about to reach a major milestone they have been working toward for years in completion of the historic theatre being built and opening next month. We have been strategically shifting the board’s focus to a new set of goals and objectives to keep them motivated and engaged and involved in what’s going on and how we move forward.
They have also become a litmus test of what our community needs. If we view ourselves as a service organization, it’s important that our board reflects a wide range of constituents within our community. We have been working, and in some ways we are successful in this, and in other ways we are continuing to be a work in progress, to make sure the board is reflective of a wide segment of our community so that we have a group of individuals who can give us a proper feedback loop as to how we are doing, how effective we are. They have become critical to that. if I don’t have them engaged and activated, we are in real trouble. That relationship is crucial with them.
Outside partnerships regularly come into play. We’re lucky that our board is a networked group of individuals, so it’s common that we find new relationships and collaborations through them. We also run things heavily through committee. Our committees are active. That is where most of the board activity happens. Our board members are engaged. They have projects that are specifically theirs. That allows us to keep them focused and engaged.
Hugh: There are phases of projects. You identified one major milestone is opening the theatre. There was a phase of concept, and a funding and construction phase, and now there is the launch phase, and then there will be this legacy/sustainability phase, I would imagine. I am just making this up.
Geoff: Evolution, or however we view it. I view that we are a constant work in progress. Evolve or die. We talk very often about how we are evolving from year to year, or responding to the environment, which will inevitably change. As a service organization, and what we provide, how does that need to reflect what the community needs and values?
Hugh: Brilliant. I think you know I served as a music director for megachurches for 40 years. My church was a place where we hosted international artists and did our own programs. It was the center of the gathering because I was the music person for the music in the community. It was also nurture. I see that happening, and it becomes more about events than being connected with the community. As you talk about your board being in the feedback loop, it’s empowering them to have conversations. A lot of the mainline churches, there was a sad article in The Washington Post last year that said with the current trajectory, megachurches have 23 Easters left because they aren’t doing that. The ones that are in danger haven’t remained relevant in serving the community. From where you sit, you have these partners to come on board to make that happen. How will they be instrumental, along with your board and your staff in keeping current with the community expects and needs and wants?
Geoff: I think that we have to be constantly listening. I have been reading the book New Power. I am forgetting the author’s name. He is the executive director of 92nd Street Y in New York. The point of the book, new power versus old power, in terms of this notion of new power, a lot of it happening through social media, the digital sphere. The public is empowered in a different way than we were before. An arts center like ours, a public institution in the past, would have been curating what we believe the community should be receiving. They out of a social obligation or cultural obligation would have in turn come to the facility to take in this thing we were providing them that we said was important for them to see. The relationship doesn’t exist that way anymore. We still have an obligation to provide cultural experiences for our community. At times, we do need to introduce them to new things. I think that’s really important.
One thing I find difficult in running an arts organization in the era of new power is I don’t get to decide myself, “Here is something great. I think you should see it.” If I just do that, I will be out of a job really quickly because people at large unfortunately probably won’t be attending as much as you’d like them to. We do that occasionally. But we need to be responsive to what the community wants and needs. Some of that is empowering the community itself.
An example would be we were really struggling in the first year, as do a lot of organizations, in making sure we had a diverse audience. We were making the common mistake of saying, “We are going to provide programming that we think the black community in Lynchburg wants to see.” We didn’t know what that was. In turn, they weren’t interested in what our opinion of that was, and they didn’t connect. What we did the following year was we began to turn the space over to organizations and groups for them to curate their own work and use the space to create community events for themselves. We found we were much better at accomplishing our goal, which was to make sure we had a more diverse audience moving through our facility, and we were providing our mission, which is serving the community, by providing this facility and space to these organizations to make their own events and activities, which were much more connected to the culture and what they wanted to see than anything we were going to prescribe or provide to them.
We have been working hard in ways like that that we evolve in providing opportunities. It’s a facility. What happens in that facility is wide-ranging and flexible. We need to be open to hearing what people want and then providing them opportunities to engage in that.
Hugh: That’s really good. Russell, what is coming to your mind?
Russell: Value is in the ears and eyes and hearts and minds of the person you talk to. To be relevant, what we’re talking about is bringing a community together. The community is made up of different people. You have to talk to all of those people. The important thing to have in mind with something on this scale is how do we talk to each other? How do we engage each other? What is the best way to do that? Once you figure out how to do that, you have those ground rules that everybody can agree on, you can get anything done. Absolutely anything. It’s important to keep doing what’s called empathetic listening. Constant listening, constant conversation, keeping everybody engaged to something that matters to them. With that in mind, with all the things that are going on in the community, in looking at this center, if you had to boil it down to one important thing that you do, what would that be?
Geoff: In regards to the organization?
Russell: In regards to the organization, what is the most important thing that the center can do to serve the community?
Geoff: Right now, in this particular moment, what’s important is it goes back to this idea of us being a center and a gathering place. I think we’re living in a really divisive time where most of the rhetoric and things circling in and around us are telling us how different we are from one another, and how evil and bad the other side is. Through cultural experiences, through gathering, sharing an experience is an opportunity for people to have an exchange and to realize the humanity of the individuals around them. We can be a place of healing in a time where a lot is ripping us apart. We think a lot about that. We took our community theatre program and rebranded it to Community Through Theatre. We formed a committee of ten individuals and told them their mission is to create theatrical activity that brings people together across barriers. It is a bridge-building program. They did that. They have been working to do that. It’s not always easy. It is interesting. We live in a city, like many towns across the United States, that is divided right now across political, religious, racial lines. That is the important thing to do right now: bring people together.
Hugh: That is huge. Russell, your questions always lead to really important stuff. Did you have another one brewing there, Russ?
Russell: Yes. It’s bringing people together. That’s what nonprofits do. They bring people together to create change. You do that with people who write checks, you do that with people who receive your services. It’s all about bringing people together. If you can think of a way to bring people together and work for the common good and put your own ideas on the shelf for a while in favor of being open to some new things, you can get a whole lot done. That is the nature of collaboration. Lots of things happen when nobody is obsessed with getting the credit. It’s a wonderful thing. It is important. We have a lot of challenges here in Colorado as well as in other places with schools and with younger people and arts are being taken out of the schools because of budget cuts. In looking at the community out there in Lynchburg as far as finding ways to engage younger people, what are some ways that you are looking at doing that? What is the goal there, and what are some ways you are looking at doing that to build those bridges among our future generations?
Geoff: One of the most important things we have here is education-based programming. Like you speak to, our schools in varying degrees, in some situations, arts programming is strong, and in some situations it is not. We offer a lot of arts programming here that is education-based. I would say two thirds of the students who move through here are children. By engaging these kids when they are kids in participation-based arts activity, we find that they are more likely to stay with us in the long run as they get older, and whatever community they find themselves in later, they are more likely to engage in the arts.
It’s not just as simple as those who come to us. We have tuition-based students who are here. We have scholarship programs. About 30% of our students move through scholarships. We have to take a lot of our programming offsite and go into schools. We have a number of programs that operate like that. We have a program called Kids Out Loud, a songwriting program, that goes into an elementary school. We also look in our greater area. We have a lot of surrounding counties. We do an arts week in collaboration with the Alta Vista YMCA. We go out to Alta Vista and run a series of arts programs and workshops with them. We also do collaborations with our local Boys and Girls Club. We do things onsite at their location. We talk about bussing and transportation and obstacles for individuals, so it’s important to take things to them.
We have also worked on the programming side. We have a young donor society called MIX. Granted, these individuals tend to be young professionals who are of means. They have been a good sounding board for us in terms of how we are being culturally relevant, what kind of artists are we bringing through our facility, who is performing on our stages that they will care about? In a weird way, they work like a younger board for us in terms of a feedback loop and what kind of artists they want to see and who they want to participate with. Those two things are things we have been working really hard on.
I’m still on the younger side, but as I get older, I get more and more disconnected to what new music is happening. We are also working really hard to stay on top of it. We are reading regularly, paying attention to what is happening in arts and culture, how we are staying on top of trends. Those would be the two major ways.
Hugh: Russell, in this concert I am conducting in December, Geoff, you may not know this, but we have a whole choral music program from Heritage High School who is singing with us in the choir. We do have some very good music programs in the schools here. There is an elementary choir coming from outside Alta Vista. Hertz in the suburbs of Alta Vista. We have raised scholarship money just as a grassroots donation effort to pay for them to sit in the concert with their parents. I cannot tell you how excited the children and their parents are to A) sing in the orchestra and B) come into Lynchburg into that theatre and being a part of history. They don’t know what it means yet, but they’re going to know. You’re right. We are building our future audience, but we are connecting with multiple generations. First, I wanted to have people who can sing. But after we got that, I wanted to have diversity represented. So we have church singers, community choirs, barber shoppers. We have a wide range of people coming together. When you are singing with people, you are not arguing or shooting them. You are doing something together.
Without really understanding the fullness of what you’re doing, there is a great sense of accidental collaboration here with what we are doing and the spirit of what we are doing. Speak a little bit about leadership challenges. You said every day wasn’t a perfect day. You didn’t say that; I made that up. There are some days that are more challenging than others. How do you equip yourself? Do you have things you read, advisors, a support group? How do you equip yourself to get past those spots? You say you’re getting older, but you’re way younger than us. How do you equip yourself to meet those challenges? You have evidently risen above many of those. I’m sure all of them. How do you equip yourself to make that step?
Geoff: Leadership can be an isolating, lonely place to be often because it’s your job to make sure everybody else is okay. Who is checking in on you and making sure you’re okay? You bring up support systems. I think those have been key. I was really lucky in that in the hardest time period here, when I came in, the staff was pretty broken. They were disillusioned, and they had gone through a rough period. They had gone through furloughs and other stuff. They were broken. We had to make a lot of changes during that time frame in terms of the culture and some staff changes, which were hard to do.
During that time frame, I was moving through the National Arts Strategy’s Chief Executive Program. They didn’t know where to put me. I had applied for a community fellowship program that they run through my previous company. They didn’t know where to put me because the organization was doing community-based work. The program isn’t built around that. They thought my organization was larger and doing more than the fellowship program was really serving, so they went ahead and put me into this executive program where I was with 40 executives around the world, and I was by far from the smallest organization in the room. I felt overwhelmed by it. I felt like a fraud who wasn’t supposed to be there, but I somehow slipped through that door and there I was.
We spent a week at Vanderbilt, a week at the University of Michigan in the Ross School of Business, and a week out at Sundance. The first week that I went, I had discovered that- I hadn’t moved into this job yet. But the second two series of events, I was in this job, and I had taken this job. Around me were all of these experienced arts executives that had gone through these similar things with me. They had changed things in organizations. They had faced things I was facing. I was also taking classes from professors at Vanderbilt and University of Michigan and Sundance on leadership and culture change. This was all happening for me as I was moving through it in real time. It was incredible. I had this laboratory. When I wasn’t there, we had online digital conversations. I had people I could ask specific questions of, “Hey, I have this program. Can you help me?” That mentorship is huge. They remain people I turn to still. I have visited other facilities and locations and taken notes, learned things they were doing. Our service orientation didn’t come out of nowhere. It came out of a lot of that program and how it guided me.
Hugh: That’s amazing. There is a lot more than meets the eye about leading an emerging initiative and maintaining it. We talked about the future. Is there anything about leadership and community efforts that we haven’t talked about yet that you want to get on the table? We are running out of time here.
Geoff: Forgiveness is something I would say. By forgiveness, I mean of those who you’re working with, your staff, your board, but also of yourself. I think we have had a mantra. We just did a staff retreat. We did an exercise called Silver Lining. Everybody discussed things they had done they had messed up on or something had gone wrong with here at the Academy. We all forced the conversation into the silver lining of those moments. What was the positive that came out of that? What did we learn from that? Is there something as a result of that that we wouldn’t have fallen upon or come to if we hadn’t gone through that? Everybody is human. We all make mistakes. I need to be patient with my staff and those who are reporting to me. Be kind to them. Everybody has their personal issues they are dealing with as well as what is going on in the workplace. Obviously, people need to accomplish their jobs appropriately. There are things that need to happen. There need to be repercussions for not doing your job and not being on the bus. But at the same time, we really need to build an environment where we are forgiving of each other and ourselves, myself included. I make mistakes. I mess things up. I need to correct them. I need to address them. But I also need to forgive myself and realize I am human and these things happen.
Hugh: That is so important. I am going to do a sponsor message here, and then I will hand it back to you. In that time, what would be your thoughts for leaders anywhere that are about to tackle a big project? What would you like to say to them, a tip, a comment, a perspective, anything you want to say to leaders who are stepping into something big?
Really what I have heard you say in this interview is that this is an initiative. It’s not about a facility or an organization. It’s about the centrality of the influence of the arts in Lynchburg, Virginia and how we come together and value our own and value the creative efforts. Your vision for this and your vision for leadership is bigger than any one entity. Russell, are you hearing the same thing?
Russell: Everything that we tackle is bigger than we are. There is nothing wrong with that than making sure that we are in a room with people who support us and working toward a common theme. There was one question that was brewing around because one of the things I have come to see is that the most phenomenal leaders are people who can build leaders. What is the most important thing that you think that you can do to make other people around you better, to elevate them?
Geoff: Trust. We have to trust each other here. One of the greatest rewards in the last year for me is I am now comfortable delegating. I spent a lot of time moving things where they are supposed to go as opposed to doing them myself. There is plenty that that is a full day of work. But trust. I really need to empower my team, and they need to know I trust them. They need to not operate in a culture of fear. If they feel like- We get heated here. We get emotional sometimes. Then we apologize after we’re done. They need to feel like they are in a place where they can grow and accomplish what they need to do and how they need to accomplish it. As long as everybody understands the big picture, different management styles and execution of work happen. It doesn’t need to be how I would do it. It just needs to get done, and the goal needs to be met.
Hugh: Love it. Your wisdom exceeds your linear years, sir.
*Sponsor message from Wordsprint*
Geoff, what do you want to leave people with today?
Geoff: I was thinking about that. You asked that question. Taking risk is important. We had to evolve a lot, and we had to change a lot here. We had to get a lot of other people to take a leap of faith with us. We need to do our homework. We need to do a lot of research and spend time thinking and brainstorming. Strategic planning is important to our organization. In the three years I’ve been here, we have developed two strategic plans. We just finished our most recent one. We will do it again in another year or two. We need to have a plan laid out, but we also need to be willing to shift off of that plan when we see that we need to, and also understand the ground will always be changing underneath us. We need to be taking risks. We can’t stand still. We can’t stay doing what we’re doing because it’s comfortable and live in that. That’s unfortunate. I wish I could chill out and do the same thing over and over again. It would be formulaic, and we would get everything we needed back again. We can’t. Whether it be programming, whether we are testing out new things that had never been done before, whatever that is, risk is important.
The other thing I would say is, and this goes back to what you have been talking about, mission is key. It’s not about you. It’s about the mission. This happened here in the city. This is a valuable personal experience that happened to me when I was a kid. I was an actor when I was younger, and I was in an acting conservatory in college. I was surrounded by all of this selfishness, these people who are focused on themselves and how they looked and who was paying attention to them. I wanted out of it. I didn’t want anything to do with it.
I had been home lifeguarding at Miller Park in the summer months. We had a drowning occur, and I dove in and I was the first to her and pulled her out. Our assistant head guard performed CPR. They brought her back. She had stopped breathing. When I lifted her out of the water, you could feel that dead weight. That is something that would always stay with me. I watched our assistant head guard, who was in training to become a paramedic at the time, bring her back. That was the most amazing thing. He was going to spend his life saving people. I was going to school with these people who were completely self-absorbed. I didn’t want anything to do with it.
I had a teacher at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia who said to me, “Well, if John’s job is to bring that girl back to life, then your job is to make her life worth living” as someone in the arts. That has always stayed with me. I thought about it a lot being back in this community where I grew up. I don’t know what happened to that young girl. She’s a woman now. But I think about her a lot, and I think about the community she lived in. Are we as an arts organization making her life better? Are we making this a better place for her to live?
I certainly will personally benefit from this also, from living in a city with a functional arts center. My son and my wife will, too. But it’s not about us per se. It’s about a larger community and people outside of us. It’s about service.
Russell: Excellent. We provide tools to help people come into their own at SynerVision. Great stuff. I want to thank you for coming on to talk with us. Love the work you’re doing. It is. We are in something that is larger. I love that.
I’d like to thank all of our friends for joining us for The Nonprofit Exchange, and our wonderful sponsor Bill Gilmer at Wordsprint. Yet again, we have come to the top of the hour. Thank you all for making an impact and difference in the community. Remember you’re not alone. There is a lot of genius out there for you to tap into. When we wake up and look at what we can bring into the world, it will become a better place.
Hugh: Thank you, Russ. Thank you, Geoff.
Geoff: Thank you, Russ. Thank you, Hugh.
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