In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Doug Wheeler, Former President of Washington Performing Arts. Doug shares leadership lessons learned as he engaged the community with the organization’s mission and service to the community.
Also mentioned in this episode:
Patrick Hayes, Founder of Washington Performing Arts Society
Jenny Bilfield, President of Washing Performing Arts
Connect with Doug Wheeler:
Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:
More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:
Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited to be bringing to you this week my conversation with Doug Wheeler, who was the president of Washington Performing Arts from 1982 through 2002, and he is still a big advocate for the arts. While he was president, he led the transition of Washington performing arts to multicultural model and was a strong advocate for equity in the arts. Doug has won numerous awards, including being recognized as Washingtonian of the year. And also in 2004, he was invited by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to chair the Friends of music at the Supreme Court, which he did for 16 years.
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Now here's my conversation with Doug Wheeler.
Doug Wheeler, Welcome to Partnering Leadership Podcast.
Thank you, Mahan. It's great to be with you today.
I am thrilled knowing a lot about your leadership journey, the impact you've had, not only on the arts but in this entire community. It makes me excited to find out a little bit more about your background and then share some of your successes, some of the values that you have embraced and been a big part of with respect to this entire community with Partnering Leadership.
Would first want to find out whereabouts did you grow up and how did your upbringing impact the kind of person you became Doug?
I am a Washingtonian, Columbia hospital for women in 1940. For years, I worked just down the street from where I was born. Grew up in Arlington. My parents moved to Arlington in 1940. One the first families and a little community called Arlington forest. So I grew up, I went to public schools in Arlington. I was the son that stayed home. Went to American University. Got a master's degree from there and I'm a native.
That's fabulous. One of the rare people that grew up in this area stayed in this area, and we're fortunate to have that. Now, you did study at American University, so my brothers will be happy to hear that too.
But why did you choose Performing arts and management as a career after graduating from school?
Well, it's interesting what influences your life. I was a major in economics. I had offers to work at the Department of Treasury, but I've met along the way Patrick Hayes who had been presenting, performing arts presentations in Washington, DC since the early forties and I have been asked to put together a producer radio program for WAMU at American University. And I chose federal aid to the arts, which was related to my economic centrist. And I asked Patrick Hayes to be the moderator. We had Senator Claiborne, Pell. We had the manager of the symphony, the opera, some of the critics of the newspapers. And then he invited me to some of the wonderful events that he was presenting in Washington and I sort of had an epiphany that this is something that really looks like could interest me and music in my house growing up. So it started, came to me that he offered me a job. $5,000 a year to work in a tiny little office in the Campbell Music Company downtown and put on some of the greatest artists in the world.
First-year I was willing, we had real often a rash in the Washington, the national ballet of Great Britain. We had RD Rubinstein, Joan Baez, Andy Goodman. Everything you can imagine that was coming to town. And I fell in love with it immediately.
That is fabulous. And with that love, you ended up eventually becoming president of Washington, performing arts back in 1982. What brought you to Washington performing arts?
Originally Patrick Hayes had his own little for-profit concert Bureau and that's how I started out. After a year of training, he sent me to New York to get some seasoning and worked for a concert agency, trying to find engagements for artists around the country.
My territory was Winnipeg to Corpus Christi. And I got in a car and I drove and I visited every little college, anybody that had a budget to bring in artists in their cities. So I learned the hard way on the road. Then they didn't quite know what to do with me after a year. And you asked if the newly farmed Saratoga Performing Arts Center could use an expert in publicity. I knew nothing about it, particularly about public relations, but I helped open the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. And after a year, the Cleveland orchestra would wanted to open a new performing arts center in the summer and they asked if I'd come and helped do that. So for five years, I went out and learned the ropes in the performing arts. And then Patrick Hayes had just crowned, one of the first nonprofit performing organizations in the country and asked if I'd come back and make that a career. So I came back home, started to work with Patrick in 1969. And I've been there ever since.
And that's fabulous. And you led many different initiatives and transformation at Washington, performing arts under your tenure as president. Specifically, you focus a lot of effort on community engagement as a centerpiece.
What drove you to make community engagement as centerpiece of Washington, performing arts?
Well, I had some inherited leadership. Patrick Hayes was way before his time in this regard. And back when he started the organization in 1965, he made community relations and growth one of his mission points. We had an integrated board of directors. We had an artist, one of the first organizations in town to have an artist as the chair of the board, a lot of the board members came from Howard University. So he was reaching out very early on when none of this was happening. When it came to be my turn in 1982, I had a real grounding in how to build boards in interesting ways and bring people from all over the community to participate in our organization.
For my part, I focused on how to support artists in our community, that was sort of unheard of around the country at the time. And gave a lot of Washington artists, their debuts on the main stages in Washington.
In 1988, I was invited to join leadership Washington. I met people from all of our community that you'd never meet any place else. I began to involve them in our mission. A lot of them came on our board at different times. A lot of them, I used to develop partnerships in the community. To this day, it was one of the most formative moments in my career in terms of how to connect with your community, how to engage your community, how to serve your community.
Doug, I know early on you had a strong commitment to equity for the organization also, which in certain respects is way ahead of its time.
What drove you to have that commitment to equity for Washington performing arts?
When you began to see how big your community is and what the needs are, it didn't take long to realize that I didn't have the skills and the relationships, and the trust that was needed to make our organization relevant.
So I did a couple of things, perhaps the most significant impact was beginning to hire people of different communities to do the programming. So I hired a young man out of Howard University who helped develop the first gospel program of any organizations. The first time that gospel had been presented on the main stages here in town. There's some interesting stories with that. I hired a young Latino woman who began an RT America project, and we had young Asian American who was a master of developing partnerships throughout the community. Pretty soon we were having people answer the phone in Spanish. We were having artworks done by people of color and a certain kind of trust developed that I could have never done myself. So, I like to think of it as shared leadership. I was responsible to the board and indeed it was a team effort.
Doug as you were leading this change for greater equity, was there any resistance in the community or elsewhere with respect to where you were leading Washington performing arts?
The interesting thing is we grew out of a Euro-centric model or when I began in the business. So it was just all orchestras and recitals and wonderful beautiful artists that I've worked with over the years. So to find a board of directors that will not only give you the support you needed but also was interested in the equity component back in the eighties, that was more of a challenge. And I never had people leave the board, but finding the funding to do all this, that was in my Bailey work while everybody else was out doing wonderful programming. So that was a pretty big challenge.
But here we are, we did it. We moved on. One of the interesting challenges was when we started our gospel program. We were bringing in national artists in the gospel field. Most of them, I didn't know, I wasn't aware of. And I began to make a tour of churches in the community, African-American churches. And I found that the same artists that we were bringing to the Kennedy center, were appearing in the churches, and it was a way for them to engage an audience. And to make some money. And I never realized that gospel music, when it wasn't on the main stages, was being presented by the churches and we were competing with the churches. So there was resistance to what are you doing here? We haven't been invited here before and now you're competing with us. No one actually said that to me, but that's what I felt.
So we came up with the idea of beginning producing a mass choir. And we did over years we've had since 1990, we've had a mass choir performance at Kennedy Center. We invited all the directors, smaller churches in the gospel community to come and direct. So that was the key, that we were providing something that no one else could do. I can't take a lot of credit for it. I sort of waved the flag and said, this is the direction we want to go and my partners in leadership made it up.
Well, you let the organization with a vision, brought the right people on the team so they could engage the community and you engage the community in something that would be a win for everyone involved.
We're very happy with that until this day, it's a thriving chorus. We have two choruses. We have Children's chorus, which you can see it, Washingtonperforrmingarts.org, performing wonderful works. And we have an adult chorus.
That is fantastic. Now, while you were doing this, you are also involved in different aspects of the community, including leading DC chamber of commerce in 1996.
So, yes, I was encouraged by my manager, Patrick Hayes to get involved with the community if we were going to be relevant to the community. I didn't see many other performing arts managers at the DC chamber but I met some of the most wonderful, innovative, creative, effective people that I've ever met sitting around the table at the chamber. And I got on the board. And then one day somebody called and said, what do you think, about sharing it for a year. So I did, and I learned even more than any of those people came to serve on our boards too. So that interaction that sort of introduced me more to the idea of equity in terms of who has access to funding, who has opportunity for growth in our community. Amazing perspectives that I carry to this day.
Then Doug, in 2004, you were invited by justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to be chair of friends of music at the Supreme court. How did that come about? And what was the result of that?
The notorious RBG, a wonderful lady, a friend of mine, had helped produce music at the court. They've had that since the late eighties and it's a private event. Musicals a couple of times a year. It gives the justices a little break from their rigorous routine. He got to be of a certain age and it was too much for him. So she asked who would take it over and he recommended me. And so I went ahead and sat down and had lunch with her at the court. Her husband made the meal and brought it in and we had a lovely lunch together and I can see, she was sort of sizing me up.
I just retired from being president of the Washington performing arts. So I had the capacity. So she invited me to help produce this wonderful event. And we did it for some 16 years until she passed.
That is fabulous. And I know you also learned a lot from her in your many interactions with her.
Well, first of all, everything that's written about her is pretty much true. I think for the first 10 or 12 years, we worked together, she wasn't known as the notorious.
Her dream in life was to be an opera singer and of course she wasn't. Didn't have that capacity, but she loved the arts. She loved working with artists. So, I've found, she asked my advice on a lot of artists to bring, but I found in general what she wanted. She got all the greatest stars in the opera world and music come and perform at the court.
So Doug, obviously you have had tremendous success in leading Washington, performing arts, and lots of achievements all along the way. Leaders also have setbacks and things. They wished they had done differently.
From your perspective, what do you think you've been able to do even more effectively?
Well, first of all, I think at this very moment, after 52 years, Washington performing arts, that we're on the wonderful plane of being where I want it to be with our current leadership, and Jenny Bilfield, our current CEO has been with us seven years. She has taken everything that I started and just grown it and did much more deeper than I was able to do.
But I think over the years, the greatest challenge. Equity and program that you have been so committed to, is to make sure that it's institutionalized and then it grows and is ingrained in the organization in a way that when you leave and we all leave, that it continues. And I guess a lot of my regrets is that we've had hiccups along the way we've had pushes and starts and fallbacks. The fact that we're still committed to it after all these years is wonderful. We hired the right person to do that, that I sometimes felt insufficient in terms of how I engage the board and what choices were made, ups and downs. But I'm pleased to sit here and say that equity is an enormous part of our organization now.
That's fabulous. Now, Doug, you've received so many different awards, you were Washingtonian of the year, you were awarded Rank of Chevalier in France's order of the arts and letters invested within insignia of the commander's cross of the Royal Norwegian order of merit.
So I would love to know your perspective on these awards, what they mean to you.
I think that what I've learned over the years is tremendous respect for the cultures of other countries. And the day that helped us start a program was some 50 embassies here in town, where we partner an embassy with a sixth grade class in the district and they spend the entire year learning about another culture. Maybe one of the most important programs you can imagine in today's world.
So over the years, I got to know most of the cultural attaches at the different embassies. I began to bring a lot of culture exchange artists to the Kennedy Center and we stay around long enough and we make great friends and get an award or two.
You have definitely earned those awards. It's not just for making friends as for the impact you've had on the community.
So as you reflect on your career, if you were to give advice to younger leaders, as they're aspiring to be as impactful as you have been, Doug, what advice would you give for leaders?
Well, every leader is different. Every experience is different. It's hard to categorize what makes a leader. I think for my standpoint, in the nonprofit community, and if you want to serve your community, then you have to engage your community. You have to get involved with your community. And programs like the leadership Washington program, the chamber of commerce, those are the kind of relationships that nurtured what I wanted to do that have served me a lifetime.
So get involved with your community. It's not the normal instinct to drop your day-to-day work and get out there. I think it serves you very well if you're in the nonprofit sector. And of course, I love to quote Justice Ginsburg, a hero to many of us, who said “you have to fight for what you want, but do it in a way that will lead other people to join you in what you're doing”. And that to me, is getting involved as your community.
What a brilliant quote and what a brilliant way to capture what you've done in fighting for what you believe for this community and for the arts but bringing people along that entire journey. So our community is better through Washington performing arts.
Thank you so much for your leadership and sharing some of your story with our podcast audience, Doug.
Thank you, Mahan.