Q&A with Virginia Hepner

Banking on arts

Last July Virginia Hepner, a twenty-five year veteran of the corporate finance world, dove into the nonprofit sector as president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center. Awaiting her was a musicians’ strike that threatened to leave Atlanta, already maligned as a lukewarm arts town, without a symphony orchestra. With that crisis averted, Hepner is now banking on a more stable and accessible future for arts and culture in the city.

Are there similarities between banking and the arts world? Whether it’s a for-profit or nonprofit organization, you need to run things in a businesslike manner. To be successful, you have to be very clear on what your mission is. In this world, it’s fulfilling our artistic and cultural vision to impact this community.

What are the big differences? In the for-profit world, if you have a great idea, it will attract capital. In the nonprofit sector, you can have the greatest need and people can agree with you, you can have the greatest artistic product, but if you can’t generate enough passion for a contributed income, it won’t happen.

How do you combat that? You do all you can to make sure you make the case to different audiences in terms of what is most important to them. For example, if I’m talking to business leaders who really understand the need to invest in the community, to attract the right workers, the right tax-paying citizens, you have to make the case for why it matters.

Does it matter here? Does Atlanta appreciate the arts? I actually think it does. Here are the facts: The Woodruff Arts Center campus was built with no public money. Even in our current campaigns, we have a budget of roughly $100 million, only about $1 million is public money. What that tells you is, for whatever reason, the private funding is exceptional. What plays into the concept that Atlanta is not really an arts town is that it’s a relatively new town. If you look at older cities that have generations of family philanthropy, it makes a big difference.

You mention wealthy private and corporate funding, are the arts accessible to those who aren’t wealthy? It’s a huge personal mission of mine. If you have art and no one gets to see it, that’s elitist, and that’s the opposite of what art is to me. Art is about communication and emotionally connecting with each other. The reason I default to the funding issue and why I think public funding is so important is because only a certain percentage of people will be able to come to Woodruff because we have to charge a certain amount to support it. The High Museum would, I’m sure, love to have a lower price or love to be free.

You also have to keep the artists happy, an issue that got attention from the ASO musicians strike. It’s just one more example that we have to be financially stable to offer what we do. This time it was a musician’s contract, another time it could be supporting the technology platform or paying maintenance on a building. It’s a sensitive topic because these are the artists. We’re here through their art to impact our community. Everything has a cost. They have tremendous value. It’s an emotional situation when you have to ask people to contribute to a cost structure. It’s an industry-wide issue, not just an Atlanta issue. The symphony is very well-run. We want it to be a world-class orchestra. We want it to be accessible from a ticket price standpoint. All of that is extremely expensive. We’ve actually increased contributed income and ticket revenue. The staff on the nonmusician side has taken pay cuts and furloughs. So it’s definitely a shared effort. But the symphony was $20 million in debt. We couldn’t find any more ways to go without asking the musicians to participate. And I really appreciate the fact that they did. It was essential to ensuring that we have a symphony in the future.

What is your vision for the future? I’d love to see arts and culture much better embraced by the business community and for political leadership to really understand the value of what we are in terms of what defines a community. We feel very supported, emotionally. But it’s not a mainstream industry, not always top of mind. My goal is to make sure we are at the table with key leadership. Whether that’s working on public education, working on public funding priorities, or drawing new businesses to town. I’m a huge Atlanta fan, and I believe we can do anything we set our minds to. I’m pretty optimistic. I have to be; I work in the arts.

Photograph by Jeff Roffman. This is an extended version of the interview that originally appeared in our December 2012 issue.