Dr. Nancy Wayne

Scientist, Educator & Speaker

Women in Leadership Series: Interview with Laura Zucker. Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission

This is the second in a series of interviews with women leaders that aim to inspire, motivate, and provide useful tips for advancing your career towards becoming a leader in your field.

NW: What events stand out for you along the path between being a graduate student in the Yale School of Drama and leadership positions in the arts?

laura_zucker_imageLZ:  I think the hardest transition that you make as a leader is going from someone who actually implements programs to going to someone who manages people who implement programs. That is the hardest and largest leap you make in terms of your practice. Interesting to me is that going from someone who managed people who ran programs to someone who manages people who manage people who run programs wasn’t that hard.

NW: You were Director of the Masters in Arts Management program at Claremont Graduate University. How did you land that position?

LZ: I really have built almost every major job that I’ve done.

NW: There wasn’t an Arts Management program when you got there?

LZ: There was, but it was nascent, little known, and struggling. The university came to me to ask for help in finding someone to direct the program who could build it. It was a program I really believed in, and I thought was critically important to the arts ecology in Los Angeles. I tried valiantly to recruit people to do it. And when we couldn’t, I realized that there wasn’t enough there in the program, yet, to recruit an already-great leader. So I said, “Why don’t I just try to get things going, and prime-the-pump, and get it to the place where it can attract someone who can really make it special.” And then it became a labor of love to build the program over six years. And we did. Then we were able to transition it to other leadership.

NW: What were some of your most important achievements during your tenure in that position?

LZ: Every academic program, at the end of the day, like every program, depends on quality. And so, bringing in the best faculty who were practitioners in Los Angeles – because this was an applied master’s program – and building curriculum that really prepared students for the jobs that they were going to be facing, in and of itself creates an environment that people want to be a part of.

NW: What were some of the toughest challenges of that job, once things got going?

LZ: Whether you’re working for a university or for LA County, like I am, you have multiple departments competing for finite resources. You are inevitably in the position of advocating for, and competing for, the funding that you need to make your program great. Sometimes that pits your interests against colleagues that you respect and work with. But I’ve never shied away from being the strongest advocate that I could for the program that I was associated with because I knew that nobody else could do that job.

NW: As Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission for the past 25 years, which programs and projects that you developed are you proudest of?

LZ: Well, there have been a lot – and I’m proud of all of my children! But, I’m particularly proud of the Arts Internship Program. This is a program that pays 132 undergraduate students to work in nonprofit arts organizations for 10 weeks each summer, and pays them well. It also provides them with a series of educational opportunities. I’m proud of it for several reasons. One is, I actually did not invent the concept for this program – The Getty Foundation invented it to increase the diversity that was reflected in leadership positions in the visual arts. It was clear to me that this created a deficit for the performing arts organizations of Los Angeles that needed the same help. One thing I would say is don’t be shy about seeing a great idea and building on it – there’s real value there. The other reason that I am so proud of it is that we’ve just completed a major Cultural Equity and Inclusion Initiative at the Arts Commission. This program, which is now almost 20 years old, was really ahead of the curve in recognizing that unless you pay undergraduates for these kinds of internship opportunities there is not a level playing field. All people do not have equal access to the same opportunities without payment.

NW: I sure hope that people who are in charge of unpaid internship programs pay attention to this. There’s an epidemic of unpaid internships going on out there.

LZ: It’s a serious equity issue.

NW: In terms of the Executive Director position, what was most challenging about the job?

LZ: You are always part of a larger political system when you work in a big institution, whether it’s a university or a county. Understanding what the mega priorities are of your institution and figuring out ways to ‘surf that wave’ is the key to implementing the things that you care about the most. Aligning projects that you believe are significant with the larger institutional priorities. You are either helping solve your institution’s problems, or you are part of the problem.

NW: So you need to be plugged into what’s happening at a much larger level and paying attention to that.

LZ: Completely. That means you have to go to the high level strategy meetings, you need to read the memos, and you need to ask people who are making decisions what they are thinking about, what they’re concerned about, and you have to be thinking about how to help solve those challenges. The county has been very focused on trying to address our serious issues around homelessness in Los Angeles. We struggled for years to find a significant way for the Arts Commission to plug into homeless initiatives. We are now going to do an architectural competition for what’s called ‘accessory dwelling units’ – they used to be called ‘granny flats.’ These are small additional housing units that people choose to build on their properties.  They are one of the key strategies in addressing affordable housing that would distribute housing stock throughout Los Angeles. Through this architectural competition, we hope to draw public attention to this issue so that people realize they can create these structures on their property. And I hope those working on homelessness will see us as a valued partner.

NW: You just recently announced that you are stepping down from this Executive Director position. What legacy do you hope to leave with the Arts Commission?

LZ: I really believed in investing in the people who worked at the Arts Commission. Many of them are in leadership positions themselves now, and doing wonderful jobs. Many of them, after a decade or more of working with us, left to lead other significant organizations, both in Los Angeles (like Arts for LA) and throughout the country (like heading the arts education program at the National Endowment for the Arts). I’ve always hated to lose great people, but I’m always more happy to see them leading wonderful partners that we will continue to collaborate with. I view us now as having branch offices literally all over the country. So   one of my proudest achievements is the creation of a network of colleagues who share values and experiences.

NW: Looking over the span of your career, what specific negotiation techniques, tactics or strategies did you use to get what you needed or wanted?

LZ: I never gave up. Sometimes the players aren’t right, sometimes the timing isn’t right, sometimes the larger circumstances aren’t right – and you need to fall back and put something on hold. But I never let issues disappear entirely and would bring key items back out of the ‘storage closet’ at regular intervals. The biggest example I would give of this is the County Civic Art Policy, which we started talking about in 1998 and was adopted finally by the Board of Supervisors in 2004. So that took six years. And that was just the county’s civic art policy for its own buildings. I had also since 1998 been trying to get the same requirement for public art on private development in the county. And believe it or not, this year – 2017 – the Board passed the motion directing us and Regional Planning to put it together and to make it happen. So how long did that take? A ridiculous number –  19 years!

NW: Most people are not working in the same place for 19 years.

LZ: This is one of the great arguments for longevity in a job. You don’t forget that there’s a dangling end out there and something you wanted to accomplish. I just kept bringing it back around every time there was new political leadership until finally, clearly, the time became right. I’m so glad and proud that this is getting accomplished before I leave. So, hang in there!

 NW: In any leadership position you have allies, you have adversaries. How did you build your allies and how have you dealt with your adversaries?

LZ: I think that allies are built through common purpose. The best way that you build relationships is actually working on a project with someone. You begin to know pretty quickly who you can rely on, and prove that you can be relied on. There’s no substitute for being in battle together. I’m proud of the fact that over the years I’ve built a very, very large network of allies. And I want to talk for a moment about that word ‘network.’ Some younger people that I’ve spoken to feel that it’s a little self-serving to talk about building your network, but, I don’t think about it that way. I think about it as literally a net that you fall back onto – your net of relationships and people who you depend on and who depend on you. They’re your net, and that’s a great thing.

Adversaries, even if you only have a few of them, and I’m happy to say that I haven’t had too many over the years, can feel disproportionately large in your universe. I think it’s important to shrink them down to size and realize by-and-large what a small proportion they make up of the work that you do. But, on a practical front, I like to write an adversary’s name on a piece of paper and put it in the freezer. I literally put them in ice storage.

NW: What was your experience being mentored and being a mentor?

LZ: I was very fortunate when I was hired at the county to have a wonderful mentor who was the Deputy Executive Officer that I reported to, Joanne Sturges – who just called me on hearing that I was going to be leaving the Arts Commission, to congratulate me and talk about getting together. What she taught me, that I hope I’ve been able to pass on – is that your job as a boss is really just to solve problems and to remove obstacles, and then get out of people’s way and let them do their job. She was always there to help me solve a challenge, to brainstorm with me about a potential solution. But she never solved it for me. She let me carry it out. When things were going fine, she would wave from afar and say, “Good work, keep going.” I’ve tried to turn around and provide the same framework of support for the people who work for me.

NW: You have been a tireless advocate of the Arts in Los Angeles and Southern California, and also globally – what’s next on the horizon for you?

LZ: I’ve been very inspired by the pictures of Obama kite-surfing! I am hoping to do some deep beach exploration over the course of the summer, and then we’ll see. People approach me about projects all the time. I haven’t had the bandwidth to even think about most of them. Now it’s a very exciting time to look at the possibilities of what is out there and ask myself what I really want to do next. People forget that although I was in the job at the Commission for 25 years, I had a job before that. I ran a theater for ten years. I’m looking forward to having yet another adventure.

NW: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

LZ: As someone who was around at the birth of the feminist movement at Barnard College, where I did my undergraduate work, and who has seen both perception about women in leadership roles change dramatically over the years and stay the same in many more ways than we would like – I’m cognizant of how much we should not take for granted. We need to make sure that we are safeguarding equitable opportunities for everyone and finding ways to advance it in our own practice and work in whatever way we can.




4 comments on “Women in Leadership Series: Interview with Laura Zucker. Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission

  1. Jim Hornbeck
    May 15, 2017

    Wonderful interview with a wonderful woman! xo

    • nwayne2014
      May 15, 2017

      Thank you. Laura provided a lot of noteworthy leadership tips that can be broadly applied.

  2. Anne Borella
    May 16, 2017

    What a beautiful legacy. The ripples of your 25 years as Executive Director of the Los Angeles Arts Commission will serve to enhance the character of the city and brighten the lives of so many people.

  3. Laura Zucker
    May 17, 2017

    Thanks so much, Jim and Anne!

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This entry was posted on May 14, 2017 by .
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