Column: Virginia Hepner ‘innovating world-class art’ at the Woodruff Arts Center

By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on October 2, 2015.

As Virginia Hepner prepares to address the Rotary Club of Atlanta on Oct. 5, she will reflect on her challenging tenure as CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center — and she will be looking at what’s around the corner. When she marked her three-year anniversary leading the largest arts and cultural organization in the Southeast, Hepner signed on for another three-year contract.

But don’t ask her if she’s having fun.

“It’s a really challenging job for anybody,” she said.

And although she is a devout lover of the arts, she is careful not to leave any impression that the arts are frivolous or discretionary fun.

Virginia Hepner

Virginia Hepner

The arts are serious business. They are central to Atlanta and Georgia becoming a more important center for innovation with improved education outcomes.

When she was first approached about the Woodruff Arts Center CEO job, she told the search team that they needed someone with business skills. When they asked her if she would be interested, she initially answered: “Not really.”

After a 25-year banking career with Wachovia and several interim jobs helping turnaround nonprofit arts and cultural organizations, Hepner was not sure that was how she wanted to spend the next five years of her life.

Then her husband, Malcolm Barnes, told her: “You’ve been preparing for this your whole life.” But the kicker was when her son, Alec Barnes, asked her: “Wouldn’t you be the first woman CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center?”

So would the job meet her criteria of how she wanted to spend her time?

“I want to make a difference.” Check.

“I thrive around very intelligent people.” Check.

“I like to work in a team and strive, whether it’s for a nonprofit or a for-profit.” Check.

“I knew I could do it,” Hepner finally decided. “I know what it takes to manage complex situations.”

So Hepner has helped implement a board-driven overhaul of the governance of the Woodruff Arts Center that includes the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the High Museum of Art and the Alliance Theatre.

That took consolidating back-office operations in the various divisions and putting them under the WAC management while leaving each of the divisions to fulfill their potential on the artistic side.

It also took bringing more discipline to the Center’s annual $90 million budget.

“We produced our first operating surplus in 10 years, and our first operating surplus for the Atlanta Symphony in 12 years,” Hepner said. “At the same time, we have disposed of assets, cleaned up the balance sheet and reduced our debt. When I started, we had $188 million of long-term debt. We now have $173 million of long-term debt.”

At the same time, the Center launched a $100 million “Transformation Campaign” in late 2014, and it has already raised $81.3 million towards that goal.

“Marry our budget with our capital campaign, and we will have had about an $80 million improvement on our balance sheet,” said Hepner, speaking like a true banker.

The Center also manages an endowment of about $400 million — portions of which are restricted to each division. The $100 million campaign includes $56 million for endowment — so the Center can continue to gain the confidence of donors.

And there is the rub.

Every year, the Center relies on annual philanthropic contributions of $35 million — a third coming from the corporate sector.

Unlike cultural centers in other competing states, the Woodruff Arts Center receives minimal (virtually none) financial support from the state of Georgia or other public entities.

In fact, the Center pays almost $2 million a year in sales taxes for tickets sold for the ASO or the Alliance Theatre — a tax that’s exempt for most arts institutions in other states.

Long before she joined the Center as its CEO, Hepner had been working on ways to increase public support for the arts — not just for WAC but for the entire artistic community of small- and mid-sized groups.

Hepner also said the Center wants to continue engaging more people in the community than its 1.2 million patrons today. Although it is already the largest provider of arts education in Georgia, she is convinced the Center can serve more than the 200,000 students it reaches each year.

“It’s going to be a really exciting time for the next 30 years,” said Hepner, quickly adding she has no plans to stay around that long. “I’m really focused on now.”

So one can’t help asking again if she is having fun.

“It’s a thrill to be part of something so meaningful,” Hepner said. “We are about innovating world-class art.”

Technology Association of Georgia

When Tino Mantella joined the Technology Association of Georgia as its president and CEO in September 2004, the organization had under 1,000 members.

In the first week of October — 11 years later, TAG’s membership crossed over the 30,000 mark with a new member from Fiserv.

That makes TAG the largest technology trade association in the United States. The association — with more than 2,000 member companies and 200 annual events — has become a player in the state’s economic and technology circles, promoting research, innovation and unity in the sector.

TAG was launched in January 1999 as a merger of three technology organizations — the Southeastern Software Association, the Business and Technology Alliance, and Women in Technology. It instantly became one of the largest technology organizations in the country at that time.

TAG’s main office is on Fifth Street in the Tech Square community in Atlanta. It has chapters in Augusta, Columbus, Middle Georgia, Savannah and Athens.

Georgia Research Alliance

Emory University President Jim Wagner, who recently announced he would be stepping down at the end of this academic year, was called on by his fellow presidents to reflect on the 12 years he’s served on the Alliance.

“My first meeting of the Alliance was actually in this room,” Wagner said, referring to the Georgia Power Co. auditorium. “I had come here from Ohio knowing about GRA as a model, as a leader. At the first meeting, I remember it being a bit disturbing… GRA was talking about how to cut up a fixed pie.”

Wagner then urged the existing board not to fall into the same trap.

“My challenge would be that we continue to pay attention to what it means to stay ahead,” Wagner said. “The model is not a static model.” He added that the board must continuously ask itself: “What has this organization done to advance science?”

GRA’s new board members

Three executives and a new eminent scholar will be joining the board of the Georgia Research Alliance. They are Martin L. Flanagan, president and CEO of Invesco, who has served in that position for more than 10 years; James M. Hull, managing principal of the Hull Property Group of Augusta who currently serves on the Georgia Board of Regents; Robert S. Jepson Jr., chairman and CEO of Jepson Associates, a private investment firm in Savannah who is the chairman of the Georgia Historical Society; and Scott Jackson, a GRA eminent scholar in crop genomics at The University of Georgia and UGA’s director for the Center for Applied Genetic Technologies in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Jimmy Sibley — a son’s eulogy

When Jack Sibley delivered his father’s eulogy at All Saints Episcopal Church on Sept. 22, his father would have been proud.

Jimmy Sibley, a highly respected member of Atlanta’s business community who led the King & Spalding law firm and served on the boards of The Coca-Cola Co. and the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, passed away on Sept. 17 at age 96.

Here are excerpts from his eulogy:

“Daddy had a great appreciation for short speeches. I will not disappoint him today…

“Our mother and father were married in 1942. They were separated by war the first one and a half years. They have been separated by mother’s death this last year. One could claim that first year and this last year were the most peaceful years of their marriage. That is my father’s sense of humor — absurd with a twist of sarcasm.

Jimmy and Karen Sibley

Jimmy and Karen Sibley (Special from the Sibley family)

“He told his beloved caretaker Liz when she sang to him: ‘You’re good but you’re no Ella.’

“I was with him not long ago after he had a tough spell. I told him I worried enough to begin thinking about nice things to say about him in his eulogy. He said, ‘Could you think of anything?’ I told him, ‘I think so, but I need more time.’”

“He was on a futile crusade to teach us proper grammar and proper use of pronouns. Someone would drive up the driveway. He would say look out the window: ‘Is it your mother?’ ‘Yes sir, it’s her.’ ‘It is she, It is she not her, she.’

“His friend and my friend George Branch asked me several years ago, ‘Did you ever notice your father had a very low tolerance for B.S.?’ Well yes I noticed – almost daily I noticed.

“He was quick to call you out. ‘Have you lost your mind? That makes no damn sense. Oh Good grief!’

“He was humble. He did not take himself too seriously. He was shot down in WWII, spent four months with the French underground, and then over a year in a German POW Camp. People called him a war hero. He said, ‘Actually it was a pretty safe place to sit out the war.’

“His friend Bob Steed wrote Jimmy prepared for the role of managing partner of King & Spalding by enduring interrogation by the Gestapo.

“Like his father before him, Daddy was a man of great accomplishment, sitting on corporate boards, major foundations and boards of important charitable institutions. But, he would agree with Bertrand Russell. ‘The secret to my success is that I chose my ancestors well.’

“When the compliments and praise got a little thick, he would turn to his friend Jimmy Williams and say, ‘Thank God for nepotism.’

“My father was a good man, a good brother, and a good father…

“He was funny, made sure things were put right, humble, and a man of deep faith.

He said he lived a charmed life. Perhaps he did.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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