“I’m not an artist at all,” admits Virginia Hepner, “but I’m the best audience member.” Growing up in a tiny Arkansas town of 500 people, Hepner, 63, had an uncommon exposure to the arts: Her mother regularly took all four kids to Kansas City to explore museums, and her father loved taking the family to musicals. In undergrad at Wharton, Hepner majored in finance and minored in art history. “But I never in my wildest dreams imagined I’d ever do anything actually connected to the business of arts,” she says.
Hepner, currently corporate director of Cadence Bank, came to Atlanta in 1988. That year, her trajectory in the arts was kick-started when she was asked to join the board of the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund. That set the stage for Hepner’s work in shaping some of Atlanta’s most lauded arts institutions, from the Atlanta Ballet to the Woodruff Arts Center. She is credited with transforming the arts center financially, even amid unprecedented challenges.
Throughout her work in Atlanta arts and culture, Hepner has witnessed enormous change. “We’re the beneficiary of a lot of wealth creation, and we’ve had tremendous support from the corporate community,” Hepner says. But that financial success has sometimes made it more difficult for emerging artists to live and work here, and for other Atlantans to access the arts at all. “I believe you can’t really be a great city without having the arts,” she says. “And I think it’s essential for everyone to have those opportunities.” Creating those opportunities has long been one of Hepner’s goals.
Most recently, she’s set her sights on another crucial component of the city’s challenges: community development and affordable housing. She now works with the Westside Future Fund, a nonprofit committed to transforming and protecting Atlanta’s Westside. Hepner says the work is inspiring and aligns with her values. “It’s never been just about housing,” she says. “It’s about redeveloping and revitalizing communities, while at the same time trying to protect the people who built that community.”