The CEO of the Year for 2019 in the Large Nonprofit category is the chief executive of the Greater Columbus Arts Council.
Tom Katzenmeyer has had what could be called three separate careers, and it seems the one he’s rocking now is his favorite. The CEO of the Greater Columbus Arts Council has watched as the city’s arts scene has grown up from a disorganized collection of underfunded outliers and mediocre institutions to what could more aptly be described as a thriving, inspired Creative Bloc.
It was a long journey to get this far. In telling the story of the city’s vibrant creative scene, Katzenmeyer is disarmingly earnest, especially for a man who spent decades as a spokesman for two of the city’s most controversial and intriguing brands—Ohio State and L Brands. Indeed, his power springs from his authenticity: With solid research and no lack of passion, during the past 18 months he was able to galvanize the city’s arts community into a grassroots movement in favor of taxing…themselves.
Here are the other CEOs of the Year for 2019.
Despite opposition from some considerably powerful interests, the pitch for a new cultural fee was enough to convince Columbus City Council, which voted last December to institute a 5 percent fee on tickets over $10 to arts, culture, entertainment and sports events in Columbus in venues with more than 400 seats. The new tax is projected to more than double the $7 million annual budget at the Greater Columbus Arts Council. All because Tom Katzenmeyer was tired of talking about it.Stay up to date with the region’s thriving business scene. Subscribe to Columbus CEO’s weekly newsletter.
“There were 30 studies of the (local arts scene) over like the last 15 to 20 years,” he says. “It was way overdone. So I’m like—enough with the studies. Let’s get the public funding thing going.” Before the ticket fee took effect last summer, public funding for the arts in Columbus lagged peer cities such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Nashville. “We were way below,” Katzenmeyer says. “And by way below, I mean by two or three times, in many cases.”
The argument for the fee was that the arts are a cornerstone in economic development. “This is how we compete with the rest of the world, for business, for jobs, for retaining people,” he says. The arts sector contributes more than $412 million in economic impact each year and directly supports 15,000 jobs, and that doesn’t include the city’s robust design and fashion professions.
The key in leading people to change is being open and inclusive, Katzenmeyer says. “We ran a major public process on (the ticket fee), where we had our own public hearings. People screamed at us, and they loved us. There were days of despair. And there were days of extreme exhilaration.
“As a leader, you have to show the collaboration model, you cannot do it in a vacuum. You have to bring people with you,” he says. Being willing to roll up your sleeves goes a long way, too, says Larry James, managing partner of Crabbe Brown James, who has known Katzenmeyer for decades across his roles at L Brands, Ohio State and the arts council. James has watched him serve on the boards of just about every major nonprofit in town. “He’s the guy that does all the work that no one else will do—particularly someone at his level,” says James, who also is co-founder of the African-American Leadership Academy. “He doesn’t shy away from doing those detailed things that a lot of CEOs and executives think are beneath them. There are a lot of folks willing to spend the company’s money, but they’re not willing to write their own personal checks. Tom is willing to write his own personal check, participate and set the example.”
The arts council will not hire additional staff to administer the doubled budget. The money will go straight back to local arts organizations, Katzenmeyer says.
The arts scene here is much livelier than it was not terribly long ago, and there’s a lot to be proud of, he says. The Columbus Museum of Art has a new wing. The National Veterans Museum and Memorial is one-of-a-kind. COSI is partnered with the American Museum of Natural History. Ballet Met is rehabbing its space. Ohio State is building a $161 million arts district. “So we’re in this era now where we’re seeing the fruits of some of this work. And once we spark things with this new public funding, we’re going to be off to the races.”