THE ANIMATED ARTS PROMOTER, the brooding actor, the meticulously focused ballet dancer—portrayals of arts leaders might depict them as passionate romantics with little time for the affairs of the world. In reality, arts leaders are emerging from galleries, theaters, and studios and landing in public leadership roles and at policy tables across America, called upon to bring a fresh perspective to important social and economic issues.

The following profiles showcase five alumni—all former artists or arts advocates—who built on their cross-sector and cross-discipline experiences at the Kennedy School to rewrite the script, casting the arts in a central role, sharing the stage with other public leaders.

Deeper Work

DeAnna Cummings MC/MPA 2009, co-founder in 1995 of a visual arts enrichment program for youths in public housing in North Minneapolis, came to the Kennedy School with a mission—to acquire the tools that would help her develop Juxtaposition Arts (JXTA) from what began as a grassroots operation into an industry leader. Cummings envisioned JXTA as an organization that could demonstrate how to leverage local creative assets in ways that have social and economic impact on people, neighborhoods, cities, and the field of art and design.

“We knew what we were doing at JXTA worked,” Cummings says. “The youth involved in our program all graduate from high school and go on to higher education, entrepreneurship, or careers. But we also looked out our studio windows and could see that our neighborhood as a whole wasn’t better off. We asked ourselves, what more can the arts do? How can we be of greater benefit to people in our neighborhood in more significant ways?”

She and her husband, JXTA co-founder and artist Roger Cummings, a Loeb Fellow in 2009 at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, both realized that “the change that begins to move the needle at a population level requires cross-sector, layered work,” she says. “It’s rooted on the ground with individual youth, but must also operate upstream at the policy level. I was interested in becoming smarter about policy.”

At the Kennedy School, Cummings became “much better at putting the work we’re doing in a context for people who don’t speak ’artist.’” And her vision for what is possible expanded exponentially. “I was in classes with heads of state, judges, an astronaut, and here I was running this little local nonprofit,” she says. “But classmates who worked nationally and globally would say to me, ’I’d love to do what you do. You’re having real impact with people who you can see.’ I became more clear in my belief that whether it’s local, state, or global, in the end, it’s all local. I came to understand that work that is deeply rooted in local communities is where innovation and impact happen.”

Seven years after graduating from the Kennedy School, Cummings has grown JXTA from an after-school arts program to a social enterprise that has become a model for lifting up an entire neighborhood. In 2008, JXTA had just three operations staff and eight artist mentors serving approximately 100 youth. It now owns and operates five rehabbed buildings, serves 3,000 audience members annually, and employs 100 people, including 70 young people working in the art and design studios.

Youth are mentored and trained, working in JXTA’s retail shop and in its graphic design, urban design, fashion design, screen printing, and contemporary art businesses. These young apprentices produce work for hundreds of customers and clients a year, including such major enterprises as Target, Metro Transit, the First Avenue nightclub, and the city of Minneapolis.

“We’re changing outcomes in individual people’s lives,” Cummings says, “and creating new narratives through actions that demonstrate that people in an area of our city who are often viewed through lenses of need and charity are producers, makers, and innovators who have unique and valuable contributions to make to the city as a whole and to the professions we work in.”

An artist's brain

“As artists, we approach problems like puzzles,” says Danielle Brazell HKSEE 2013, general manager of the Los Angeles’ Department of Cultural Affairs, which oversees 38 full-time employees and a budget of $9 million. Once working on the fringes of the arts world, the Los Angeles artist and grassroots arts advocate led Arts for LA, the city’s regional arts advocacy division, for several years, before being tapped by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in 2014 for her new post.

She describes being outside her comfort zone when she first arrived at the Kennedy School, but she soon gained new perspectives on her work. “It gave me a great way of thinking about how a chief of police might think about an issue,” she says. “It gave me concrete tools and a framework for thinking about how I work. I’m an appointed official. Do I serve the mayor, staff, the community? These frameworks are incredibly useful as I navigate a complex system.”

Brazell also found that being surrounded by a broad variety of public leaders brought into focus her own skills as a creative problem-solver. “We have a set of tools to think about form and structure, flow and sequence, energy and resources, about context, perspective, and proportion.  All these things play into problem solving, program design, implementation, system thinking, and organizational development. That’s what I think I bring to the Department of Cultural Affairs—a creative approach to the complex challenges facing our city.”

From Los Angeles City Hall, Brazell now sees herself as part of a national movement. “Creativity is as important to the United States as the Industrial Revolution,” she says. “It reinforces a community; it creates opportunities for community cohesion; it fosters empathy and compassion. Arts attract. It becomes the place where everyone wants to be.” From the city that calls itself the nation’s Creative Capital, she rattles off a long list of important cross-sector policy matters in which her department is engaged: neighborhood redevelopment, job creation, safety, and sustainability, among others. “Creativity can be a powerful tool in addressing a number of civic issues,” she says.

Brazell’s foremost passion is access and equity. She sees arts leaders cultivating a transformational shift that ensures “equitable access to resources and platforms to celebrate creative and cultural expression, and opportunities to reaffirm the value of place, of history, and of identity.” Recently, she harvested support for a citywide outdoor public art biennial, Current: L.A.  With funds from Bloomberg Philanthropies and the city’s Arts Development Free program, the exhibition offered free exhibits and performances, aimed at addressing social issues relevant to the vast city of 4 million people. Brazell explains, “Current: L.A. democratizes the way people access art, taking it out of the museum environment and into LA’s diverse neighborhoods.”

Imagination in the political process

Public funding for the arts was one of the issues that ignited America’s culture wars in the early 1990s, when Steven Tepper MPP 1996 enrolled at the Kennedy School. He enlisted in the battle with this objective: “to sneak art into the policy tent.” Tepper, a fierce champion of the central role of creativity in a robust society, encamped at the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy (now the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy) and took classes across the campus.  

Culture wars aside, Tepper observed that the arts continued to experience explosive growth in communities across America. “We have spent the past 50 years expanding access to the arts in every city, large and small, throughout America, from a few hundred nonprofit arts organizations in the 1950s to more than 100,000,” he says. Tepper saw an opportunity to place the arts in a prominent position of public inquiry; after Harvard, and after earning a doctorate in sociology from Princeton, he went on to help launch two cultural policy institutes, one at Princeton and the other at Vanderbilt. Tepper is currently dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, the largest college of its type in the United States with 5,000 students.

Twenty years after the culture wars, Tepper describes a new relationship between the arts and public policy: “The shift, to put it bluntly, is from policy designed to advance the arts to engaging art and artists to help advance policy.” This reversal is the basis of Tepper’s new master’s program at Arizona State. With support from the Mike Curb Family Foundation and a team of cross-disciplinary educators, Tepper is cultivating a new generation of public leaders who combine creative enterprise with cultural leadership. “We are building the nation’s first design and arts corps, where 1,000 students every year will work on project teams with community partners to help activate the city and advance cultural vitality and well-being. And we are designing a national institute to help build partnerships between artists and other sectors engaged in community development work.”  

Tepper doesn’t limit this work to local communities. He sees the global impact as well. “Artists can advance big ideas that address global issues. Artists—filmmakers, dancers, actors, musicians—have changed the way we think about AIDS, about the environment, about civil rights. Artists have successfully engaged in political campaigns; they have protested war; they have spread ideas through international cultural exchange. Today more than ever, we need to bring imagination into the policy process.”

All about the data

When he enrolled at the Kennedy School, Jim Bildner MC/MPA 2010 was a veteran of arts philanthropy and governance, having served on the boards of several major organizations including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Newport Folk Festival, and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. From that perch, Bildner saw firsthand the important role those organizations held in their communities. “The arts work on a hyper-local level driving a community’s vibrancy,” he says.  

He also saw the challenges arts organizations faced. One in particular that became more apparent during his time at the Kennedy School was the need for data. In a national security course taught by Graham Allison, the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government and director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and New York Times journalist David Sanger, Bildner and his classmates learned that the United States annually ranks its national security interests so that policymakers and stakeholders can prioritize, and often triage, precious resources among competing interests. Data and information help drive these rankings. But in other sectors, the arts included, no such ranking of national interests existed. Bildner believed that data could change the equation for the arts, and he decided to do something about it.

Stakeholders like him needed to make the case for support, and Bildner was certain that data could tell the right story. “For a host of reasons, the data on the arts had been marginalized,” he says. “I saw an opportunity to examine more deeply the role the arts play in a society.” While still at HKS, Bildner launched Sustain Arts, which eventually became a multi-year, large-scale national project that collects and aggregates data relevant to arts and culture. Bildner set out to provide board members, funders, and public leaders with critical factors to improve the arts funding equation. “The data had to be visualized, easily digested, and able to be readily applied in the field,” he explains.

The project has produced rich data, according to Bildner, data that will help arts organizations “from the small art gallery to the bricks and mortar symphony to figure out where their audiences are migrating.” 

In his position as CEO of one of the world’s leading venture philanthropy firms, Draper, Richards, and Kaplan (DRK), Bildner invests in organizations that battle some pressing global issues, but his perspective on the arts and culture is not diminished. He explains, “The relative strength of a community’s arts ecosystem, according to the Knight Foundation, is cited year after year as a principal reason people choose to live in the cities they live. Along with public safety and access to health, education, and employment opportunities, the ability to participate in arts and cultural activities is an essential building block of healthy communities.” At DRK, Bildner continues to provide capital for enterprises that work in that context.

He offers this final note: “Art is the one place where we give license to people to disagree. That’s anomalous in our society today.”

Cellist Yo Yo Ma and dancer Damian Woetzel hold a music and dance workshop with kids at Savoy Elementary in Washington DC.

Giving not receiving

As principal dancer for the New York City Ballet from 1989 to 2008, Damian Woetzel MC/MPA 2007 danced virtually every male role in the company’s repertoire before enrolling at the Kennedy School. His transformation from dancer to national arts leader and policy expert began in the HKS classroom.

“I was the arts voice in the middle of the other conversations going on in classes,” Woetzel remembers. “I was able to place the arts in those conversations in the larger spectrum—not just working on the arts, as in putting on a performance—but actually talking about the arts and economics policy, or the arts and social justice or diplomacy.”

In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Woetzel to the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities, where he has been instrumental in creating several initiatives, including Turnaround Arts, a program that brings arts education to some of the nation’s most disadvantaged schools. That program built on Arts Strikes, an initiative Woetzel piloted with the cellist Yo-Yo Ma that works to bring artists to schools as a natural extension of their regular professional work.

Woetzel describes the process of producing Turnaround Arts: “Before we began that project, we worked to fill the data gap to prove why arts and culture were a meaningful and viable solution to address the education issues facing America.” He credits the Kennedy School with shaping this data-centric approach to issues.

Woetzel also found a platform for expanding his work as an arts leader when, in 2011, he was appointed director of the Aspen Institute Arts Program, a position that has allowed him to undertake a variety of innovative projects. For example, in a series of engagements beginning in 2013, Woetzel brought Ma together with members of MusiCorps, a music rehabilitation program for wounded veterans based at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

This work is not always easy. According to Woetzel, one challenge is building consensus within the arts and culture field itself—the result of a scarcity of philanthropic dollars earmarked for the arts. “It points out one of the problems of the arts ecosystem, which is that competition for funds and attention does not encourage the field to act as a field,” he says.

Undaunted by this challenge, Woetzel is playing a prominent role nationally in convening arts leaders. The Aspen Arts Strategy Group provides a rare opportunity for the broadest cross-section of artists and arts leaders to come together from foundations, public and social service agencies, schools, and myriad arts organizations. At these gatherings, Woetzel facilitates conversations aimed at empowering arts leaders “to be more effective as a voice in policy and progress.”

Today, owing to his transformative experience at the Kennedy School, Woetzel finds himself an important actor on the national policy stage. But he has not entirely abandoned the stage where he once performed, continuing to direct and produce. How does he handle the intersection between his creativity and policy work? Woetzel explains that his artistic aspirations are constant, but they extend to include making a broader impact on society.

“The real potential of art,” Woetzel says, “is in the giving, not the receiving. From the beginning, we have to approach society with the proposition that we are here to contribute.” In 2015, as he was awarded the Harvard Arts Medal by President Drew Faust, Woetzel said: “This is how things happen. This is how things change. To me, being someone who can represent the arts and push them as best I can is an honor and a duty.”