At a time in our not-at-all distant past, women who turned to the workforce often found many paths closed to them. However, there was one reliably open door—the arts. Within the realm of the arts, women often found opportunity to engage, advance, and even thrive. And, today more women are leading organizations in the arts than ever before.
In honor of Women’s History Month, we sat down with Beccy Hamm, the Executive Director of Rose Center Council for the Arts, for a conversation on leadership, observations on gender, and the history of opportunities for women in the Arts. It has been 18 months since Beccy Hamm took the helm of Rose Center Council for the Arts, but her dedication to the arts began in childhood.
“I wanted to be an artist ever since I can remember. My parents always encouraged my talents, and even sought private art lessons when I know it was a financial burden for them. Art was always my favorite subject in school, and I studied art and music through college. I never considered that being a woman was a barrier to being an artist.”
Hamm pondered over my questions that sought to get at the root of this easy confidence she had, even back so young, that a path in the arts was always possible for her. Clearly, her own current success is validation of her beliefs, but Hamm suggested that having early access to role models was perhaps the biggest influence in the development of this foundational confidence, which in turn is a significant contributing factor to her success.
“I had the good fortune to grow up in the culture of a small private college where my father taught. The college hired their first art teacher when I was a senior in high school, also a small (very, very small) private school, just down the road from the college. I was allowed to enroll in college classes which counted for both high school and college credit (was I the first dual enrollment student?). The first course I took was Art Appreciation. The entire time I was in college there was only one professor in the art department, but in elementary school and high school all my art teachers were women, so I had good role models. As a young woman and mother, I was part of a community which included and celebrated many creative women, so that was very supportive.”
When asked to speak about any standout female mentors she had growing up, Hamm offered an unexpected answer.
“When I was very young, my parents had a friend, Carolyn LeMaire, who was an artist. She was my earliest inspiration, and though she had five children, she was constantly, it seemed to me, creating something.”
To my surprise, Hamm didn’t list off any untouchable greats—great authors like Maya Angelou, or great visual artists like Frieda Kahlo, or great songwriters like Carol King. Hamm’s answer points to a very important and oft neglected area of early arts exposure for young children—the value of regular, everyday contact with a variety of community artists engaging in their work and engaging their communities with their work. These are the first “influencers” we are exposed to as children, and having access to models that look like us is critical to the development of a lifetime of professional confidence and growth.
Leadership in the professional arts world, is just like any other business in that the executives at the helm of some of the most successful arts institutions share common traits like the ability to delegate and allocate resources, a future orientation with a present-centered practicality, the ability to listen and respond to the needs and concerns of various constituents and stakeholders, and the discipline to adhere to a sustainable and growth oriented budget. When I asked about preparation for her current position, Hamm again gave an unexpected answer.
“I have to say that the best preparation I’ve had for being an executive director was raising five children. Being a mother teaches one much about human psychology, about sensitivity to the needs and desires of others, about listening, about helping others get along, about helping people discover and use their talents, and about encouraging others to do their best work. Mothers also learn compassion, humility, and patience, and they have to become experts in time management. Women who have spent their time raising children can be confident that they have been developing important skills that prepare them for the workplace.”
When asked to expound on her thoughts about women in leadership positions in the arts, current and past, Hamm credited several local and regional women who shaped her career.
“Though I have not worked for a woman in a leadership position of an arts organization, I followed in the footsteps two women in particular at Rose Center, Eileen Bowers (who managed the Arts Education programs) and Sharon Pritchard (who served as festival director for Mountain Makins). Rose Center has had a number of women on the staff, including the first director, Brenda Moulton. I have known many other women in leadership roles in arts organizations, including Molly Sasse, head of Allied Arts and later the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera in Chattanooga, and Anne Pope, Executive Director of the Tennessee Arts Commission. It has never occurred to me that a woman wouldn’t be qualified or capable of holding any of these positions.”
While many fields and career paths are now enjoying a renaissance of opportunities for women, the arts and related fields have long been heralds of this overall workforce development trend toward equality. This history of opportunity has enabled generations of women to develop a strong foundation of professional experience in the various arts fields. Hamm also points to the special responsibility the arts have to function as agents of change, justice, and the evolution of compassion.
“The Arts community has always been ahead of the general population with regard to acceptance of differences. We must always be looking for ways to bridge cultural divides through music, visual art and theatre. The arts help us express our own cultural identity and help us understand others. We can communicate so much more through these art forms than through words alone. At the beginning of the Women’s Movement it seemed that there was a sense that in order to succeed a woman had to “stop acting like a girl” and subdue her femininity. We now know we can embrace our unique perspective, gifts, sensibilities and wisdom as assets.”
This is not to say that the arts and related fields don’t have room for improvement. They, like all fields, have been tarnished by misguided notions of systemic sexism. For example, female painters still don’t enjoy the same level of pay for their work, compared to their male counterparts. Yet, Hamm has a tenacious hope regarding the representation of women in leadership positions in the arts.
“Over the past few decades as more women have become leaders, attitudes are changing. Women have more role models, which then gives us the confidence to seek positions of leadership. Still there is work to be done here. I think women still have to prove themselves to a much larger degree than do men. Men are still more easily seen as leaders, but I think that is gradually changing. Many people now accept that women are equally capable.”
Rose Center Council for the Arts has several Women’s History events planned for the month—two concerts featuring outstanding female performers, a solo exhibit by regional artist Maria Willison, and the much anticipated Kelley Marie Chic Boutique Spring Fashion Show. I asked Hamm to explain why, given such a long history of supporting opportunities for women, is it viewed as important to develop programs and events highlighting the contributions of women for special recognition during Women’s History Month? She reminds us readers of the importance of access to real-world models, which has to be supported locally, and then she pointed to the way in which real, everyday women, utilize the access to the arts that organizations like Rose Center provide.
“I can’t think of a more exciting, interesting and challenging place to work than Rose Center. As an arts organization we have the opportunity to support and encourage the talents of the whole East Tennessee community, and being inclusive is certainly a priority for us.
I have had many conversations with other creative women of my generation about the struggles of balancing motherhood and creativity. … And I think it is important for our daughters to see us using those talents and avenues of expression. I’m so pleased that we are able to showcase accomplished women artists and musicians at Rose Center not just during Women’s History Month, but throughout the year.”