Q&A with Valerie Gay, Executive Director of Art SanctuaryBy Angela Taurino |
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As the newly appointed Executive Director of Art Sanctuary, Valerie Gay has a lot to offer. With experience in both artistic and business settings, she has served as the Assistant Dean of Institutional Advancement for the College of Education at Temple University, and her artistic background began with her professional singing career as well as founding The Fortress Arts Academy in West Philadelphia.
These experiences will help her to expand the programs offered by Art Sanctuary, which aims to cultivate a learning experience where art transforms the lives of the audience and unites the community.
We spoke with Valerie to learn how her background will inform her work at Art Sanctuary, and what she plans to do in her role as Executive Director.
What’s your professional history and how does being a former Temple University assistant dean translate to your work with Art Sanctuary?
I’ve had an eclectic professional history. While I worked in higher ed administration, I’m a trained opera singer and all of my degrees are in music and voice performance. Prior to joining Temple, I worked for nearly 10 years at a bank, where I ended my tenure there as a wealth manager and vice president. The Fortress Arts Academy I created primarily serves youth and adults without access to the arts and gives them the resources to become better artists. Over the years I’ve learned how to speak both languages of business and art; and I’ve learned how to reach different communities.
What did you learn from the Making a Difference Project at Temple and do you plan to bring anything from that to the Art Sanctuary?
People really want to be connected to one another, and to institutions that they support. I learned that people especially want to see how their donated dollars are impacting others. The Making a Difference Project (MAD) was a wonderful opportunity to connect people with their passions, which is a really powerful thing. The point is to create a culture of philanthropy long before money ever exchanges hands. Asking someone for a large, meaningful, and sacrificial gift comes from strong relationships and people knowing who you are. We are still uncovering how this will be integrated into Art Sanctuary. MAD was created within my first thirteen months at Temple; I can see Art Sanctuary doing something like that within the next six months.
You’ve been quoted as saying that your goals are to connect more Philadelphia youth to the organization’s programs and use social media to help. How do you plan to start to execute that?
We’ve used Twitter for our “Meet the Match” fundraising drive; and we use the same social media outlet to gauge interest in upcoming programs and events, share information about arts news and advocacy, and promote the work of our partners and neighboring organizations. We are able to find out about our constituents, what they want to hear, and how they want to hear it. We want youth to be engaged; and not just with us, but holistically in our community. Additionally, we’ve been able to connect to folks using PhillyCAM, where we’ll record our events and people can stream them online from anywhere in the world.
How did you become interested in art and its power to transform individuals and communities? In what specific ways have you seen or experienced this happen?
I always had art in my life and never paid attention to it. In my senior year of high school I was deeply touched by music and then studied it specifically. I am a proud alumna of Girls’ High, where the arts were an integral part of our academic curriculum. I thought everybody had that. I got to see firsthand how art transform lives when I started Fortress Arts Academy. I recognized kids who were musical but had no outlet. The Academy enabled kids to take music and apply it to their personal lives.
Before being asked to join Art Sanctuary, I was asked to sing in an event connected to the Music Liberation Orchestra (MLO). Art Sanctuary sent artists into a prison to work with inmates, helping them use art to transform their lives. Through creative writing, prisoners saw why they made the decisions that landed them in prison and what they can do going forward. They then created music with the MLO. I got to see firsthand 200 men in the room at the Philadelphia Detention Center who were openly weeping about the things we were performing. After our workshops and performances, they didn’t see themselves going back to prison. I definitely believe that art has the power to transform communities, and I firmly believe that art is fundamental to our societies.
The Art Sanctuary aims to create “life-giving” (not “happy-happy”) art. How do you do this?
Life-giving art is having our programs fortified to provide lasting effects on audiences. In December we had a preview of “Can You Hear God Crying.” There were 1,444 school kids from around the region in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall, so you can imagine how loud it would be. As soon as the music began, you could hear a pin drop. Their eyes were as big as saucers, mouths hanging open, like they were literally being fed art. When considering the idea of life-giving versus happy-happy, it was an intersection of both. There were parts where kids were dancing in their seats. One special life-giving part was when I sang the voice of God. Those kids were listening. With God’s voice being that of a woman, a black woman, it made them expand their minds and once a mind stretches, it can never go back to its original shape. Seeds were planted at that moment.
Our goal is to do that over and over again. You never know who you’re going to hit. This year, I got to tell the singer, Jessye Norman, how much of an impact she made on me. I was shaking in my boots, but she was amazing. I also had a phenomenal teacher at Girls’ High who recognized me and nurtured me. The point is to provide opportunities for people and expose them and give them life-giving art. The goal is not to create professional artists; that’s secondary. The primary goal is for the audience to see themselves so that they can change their lives and change their community.
Do you choose specific messages?
We come up with a theme each year that culminates in the Celebration of Black Writing. We don’t manage the artistic process, but part of it is selecting like-minded individuals who are on board. We pull together things already out there in the world. The curation process is important. It requires a lot of planning done through the Program Manager, Biany Perez, who has created curricula that connect art and classrooms (which are downloadable for teachers). Our Reading in Concert is a great example. We deepen literary experiences and create new readers by taking literature and bringing it to life to help people find connections. This life-giving art helps teachers unlock students’ interests. Through a great partnership with the Opera Company of Philadelphia, our Hip H’opera uses high school students’ creativity to inspire an original work that fuses hip-hop with opera and other musical genres. This creates a unique artistic fusion that brings masters of operatic and hip hop forms together to create an original and innovative multi-genre work. It’s more about curating than trying to muscle the message.
What led you to take over for Lorene Cary and how do you plan to do things differently?
The incredible vision that Lorene created is something that I have to now take over. The selection committee was co-chaired by Lisa Nutter, president of Philadelphia Academies and David Devan, president of the Opera Company of Philadelphia. What ultimately led me to say yes was the work and the people. It’s exciting and a risk to take on an organization like this and maintain the quality that was already there, while simultaneously growing what we already do. One solid goal is to increase our “footprint.”
What’s your take on the programs currently offered at Art Sanctuary and how do you see them changing in the future?
Expansion goes hand in hand with money. We’re working on fundraising to do more things as well as partnering with other organizations to expand what’s already excellent. Specifically with the Celebration of Black Writing, we want it to be a nationally featured festival since it’s so unique in our country. I want people to mark their calendars for vacation in Philadelphia to attend the celebration.
What are your major goals for the organization and how will you achieve them?
I don’t want to come in and start executing all these ideas without a thorough knowledge of everything we do. I’m still developing the “what,” which will inform the “how.”
I encourage people to check us out; and I’m also on the lookout for organizations interested in partnerships. Email us at email@example.com.
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