Tim Cynova: The 2016 Unsung Heroes of Arts Administration

2016 Unsung Heroes

On September 4, 2016, I placed a call for the Unsung Heroes of Arts Administration, a sort of Bat signal in blog post form. In placing that call, I hoped it would be a simple and fun way to recognize some of those culture warriors in our field who seldom receive public recognition for their efforts, and without whom “the show” would decidedly not go on.

I was incredibly humbled by the response, both by the number of times the article was shared and by the caliber of nominees that the call yielded. It was far from what I ever imagined when I rolled out of bed on the morning of the 4th and penned that post.

Saying thank you, or giving someone a sincere compliment, is one of the easiest things we can do to show our appreciation, yet it can be remembered for a lifetime.

A number of people have asked me what I was hoping to achieve when I published that post. Essentially they wanted to know, since I wasn’t handing out bags of cash or doing this as an official initiative of the company where I work, what gives? Here’s what gives: Saying thank you, or giving someone a sincere compliment, is one of the easiest ways we can show our appreciation for their efforts. It doesn’t have to cost any money or take up a ton of time. The seemingly simple gesture of saying thank you, telling someone that they and their contribution are valued, can remain with the recipient, motivating and encouraging them for their lifetime. Recognition is too rare of an occurrence for really no good reason at all. It’s not like we’re searching for a unicorn under a double rainbow.

I’ll wager that I’m not the only one who doesn’t say thank you enough to friends, family, coworkers, and complete strangers. Part of the reason behind the Unsung Heroes was to serve as a reminder to me to say thank you more often. To the “bag of cash” argument, studies show that at the end of the day it’s not the monetary rewards people find meaningful, but the simple act of someone taking time to recognize their efforts. Don’t get me wrong, none of us would turn down a little extra spending dough, but monetary rewards are for the most part ephemeral. When it comes to things we’ll remember throughout our career, what we did with the cash quickly fades in contrast to the thoughtful words of another.

If I told you that I teared up while reading the incredibly heartfelt nominations people submitted for their colleagues I would not be lying.

When the nomination period closed on September 30, I read through the nominations and quickly realized that I needed to call in reinforcements to help me select a representative sample to recognize. If I told you that I teared up while reading the incredibly heartfelt nominations people submitted for their colleagues I would not be lying. (This was also a warning I passed along to each of the panelists who helped me select the heroes below.)

Six brave souls, presumably armed with a box of Kleenex, served on the virtual selection panel. The panelists are people who I greatly admire and consider to be unsung heroes in their own right. Their tenures in arts administration span from a few years to over 30 years. They’re scattered around the United States, and hold (or have held) positions in our sector from CEOs, Vice Presidents, and Senior Directors, to those just settling into their careers with titles like Director of Community Relations. Their backgrounds and work impact all aspects of the creative sector and, fun fact, at least one has run a marathon.

The panelists were given this criteria to help guide them in the selection process:

Unsung heroes of arts administration are the individuals who keep the trains running on time, who will never be handed the microphone at the annual gala to “say a few words,” who won’t have the opportunity after a career in the cultural sector to give a curtain speech, or even make the announcement asking us to silence our cell phones. Those veterans and rookies for which we all know full well that the show would not go on without them. Those people who make our workplaces more pleasant, including those who might secretly keep watering the office fern no matter how hard we try to kill it.

I also offered that panelists could go with, “You know one when you see one,” if that made it easier. Panelists were asked to rank and send me their top five. When returning their rankings here’s a sampling of the messages that accompanied them:

Okay, this was just plain difficult. So many wonderful stories and people deserving of recognition. But you forced me to vote for five so here it goes (can you feel my pain?).

I see what you mean about tearing up while reading these submissions. It is incredibly hard to choose just five from this impressive array of deserving candidates, but here are my Top 5:

It was really touching to read these. My list is a group of folks who add pops of joy in people’s lives and/or are the calm in the storm.

This was a task both difficult and joyful. Difficult because there are so many doing such good, hard work that it makes it impossible to choose just five. Joyful because there are so many doing such good, hard work that it makes me appreciate anew every arts worker’s passion and remember that this is the only the tip of a massive iceberg that floats art. And it reminds me how heroic our field is.

This reminds me how heroic our field is.

So, without further ado (and in alphabetical order), the 2016 Unsung Heroes of Arts Administration accompanied by a few quotes from their nominators:

Rosalind Barbour
Administrative Chief of Staff, The Public Theater (New York, NY)

Rosalind has moved up the ranks of The Public Theater from being an assistant to the Administrative Chief of Staff. She’s responsible for our government relations, comes up with incredible ideas for how to move the organization forward and leads the way in pushing for systemic change within the organization. In the past year alone she envisioned and put into a place a panel for Theater Communications Group with Oskar Eustis and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Powers about soft diplomacy. Rosalind took care of EVERYONE’s Hamilton tickets — from the Obamas to the Clintons, and she led the initiatives around creating a welcoming environment for the trans and gender queer communities in our building. She is a quiet dynamo and is the last to take credit for her many jobs well done. I know firsthand that Rosalind is not only capable of making anything possible, she is also deeply committed to the values of our organization and to building an equitable and just society.

Julie Briggs
Finance & Membership Manager, LA STAGE Alliance (Los Angeles, CA)

Julie Briggs, our Finance & Membership Manager, has been with the organization longer than the rest of us put together. (Literally, I just counted.) Julie is the money lady (with the old-fashioned calculator on her desk to prove it), the HR lady, resident historian & human concierge service for the LA theatre community. Truly, she often spends quality phone time with some of our oldest ticket patrons who just want to know what’s playing where? What’s good? She’s also taken it upon herself to act as a much-needed facilities manager. I once arrived on a Monday morning to discover that Julie had come in over the weekend to scrub and spot-clean the carpet & re-pot our large, sad, wilting plants. She’s also the one who ends up on hold with the cable company when they’ve inexplicably increased our bill again. Julie also has the biggest heart of anyone I/we know. She is the epitome of the nonprofit arts administration work ethic recipe: the time, the elbow grease, and the love for the art/community we serve.

John Del Gaudio
Interim General Manager, The Bushwick Starr (Brooklyn, NY)

John is the reason risky, ambitious, beautiful plays are able to happen in NYC! Seriously. He champions playwrights who need a place and he is the calm in the storm that is NYC downtown theater. He is capable of making the dream possible by encouraging the audacity of the dream while simultaneously working on the logistics to make it possible. A truly humble and compassionate champion of humans. He doesn’t want credit and would probably be horrified about this in the first place. He understands and identifies underdogs who haven’t even considered their potential. I think he’s truly the example for compassionate administrating and producing. John has integrity and wit, personally and professionally. John quietly urges collaborators to put down the nonsense and proceed. John listens. John has wildly smart things to say, rooted in experience. His confidence in me gave me opportunities to work with artists who would have been beyond my reach otherwise. I’ve seen him make things happen that seemed impossible. He truly is the invisible glue that holds shows together. John Del Gaudio is truly a magic maker!!!

Rueben Echols
Associate Director, Black Ensemble Theater (Chicago, IL)

Rueben has a heart for the arts that moves him to go above and beyond the call of duty EVERY TIME!! Whether it’s giving young inexperienced artists advice and tips on how to be more successful in auditions, or spending extra time with people struggling to get choreography. Many times I have witnessed Rueben spend his own money when funds weren’t available in the budget for a production. In addition to money, Rueben gives his TIME, he’s never too busy to help someone with a monologue, a ride home, food, or just be a listening ear. He is always doing nice things for others whether it’s buying snacks for rehearsal, planning a celebration for someone’s birthday, or just giving an encouraging text message. I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this award.

yoshi kuroi
Interim Managing Director, New York Neo-Futurists (New York, NY)

yoshi’s dedication to their work, their colleagues, and the artistic output of their company is beyond which I’ve seen exhibited by anyone else in my time with the New York nonprofit arts scene. Always ready to step in where needed, yoshi has worked their way up from an unpaid intern, to technical associate, to Interim Managing Director with the New York Neo-Futurists. To say “lifesaver” would be an understatement, yoshi is the grease that keeps the production machine running. I can imagine it coming to an immediate grinding halt without the dedication, swiftness, and presence of mind that can only be fulfilled by this considerate, reasonable, and just all-around goddamn luminous being. yoshi lifts up everyone around them and has been instrumental in bringing more visibility to those affiliated with the company who identify outside the gender binary. There’s always another fire to put out, or a personal crisis that needs to be resolved, and yoshi is there like a goddamn superhero every time anything needs fixing.

Cindy Mahoney
School Registrar, Princeton Ballet School (Princeton, NJ)

Cindy is the glue that keeps our organization together. She knows the ins and outs and every detail in between. Cindy knows the families and can attend to their needs, while attending to the faculty and staff as well. Cindy is a champion of the Princeton Ballet School, working tirelessly and long hours to keep us going. She is one of the most dedicated people I have ever encountered. Every day I feel gratitude to work with someone like Cindy. She helps make my job a joy, and I look forward to coming to work every day because of her. It is with great enthusiasm and joy that I nominate Cindy Mahoney as an Unsung Hero of Arts Administration!

Tom Morris
Director of Administration & Operations, The Santa Fe Opera (Santa Fe, NM)

Tom stays behind the scenes, his praises unsung. He arrives earlier than anyone else, leaves later than anyone else, and oversees a legion of employees from ushers to front office managers. He is the first to respond to a patron complaint. He is the first to react when the computer network goes down. And he is the first to say that he is just one player on a very large team. Tom Morris is a tenacious, good-spirited arts administrator and one of the field’s unsung heroes.

Luz Perez
Director of Special Events, American Conservatory Theater (San Francisco, CA)

Luz is an amazing events director. She calms the chaos into order, supports and molds any chairperson’s visions, and is responsible for literally millions of dollars in revenue. She’s also the beating heart of her department, and our company. She volunteers willingly for tasks above and beyond her job. She remembers every birthday (with highly decorated work stations), every work anniversary (with champagne), every special day (with whatever is needed). She holds a decade of institutional knowledge and relationships, and she magically appears at that moment, the moment when you just can’t handle another thing, the moment every nonprofit worker always hits at some point, when you’re going to cry, quit, or both; that’s the moment that she appears, with cherry pie and Cheetos and the most comforting hug in creation. And she does it all cheerfully, never being formally recognized, and always seems puzzled when you admire her superhero qualities.

Karen Racanelli
former General Manager, Berkeley Repertory Theatre (Berkeley, CA)

Karen Racanelli has been a behind-the-scenes arts administrator in the Bay Area for well over 30 years and is truly one of the unsung heroes of the nonprofit theatre world. I can’t think of a person in the Bay Area who has touched more lives, mentored more people, and is loved by all. Her sense of humor, fairness, ability to listen to the needs of others and her ongoing dedication to the arts is unparalleled. Karen has mentored, nurtured and led the next generation of arts administrators from the sidelines. She has no ego in her work and shows graciousness to all. She truly has a passion for the art and you can see it in her relationships with artists, her colleagues, and in her work ethic. Not only does Karen model healthy behavior on how to lead a life in the arts, she consistently clears a path for others to thrive. She illuminates successes, she consoles setbacks, she finds humor in the ridiculous, and she mentored an entire generation. It sounds simple but she is a rarity. By simply being herself, Karen makes you want to excel in not only your professional work but in also being a better human being.

Amy San Pedro
Co-Founder, Buskerfest Miami (Miami, FL)

Amy has been tirelessly working to support and expand the cultural community of Miami for over ten years. She does this through an incredible number of channels. She co-leads a nonprofit dedicated to putting local performers in public spaces. She performs with and helps run the 6th Street Dance Studio in Little Havana, which gives free community classes and inexpensive professional classes. She also chairs the local chapter of Emerging Arts Leaders, which produces monthly meet-ups for the cultural community. And she never gets recognized for her incredible effort and dedication to these causes.

Les Snow
Program Manager, CERF+ (Montpelier, VT)

“Program Manager” doesn’t do justice to what Les does. He’s really our Master of Disaster. Les oversees CERF+’s emergency relief programs. Each day he’s on the front lines of helping artists who’ve had emergencies. These are not just setbacks, these are MAJOR crises — the woodworker who nearly cut his head off in a table saw accident, a recent art school graduate whose metals studio of works-in-progress and completed pieces was cleaned out in a devastating theft, an off-the-grid furniture maker whose home and studio were lost in a canyon fire ignited by lightning that hit a power grid miles away. And Les has been there for artists in disasters with names: Katrina, Irene, Sandy to name a few. Right now he’s working with artists in Louisiana who suffered losses in the floods. Les is the calm in their storm. He works tirelessly and quietly with each person — sometimes writing their application for them. He’s generous with his time and bends over backwards to be helpful. He is OUR hero!

Thank You! Thank You! Thank You!
Thank you to those who read and shared the initial post. Thank you to those who took a moment to nominate such deserving colleagues. Thank you to all of our unsung heroes of arts administrators — named here or not — you make the world a better, more beautiful and enjoyable place!

Disclaimer: As I stated in my initial post, while I work for Fractured Atlas, the 2016 Unsung Heroes of Arts Administration is not an official “Fractured Atlas” thing. It’s a “Tim Cynova, interested in helping us all have another way to say thanks” thing.


Tim Cynova is a certified Senior Professional in HR and the Chief Operating Officer at Fractured Atlas, a nonprofit technology company that helps artists with the business aspects of their work. To learn more about Fractured Atlas, or to get involved, visit us here.

This post originally appeared on Fractured Atlas Blog.

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