Q&A: The Wexner Center’s Sherri Geldin

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From the August 2014 issue of Columbus CEO

From its vanguard position on High Street, the deconstructivist Wexner Center stands boldly among the hallowed halls of the Ohio State University campus. The contrast is not unlike the splash the center’s director, Sherri Geldin, and her fellow arts-management students made in UCLA’s MBA program.

“Everyone else at the b-school had come from economics or statistics or math, something super-quantitative,” says Geldin, laughing at the recollection. “We were constantly asking funny questions, and we were the only ones with any style in the whole place. I think that sort of endeared us to everyone else.”

As director of the Wexner Center, Geldin has stretched the institution’s reach beyond the intellectual pursuits of OSU’s arts and humanities colleges to collaborate across disciplines. The center’s visual and performing arts programs are regularly curated in partnership with the medical, law and business colleges, to name a few.

In her 21 years leading the Wex, Geldin has elevated the institution’s national profile and positioned it as the center of contemporary culture in Ohio’s capital city. Geldin’s successful staging of the first-ever exhibition of portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz’s “Master Set” in 2013 exemplified both her influence and her aspirations as director of the Wexner Center.

Under her leadership, the center has garnered over $25 million in endowment funds. Most notably, the center won the first Doris Duke Charitable Foundation grant to be awarded to a university-based performing arts center (totaling $1.5 million). Geldin was awarded the 2014 Governor’s Award for being an “innovative museum director, a dynamic arts leader and an accomplished institution-builder.”

Preparing to celebrate the center’s 25th anniversary this fall, Geldin spoke with Columbus CEO about her work, her field and her excitement over the upcoming exhibition of the Wexner Family’s private art collection (see “Corporate Collections on Display”).

Q: Who are your constituents at the Wexner Center?

A: I often think that the for-profit world and the not-for-profit world are not really all that different. So often, people make distinctions of what’s required of a leader in a for-profit setting versus a not-for-profit setting. The truth is that we all have shareholders, investors, consumers, governing boards. We all have multiple constituencies that we serve.

For the most part, those constituencies are aligned, but there are occasions when there are competing interests, different sets of priorities. The role of a leader is really to very dexterously and judiciously weigh all of those inputs and set the strategies and objectives for the institution.

In that regard, I think that on the occasions when there might be points of tension across those different constituencies, an institutional leader—again, whether in the corporate or the not-for-profit sector—needs to be a savvy thinker, needs to be a diplomat, needs to be a cheerleader, needs to be an ambassador, sometimes needs to be a psychologist (laughs).

Q: As a leader, what would you say your greatest challenges have been?

I think my strengths are also my weaknesses in some respects, which is to say that I can be incredibly demanding of myself. Sometimes that translates into being demanding of others as well. I am relentless in my pursuit of what I think is right… I think that I can be a little bit intense sometimes because I am so passionate about the work of this institution and want everyone to share in that passion.

I think of myself as very open to people’s professional goals and objectives and also not terribly constrained by resumes. Yes, academic credentials, professional credentials are important, but what I really look for in people when I’m recruiting is a certain kind of spark, a level of energy, a level of passion.

I think a lot about organizations as living organisms. They need to have a brain. They need to have muscle. They need to have connective tissue and fluid circulation. But they also need to have heart and soul and ethics. I think one’s role as a leader is to try and keep that ecosystem healthy. Again, I can’t claim to be perfect at any of it, but it really matters to me that we keep that in mind on a daily basis.

Q: What was the ecosystem like when you came here and what is it like today?

A: When I arrived here, I was a bit daunted by the fact that the center was part of this very large university. I had come from a museum that was a freestanding, independent entity. It had a governing board, but it didn’t have this behemoth bureaucracy around it. I will say that during the recruitment process, had there not been a separate 501(c)(3) governing board for the Wexner Center for the Arts, I probably would not have pursued the opportunity.

I really think that boards have a very important role to play, particularly when you find yourself on a campus of 60,000 students and 30,000 faculty and staff. The notion of having to wrestle with that bureaucracy on a daily basis was a daunting one without knowing that I had this fantastic group of private citizens who were also very connected to OSU by virtue of the university president and provost sitting on that board. It’s really ensured a kind of fluidity and consistency of governance.

I think it’s fair to say that perhaps having come from an independent private institution which was maybe a little more aggressive perhaps—I came from an institution that was also new. In fact I was the first employee of what became the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and so was accustomed to a very, very lean, mean staff that was working all the time. It became a kind of almost a cult, if you will, because we were really working to build an institution. When I arrived at the center, it was only four years old, but the pace of the place was a little slow for my taste.

Q: Given your reflections on your leadership style, did you find the pace of central Ohio was different than what you were used to in L.A.?

A: I will say it has been an issue, more so early on. I think Columbus has changed dramatically in the 20 years I’ve been here. It is a much more vivid, entrepreneurial place, and it has attracted people from elsewhere that I think have helped to infuse a different kind of energy.

That said, there is also about the Midwest a kind of can-do spirit. There’s a sort of modesty that sometimes works against it, because you sometimes have to put yourself out there if you’re going to make strides. I think that’s really changing now with these initiatives to brand Columbus as a smart and open place. I like to think, frankly, that the Wexner Center over the last 25 years has played a role in creating this civic profile that is more innovative, more creative, more open to entrepreneurial ideas, that is more porous to creative practices of all kinds.

It’s also a part of this very concerted effort on the part of the mayor, the Chamber, the Columbus Partnership, 2020, to attract and retain the best and the brightest minds. Oftentimes that means persuading college students who might have come here from elsewhere to stay, or (convincing) those who grew up in Ohio to think about settling here as opposed to going off to perhaps more cosmopolitan locales.

I like to think that the Wexner Center plays a part in persuading people that there is, in fact, in the heartland an appetite for creative innovation and for top-tier talents that they might find in New York or L.A. or London or Paris.

One of the points of pride for us as an institution is that if you find yourself in just about any city and you’re amidst a group of people who follow contemporary culture, if you say ‘Columbus, Ohio,’ they will say ‘the Wexner Center.’

Achieving that sort of mindshare for an institution that’s only 25 years old, I think is a significant accomplishment. I really credit the entire team—the staff, the board and our many, many patrons, donors and visitors who have helped to embellish that profile, that brand, for the center.

Q: Many executives cite a city’s culture when deciding to accept a job offer. Do you hear feedback from business leaders about what the Wexner Center means to them?

A: Absolutely. Oftentimes when major corporations or even my colleagues on the university campus are recruiting senior leaders, I’m asked to meet with those recruits, or perhaps with spouses, to share with them what happens here at the center and also to talk about the larger cultural community in Columbus. It’s very gratifying to realize that we are seen by civic and corporate and educational leaders as an asset to their efforts to recruit the best and the brightest.

The corporate community in Columbus generally is extremely supportive of arts and culture, health and human services, education. Columbus is known as one of the most philanthropic communities in the country, and it’s for very good reason.

The Wexner Center enjoys a certain quotient of that largesse, along with many of our other cultural peers in the community. Increasingly as more and more focus is placed on how we take Columbus regionally, nationally and internationally to a new place in terms of cosmopolitan hierarchies, people are recognizing that the arts and culture have a huge role to play there.