Ken Kahn Stepping Down From Arts Leadership Position
October 12, 2008
Ken Kahn went from "dots" to dollars.
After a decadelong run, the bow-tie-sporting, professorial Kahn is stepping down as executive director of the Greater Hartford Arts Council, the largest independent arts council in New England.
Kahn recently told the council's board that he will be leaving the post as head of the region's principal arts and heritage funder in June 2009. The early announcement is meant to allow a "rational transition" in leadership for the 38-year-old nonprofit organization.
"It's been a good 10-year run, and I think we've contributed some value to the community," says Kahn from the council's downtown Hartford offices, where classical music plays softly in the background, and walls are decorated by works of local artists. Kahn is also a cartoonist and painter in his own right.
"For a lot of reasons, I feel it's time to freshen up. It's time to take a deep breath and move on to other things," he says.
Kahn, who turns 67 in December, says he would like to stay in the community, where he lives with his wife, actress and teacher Anne Lynn Kettles. She performed at the Hartford Stage Company in the late '60s and '70s.
The low-key Kahn succeeded Robb Hankins, who invigorated the agency's stately corporate image with banners, parades and high-profile boosterism, including a "Connect the Dots" campaign that aggressively highlighted arts groups around the city.
But in his own quiet and gentlemanly manner, Kahn created a mark of his own on the city's art scene.
Under Kahn, the council:
• Nearly doubled the size of the annual United Arts Campaign, the eight largest in the nation, to $4.3 million this year. (It receives an additional $1 million in non-campaign money from foundations and government for a total operating budget of $5.3 million.)
• Increased the "workplace giving" part of the United Arts Campaign from $250,000 to $1.3 million with 4,900 employees in 60 companies contributing.
• Expanded its funding umbrella to include 27 heritage and historic places groups.
• Helped develop and lead the state-wide arts advocacy effort group, the Connecticut Arts Alliance.
• Further developed marketing for the arts and heritage organizations.
• Began purchasing and commissioning public art for Hartford area.
• Created a community events grants program benefiting more than 50 neighborhood organizations within the city.
• Created and operates the Welcome Center in downtown Hartford and created satellite cultural offices in Manchester and Avon, with a third planned in Mansfield.
The boost in giving was spurred by Hankins' initiative of adding individuals in the workplace to the annual arts drive. It was one that Kahn embraced when he arrived in 1999 after nine years as president of the Arts Council of Fort Worth and Tarrant County in Texas. (Before that, he headed arts councils in Florida and Maryland.)
Corporate largesse among the 250 business who give remained fairly flat in the 2000s. But it was the contributions of individual workers that played the biggest part of the budget's growth.
The initiative was criticized at first by some arts leaders, who feared it would take away from their own fundraising efforts.
There may have been some loss, says Michael Stotts, managing director at Hartford Stage, "but I don't think it had an overall detrimental effect."
Stotts praises "Ken's legacy in increasing funding to the United Arts drive to more than $4 million. That's a huge achievement."
But Stotts says the expansion of the arts council to include heritage and history groups — which also reflected the expansion in the state arts commission — has mixed results in his view.
"Though we receive one of the largest grants, totaling $201,000," says Stotts, "we have not seen that grant grow commensurate with the growth of the arts council's budget. Expansion of the council's mission [to heritage organizations and others] has diluted funds that would otherwise go to the arts."
Bruce Fraser, executive director of the Connecticut Humanities Council, sees it differently.
"Ken's philosophy [to include other cultural groups into the council] is one of the more important things that's happened in the state cultural life in my tenure over the last 31 years," says Frasier. "He said the split between the arts and humanities was piffle and he worked to bridge that cultural divide. It was like Nixon going to China. He led the initiatives to do collaborations and the Hartford community has benefited from them."
Says Will K. Wilkins, executive director of Real Arts Ways: "Ken saw the importance of the broader aspects of culture in a community that go beyond a non-profit organization and include neighborhoods, restaurants, historic places. And he brought that to bear on his work. Ken was not about promoting one organization at the expense of the other. He saw the importance of an overall arts ecology."
With more arts and heritage groups depending on the council in increasingly difficult economic times, where does the council go from here?
"Part of the attraction to the job," says Kahn, "is that this is an organization that isn't broke. You don't need to bring in someone to fix it. You need someone to expand its operations and the scope of the campaign. You've got to intelligently build on workplace giving and put energy into cultivating major donors."
Kahn describes his 20-person, open-door staff as "non-hierarchal."
"I think of myself as more of someone who enables and coaches the staff on certain areas," he says. "But as far as being the charismatic leader, I don't need that stuff. We had a charismatic leader who was very good at what he did and he really built a platform. It was a relatively small platform but a very good one for my staff, board and myself to do the work we did."
Kahn says the council is more like a cultural affairs department of a complex city with many competing, contradictory and paradoxical needs. "We live in a richly resourced arts and heritage area in an otherwise poor city. We're living with an extraordinary layer of corporate and foundation support overlaid on this very poor city, surrounded by wealthy and jealous suburbs."
As a sponsoring agency, "we've had to achieve some kind of relevance to achieve success in fundraising and to maintain our balance among all these competing claims. We've had to diverse our revenue base."
Kahn says funds now come from more than a dozen foundations and state and local government agencies, 300 companies and more than 5,000 individuals.
"It's a litmus test every year," he says. The proof comes in the support the council receives annually for the expanding number of organizations its serves.
"But bigger and bigger may not always be better," he says.
Certainly having more money is always useful, but "we need to keep a sense of balance and perspective as we go forward in order to stay as effective as we are."
And advice to his successor?
"Have eyes on all sides of your head," he says, laughing.
But then he turns serious.
"Be watchful of all the amazing developments, challenges, problems, opportunities emerging in this region and don't be afraid to engage with them or confront them or make common cause with unlikely partners. Don't look and depend on the same people and organizations all the time. Be inwardly efficient and outwardly outgoing."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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