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The Arts Transforming Communities

The 2014 Charles J. Busta III Lecture in Business

Baltimore has the distinction that those who oversee its major cultural institutions are leaders and innovators in their field—who all happen to be women.

The 2014 Busta Lecture featured Marin Alsop, Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; Doreen Bolger, Director of the Baltimore Museum of Art; Rebecca Hoffberger, Director of the American Visionary Art Museum; and Julia Marciari-Alexander, Executive Director of the Walters Art Museum.

“It’s a privilege to be a member of the Baltimore community, which is unique in being led by so many outstanding women,” said Alsop.

For one amazing evening, all four were gathered on a stage at Notre Dame of Maryland University, where our mission is educating leaders to transform the world, to talk about the trails they’ve blazed and the ways their own institutions are trying to transform the community.

It’s not surprising that this conversation at Notre Dame, where mission is so central to our community life, didn’t take long to start going there. For Marciari-Alexander, it’s not enough to talk about ROI, return on investment, in determining the success of a museum or symphony orchestra. “Very quickly we started talking about the need to balance ROI with a really deep understanding of what we called ROM: Return on Mission,” she said. “Because in order to have ROI, you have to provide that exceptional experience, which is ultimately about returning on your mission. You can’t do one without the other.”

Bolger said that a museum can certainly measure its performance by looking at numbers: attendance, demographics, donations. But what’s really hard to put your hands around is the impact of transformative experiences,” she said. “We like to think there are those moments in our institutions and organizations where something happens to a child, a family, someone who’s lonely who comes and socializes in the museum, and those things are very meaningful to people.”

Several spoke of Baltimore as a place that allowed for a certain amount of artistic freedom in its major arts institutions that allows for taking risks. For Hoffberger, this is essential. "I think it's very important in our lives to empower people to break rules…not to aggrandize or to take advantage in some unfair way…but to train staff to listen to the people who walk in, to break something because it’s the right thing to do. To know when it’s right to break something in the biggest way and not in just some narrow rule-keeping way," she said.

Or as she put it at another point:"I’m looking for the outliers, because the outliers are the people at the edge of the known, who make our whole world bigger for the rest of us. They are our revolutionary evolutionaries."

Earlier in the day, the four cultural leaders met with a group of students, and later attended an event with the First Impressions program. At the conclusion of the evening, each woman was presented with the Pro Urbe Award by Notre Dame President Joan Develin Coley. Meaning “for the city,” the honor is presented to select individuals whose accomplishments have had lasting impact and are helping to transform communities.

What was most striking about the evening’s discussion is that the four executives could have spent their time promoting their respective institutions. But instead, there was a sense of shared vision, an excitement for each other’s outreach efforts and a sense of gratitude at having such a supportive community of arts leaders—who happen to be women.

“We want to tell these stories, but we don’t want to tell them by ourselves,” said Marciari-Alexander. “Because I can’t make art transform communities. The Walters can’t make art transform communities. But together we can help, all of us, make art transform communities.”