Last Friday, the Woodruff Arts Center announced that Doug Shipman would be taking the helm as the CEO of the center, following in the footsteps of Virginia Hepner, effective July 18. Shipman, the founding CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, joins the Arts Center from Brighthouse, a division of the BCG Group. ArtsATL spoke with Shipman by phone on Friday to discuss his vision for the Arts Center, and what he brings to the table with his past experiences.
ArtsATL: You’re entering into this position at a very transformative and incredible time for the Woodruff Arts Center. Though the announcement was just made, what are some of your plans?
Doug Shipman: As I start to consider this and understand what’s happening — there’s a tremendous amount of positive energy that has been built the past few years. There’s been the capital campaign, what’s happening with the Alliance Theatre, what’s happening at the High with both collections and shows, Jennifer’s leadership at the ASO and everything that has happened with the musicians. There are all of these pieces put into place to build off of.
It’s a great time. There’s an enormous amount of both momentum and potential to be unleashed and brought forward.
Also, the broad arts community in Atlanta is growing quickly. Some really new and interesting things are happening. In my 25 years of being in Atlanta, it seems like there’s never been a better time for the arts ecosystem. Being here [at the Woodruff] but also having been a part of that, the Arts Center can play a catalyst role among the greater arts community — that’s really exciting.
I’m not ready to articulate a clear vision yet — there’s a whole lot of listening throughout the whole organization that I’ve got to do. But I do think there are a couple of things.
ArtsATL: Woodruff has a very healthy relationship with a lot of Atlanta’s larger corporations. You have a lot of experience, through your work at Brighthouse and with the formation of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, working with corporations in Atlanta and elsewhere.
How do you plan to continue to nurture those relationships not only within the Woodruff but within the arts community? How do you see, in that respect, Atlanta’s arts community continuing to grow?
Shipman: My experience on a few sides of this, including having raised a little bit of money to build another institution (laughs) . . . is that in Atlanta, especially around corporate philanthropy, you have to run a good shop. You have to be good stewards of money, practice fiscal discipline, and responsibility. Every donor, especially corporations, wants to make sure that the money is being well spent.
They also, like any donors, are attracted by great stories — new initiatives and things that really capture the moment. Virginia and the board, they have done an impeccable job of building financial security, financial transparency and a really strong business acumen structure over the past several years. I plan to continue that, to ensure that we are good stewards of the funds.
Even corporations have hearts — they want to see great and innovative work. Part of our role here is to improve the way we work with our arts partners on the campus and to become better partners to elements within the community at large. It’s also our job to help elevate the artists and arts organizations that perhaps the corporations don’t know. They may not know what’s happening with Blake Beckham and Lucky Penny or over at Dad’s Garage, or what’s happening with the emerging visual artists at the Goat Farm. We have the ability to elevate those voices. We have the opportunity to foster these relationships.
Take, for example, the relationship between the Alliance and Janece Shaffer and her work, which has been fantastic. She’s a local playwright with a great story that you can build a lot of philanthropy around, frankly.
We have a responsibility to the donors and to bring about new and exciting things. If we do that in conjunction with other artists in the community it only benefits everybody.
ArtsATL: In your previous experience at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, you were building, quite literally, an institution from the ground up. That’s very different from running a long-established institution in Atlanta.
How do you plan to use your experience from the earlier to inform this new venture? What are you excited to learn?
Shipman: First and foremost, I was incredibly blessed to work with world-class artists, including George C. Wolfe, David Rockwell, Phil Freelon of Perkins + Will as our architect . . . these were people at the top of their game.
What I learned from that was to not pick up the pencil, to let them do great work, to enable them to do great work, to break down barriers so that they can do great work. I will absolutely take that into this position. We are only as strong as the presentations that are happening via the arts partners. My fundamental responsibility is to help them be world-class in realizing their vision.
I absolutely learned the power of stories to engage audiences, donors, volunteers. George Wolfe once said, “It’s not that the Civil Rights story isn’t dramatic, it’s that nobody had told it with all of its drama.” The power of story to catalyze people to action is a human truth. I learned that there.
The other day I told Susan [Booth] that if she found me in the back of the room at rehearsals it’s not because I have anything to contribute, but because I want to see what’s happening so that I can tell the story to those who can’t be in that rehearsal space. Everybody loves to hear the behind-the-scenes stories. What’s happened? How did we get here? That’s a really important piece for the health and vitality of any arts organization, especially the Woodruff Arts Center.
And frankly, how do you get people who want to help into places where they can. That’s not only writing a check — it’s about their time, their energy, their expertise, their network. Hopefully, I can bring some of those experiences.
The Woodruff should be an important arts institution for everybody within our region. That just doesn’t happen overnight, but hopefully, we can build those relationships.
ArtsATL: What made you want this job?
Shipman: A couple of things. I have become deeply passionate about Atlanta, even though I wasn’t born here. Especially in this moment where it feels like there are lots and lots of people trying to create the Atlanta we’ve always wanted. I live 300 yards from the Beltline. It’s my backyard! I live in Old Fourth Ward and have been fortunate enough to build one of the city’s newer institutions. . . . the ability to be in a position to help with what’s happening right now in Atlanta was extremely attractive.
Secondly, I can’t imagine on a bad day being in any better place than here to find inspiration. I’m literally going to be steps away from a number of incredible experiences — to visit a gallery or a rehearsal, or to go to a performance. That’s personally gratifying.
The work at BrightHouse was very gratifying too, more focused on purpose and personal values. Some of my greatest joys at the Center for Civil and Human Rights were seeing an individual or a family be transformed by the experience they were having. Being a part of that basic kind of situation is very attractive.
Third, I think that this is a great time to be at the Woodruff. Back to your first question — there’s so much momentum, potential, good stuff that’s happening. To be a part of it and dig in, elevate it and find ways for it to grow — that’s extremely attractive.
I was not looking to move. There are very few things I could imagine that would have gotten me to. The Woodruff is a unique institution, in the life of this place and in the country.
ArtsATL: Speaking of BrightHouse, how will your experiences there inform your move to the Woodruff? How does your experience working in the consulting sector inform your vision of the future for the Woodruff?
Shipman: I’ve been very fortunate in my Brighthouse time and previous time at Boston Consulting Group. I’ve been able to work with very, very large organizations all over the world. We’ve had clients in Europe, Australia. We’re talking $10, $20 and $100-billion dollar corporations. It’s helped me understand how leaders of large organizations operate. What you do as the leader and what you do not do as the leader. That’s going to be very instructive for me. The Arts Center is a complex, big organization and business model. That experience will help me play the appropriate role, which a lot of times means not doing things yourself but empowering others to do it and allow their vision to come to fruition.
BrightHouse is full of filmmakers, photographers, graphic designers and poets. I’ve been spending a lot of professional time with creative folks. Personally, I’m not an artist, but I now understand what I can bring to those conversations and what role to play and what to enable to happen — that’s been quite instructive. It’s been a lot of fun for me to lead an organization full of creative people.
Thirdly, Brighthouse’s core missions is to help corporations understand their purpose, their values and visions. I think that that core of storytelling and crafting stories to articulate those visions is very good. Storytelling at the Woodruff, internally and obviously externally, is going to be helpful.