Myrna Anderson-Fuller and Virginia Hepner will receive the Joan P. Garner Outstanding Service to the Arts Award, presented in partnership with Fulton County Arts and Culture, when ArtsATL presents the second annual Luminary Awards on January 28.
In anticipation of the event, Anderson-Fuller (former executive director of Hammonds House Museum) and Hepner (who recently stepped down as president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center) met to reflect on their transitions from corporate America to the nonprofit sector, the value of listening before leading and to commemorate their friend, Joan Garner, who served as Fulton County Commissioner before she passed away last spring.
ArtsATL: You both had corporate backgrounds, then moved into the arts. What were you thinking?
Virginia Hepner: What were you thinking, Myrna? [laughs]
Myrna Anderson-Fuller: My transition was relatively smooth. While I was in corporate America [at Eastern Airlines], I became the community liaison, volunteering in the areas I felt really comfortable with like the old Atlanta Arts Festival and Hammonds House Museum. I was on the board of the Fulton County Arts Council. That volunteerism turned into [a] career.
Hepner: I was a banker for 25 years, a fourth-generation banker, and loved it. Bankers understand that the health of a community is reflected in the health of the bank. One of the reasons I went into banking was to be part of the community, in whatever way, whether it’s serving on the board of the Red Cross or arts organizations.
I chose arts because it’s always been a passion of mine in terms of enjoyment. I think [having arts and culture available to everyone] is essential to what kind of community we have. It’s how you communicate, how you inspire each other, how you relate challenging issues. I volunteered in various capacities [and] was asked to serve on the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund board. That’s how I got an education in what’s going on in the Atlanta region, and I was inspired by it.
ArtsATL: What is your earliest memory of being moved or changed by a work of art?
Anderson-Fuller: Growing up in Princeton, New Jersey, where there was a lot of visual arts, performing arts, it was ingrained from the beginning. I can’t say there was any one moment. It was just something that was there and always appreciated.
Hepner: My first memory was a very emotional connection. I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and they have a fabulous museum there — the [Nelson-Atkins] Museum. It was free, and it’s still free, which is pretty impressive. My mother, who was an artistic person, would take us all the time. I was four years old, and I remember they have a fabulous Asian art collection. I remember going into that area and looking up and seeing a statue of Shiva dancing.
Shiva has multiple arms, and you don’t know if it’s a man or a woman, and it’s engaging as a sculpture. I remember seeing it, wondering, “What is that?” and having that conversation with my mother. She tried to tell me where Asia was, so it was a perfect example of how art can engage a conversation in a family, educate and [inspire] curiosity.
ArtsATL: Every time I see a school bus pulling up to the High, I feel so excited for the kids. How critical was it to you, as arts administrators, to make art accessible to people who might not typically come across fine art in their day-to-day lives?
Hepner: Speaking for my former colleagues at the Woodruff Arts Center, it’s in their DNA. I went to public school until college, and we had incredible experiences in art. I played the violin, extremely poorly [laughs], and I’m sure my parents didn’t have to pay for that violin. We were exposed constantly to whatever was available. Georgia is not that way, so we’ve had to raise a lot of private dollars — and bless people who see the value of that — to make sure children have exposure.
The City of Atlanta has this fabulous program, the Cultural Experience Project (a publicly funded initiative that guarantees children enrolled in public schools one cultural experience every year from pre-K through high school). The Symphony, the High, the Alliance [along with other great arts organizations in Atlanta] are part of that every year. The last year I was here, I think we served over 200,000 children in a year across the whole state.
It’s fundamental not only because it makes us feel good and valued and part of the whole community, but also it’s a little self-interested. Who are going to be the audiences of the future? If you don’t have exposure as a child, it’s really difficult later to help engage people who don’t know what they’re missing.
Anderson-Fuller: We often consider education for children, but there are many people who would come in [to Hammonds House] who had never been to a museum at all. They’ve never stopped to think about what art is or how it works within their lives. They will come in and say, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
When you walk with them through the exhibition, and have them talk about what they see, and open up that whole conversation that not only speaks to their emotions, but to their background. That’s a whole different level of education that’s important. With children, as Virginia said, we are grooming the next generation’s appreciation for the fine arts.
ArtsATL: When you talk about being there to walk someone through a new environment, it makes me think of you two walking into a new arena from corporate America. You had your tentacles in the arts, but suddenly you were in charge. How important was mentorship to you when making the transition?
Anderson-Fuller: Mentorship was important, but I think what we brought to our jobs was our administrative backgrounds [and] skill sets from corporate America. I had to rely on people who knew the arts well. Our curator at the time was Kevin Sipp, who lives and breathes the visual arts. Because I had him, I could [focus on] the administrative end. But I also got to learn so much from him. Also, the original director, Ed Spriggs, was there to lean on.
Hepner: There’s no single mentor. I’ve been on a dozen boards in my life, nonprofit and for-profit, you learn quickly that you need to always be open to learning from others. The most essential element in taking a role like this is to listen first and try to understand: what is the mission of the organization? My role, in any of those jobs, has been to try to support that mission and to strengthen the ecology of arts.
ArtsATL: Did your predecessors give you a piece of advice when passing the baton?
Anderson-Fuller: Not so much advice, but support. And I think that’s even more important because you have to do it your way — figure out what works for you. I am eternally grateful for Ed being there as a support.
Hepner: In terms of passing the baton, I could never display more gratitude to Joe Bankoff, who was my predecessor, and Shelton Stanfill before him. Joe would be the first to say he’s a recovering lawyer, and I’d be the first to say I’m a recovering banker. We needed both of those skill sets here at the arts center. But you couldn’t find anyone more passionate and supportive. They always had my back, just like I will always have Doug Shipman’s back in any way possible to advance the mission.
ArtsATL: Did you ever feel like your gender or race was an asset, a liability or a non-issue as an arts leader?
Hepner: I’ve often wondered whether it’s a learned or inherent trait, but I think women tend to be more collaborative and probably more gentle in the way they approach people. I think that’s an advantage when you’re working with fellow professionals who have strong points of view. It requires a lot of diplomacy and listening. It’s also incredibly rewarding.
ArtsATL: What do you want to say to young people entering the work place?
Hepner: Be an authentic person. Make sure you are the best you can possibly be because you are your own brand at the end of the day. “Work ethic” sounds mundane, [but it] is essential. I would much rather be around folks who identify with the values and the mission of an organization and work hard than a brilliant person who doesn’t do the work. Be optimistic. The more genuinely optimistic you are and work hard, the more you attract people who want to succeed with you.
Anderson-Fuller: Virginia said it in a nutshell. The only thing I would add is to be patient. Take a little bit more time to understand the lay of the land — how you can help others, and help the mission of the organization.
Hepner: It’s so poignant to me, and such a honor to be associated with Joan. She’s one of the first people I met when I first moved to Atlanta to talk about arts and culture, probably 20 years ago. She understood what it could mean to a person’s well-being to have experienced art. You could just tell it brought her a lot of joy personally. And she was very shrewd and smart about how to support it and bring it to more people. I’m so sorry she’s not with us today. I think only great thoughts about her.
Anderson-Fuller: Joan was a personal friend. She served on my board at Hammonds House. When she decided to run for Fulton County Commission I was shocked, but not surprised. She was very capable. She had a quiet way of getting things done in a big way. That will be missed.
It’s a great honor for me not only to be given the award in her name, but [turns to Hepner and takes her hand] to be with my good buddy.
Hepner: I was just going to say that. Yes!
ArtsATL: What are you most proud of in your own legacies in arts administration?
Anderson-Fuller: Probably just keeping a small nonprofit running for all these years.
Hepner: Pride is probably the wrong word for me. I’m just grateful to have been associated with so many people who have made Atlanta what it is, whether the privilege of working at the Atlanta Ballet, or Young Audiences here at the Woodruff Arts Center. I highly recommend people taking a big risk career-wise and doing something they didn’t think they were planning to do. And yet everything I learned in business, I tried to apply to advancing the mission of arts and culture.
ArtsATL: What do you admire most about one another?
Hepner: I admire many things about Myrna. You always have this positive attitude, mixed with pragmatism to get something done, and understand what it means to sustain an organization. I love that about you. And you’re always willing to help, to participate.
Anderson-Fuller: I’m proud of Virginia because she’s really been able to maneuver the arts arena well. Wherever she’s moved, she’s really brought a dynamic that is groundbreaking. She is just a dynamo when it comes to being a leader in the arts world.
ArtsATL: Anything you want to add?
Hepner: I would encourage all of us to be the best advocates we can be for helping people who didn’t get exposure to the arts to have it. Also, whatever circles we’re in, make sure we don’t sell it short because it’s a fragile ecosystem financially and we need to fix that and make people understand the value of that.