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    Driven. Passionate. Committed. Throughout the hour that I spent interviewing Christen Boone, President and CEO of Fund for the Arts, these words kept resurfacing. Having started at the Fund nearly a year ago, Boone strives to change the community, many relationships, performances, and projects at a time. Christen’s craving to change the Louisville community for the better through the arts is something that will make you want to get up and go do something. Her zealousness and determined nature are truly tangible and her love for the Louisville community is an affection that you’ll want to exemplify as well.

    Louisville.com: Can you tell me a little bit about your background?

    Christen Boone: “I grew up here in Louisville in the South End and graduated from Pleasure Ridge Park High School. My Dad had a small business in Southern Indiana while I was growing up, and my husband is from Bullitt County, so this community to me is broad and diverse, and a really rich place with lots of neighborhoods and characteristics.

    Before I came to the Fund, I went to Atlanta and worked the 1986 Olympics, which was super cool. It was a great, fun, and exciting opportunity to be a part of that, and I also worked at the Hite Museum of Art down in Atlanta. Then I returned to Louisville to work at the Fund for the Arts. I worked here for three years and worked on getting my MBA from Bellarmine at the same time. After that, I left Louisville and moved to Cincinnati, where I worked at the Fine Arts Museum and the Fund for the Arts sister organization, the Fine Arts Fund. Then I worked at Fifth Third Bank, where my clients were non-profit clients. So I continued my work with non-profits.

    While I was in Cincinnati, I got a call from Sandy Spear, who was then the Executive Director at Actor’s Theater of Louisville and the patriarch of the arts community. He called me and said, ‘Christen, would you return to Louisville to help us here at Actor’s Theater?’ It was just someone you couldn’t say no to and to work for Actors was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. I called my now-husband, who was living in Colorado while I was living in Cincinnati, and said, ‘I just got a call from Actors Theater.’ And he was like, ‘Well, here we go!’

    We returned to Louisville together and this is where we’ve made our home. I was at Actors Theater for six years as Director of Development and helped them to run a capital campaign, worked with the board on strategic planning, and was part of the search to bring now-managing director, Jennifer Bielstein, to Actors.

    Then I got a call from Dan Jones, who was the founder and visionary for 21 Century Parks. I sat down with him and he laid out this big map and said, ‘I’ve got this vision for a new parks system in Louisville.’ Dan was another person and project that you just couldn’t say no to. The interesting thing about that was that when the board was interviewing me for that job, they said, ‘Christen, we’re really looking for somebody who is passionate about parks. Are you passionate about parks?’ And I said, ‘Well, I like parks. But if you’re looking for somebody who’s passionate about parks, that’s not me. But if you’re someone who is actually passionate about this community and someone who understands the role that the arts can play in building a stronger community, than you’ve got the right person.’ And so I was there for four years and helped to complete the $120 million capital campaign for the largest new metropolitan parks project in the country, helped to create and design the brand for the Parklands of Floyds Fork, and laid out the educational programs and the annual membership and sustainability plan for that organization.

    After four years of doing that, I went to Dan and said, ‘Do you remember very early on when I said I’m actually the right person for the capital campaign, to build this new organization, but when we get to when it’s time to sustain it, that I might be ready for my new challenge?’ And he said, ‘I do remember.’ Then I said, ‘Well, now’s that time.’

    So I left 21st Century Parks and started the Boone Group, which is a consulting firm that is focused on building strong and vibrant communities, working with non-profits, foundations, and with cities. And one of my clients was the Greater Louisville Project and I did that for a couple of years, and then I began to talk to the Fund to the Arts and it’s board about becoming the President and CEO, which at first I thought that’s not what I want to do. But whenever I asked myself ‘what do you want to do?’ I knew that being in an active role in leadership of this institution would give me the ability to have the greatest impact on the community long-term.”

     

    LC: Did your parents instill a love for the arts throughout your childhood? How did you grow to love art as much as you do?

    CB: “Well, I had the benefit of having dance classes and taking piano lessons growing up, and I had the arts in my school, and I was always going to performances with my family. So yes, I had the opportunities as a child. But really for me, so much of what is great about the arts is the way that it brings vibrancy to community and the way that you can utilize the arts to help impact community challenges.”

     

    LC: How do you think art ties in with community? How do you think those two connect?

    CB: “Art for art’s sake is very important. It’s good for the soul, it’s good for communication, and it’s good for connection. But in our role here at the Fund for the Arts, it is less about art for art’s sake and more about how can art best serve this community. And for us, here in Louisville, we’ve been able to build a very strong and diverse arts community and the Fund for the Arts has had a role in that for 66 years.

    But what we really focus on is how we use that strong and diverse arts community to move forward opportunity in this community. Meaning, our mission is around maximizing the impact of arts on economic development, education, and quality of life. So on economic development, we look at how the arts play a role in talent and business attraction and talent retention in creating the environment of a competitive city that allows us to grow and thrive economically. In education, it’s how do you bring the arts into the classroom, and as a part of curriculum, and to help promote academic and social success for our students. So that’s about access to the arts to as many in this community, especially those that can’t afford it themselves. It’s about how do you double-down in some areas, whether they’re at-risk communities or underserved communities, where we know that more intensive arts aren’t provided and can’t be afforded by their families, but we know that will move those children forward and give them different opportunities for their future. And then in quality of life, it’s really about how we bring art out in the community, as parts of people’s lives. It’s not just that we have these strong and stable arts institutions, but that the people in our community feel it as part of their lives. That’s especially important to the Fund for the Arts because we have 20,000 donors who are from every kind of corner from this region, so being very intentional about our service and our responsibility to our donors and to this community as well.”

     

     

    LC: What is your favorite part about being CEO of the organization?

    CB: “You know, my favorite part is that here in Louisville right now, there is a real optimism, momentum, and a new level of aspiration about what we can be as a city. And there are new leaders and lots of different community and corporate institutions, so there’s this feeling that we can chart a new course for the future. And that future is built upon the good work that’s come before us. But I think that this community right now is poised to really leapfrog forward. And so, to be a part of this conversation is really exciting. To help drive collaborations that help move us forward is exciting. And because I love this community, and I believe in the future of this community, I think my favorite part is being able to help inspire and bring others along to what that future is going to hold for us.”

     

    LC: What is your average day like?

    CB: “I usually get up at five. Right now, in my first year, I am usually at work by 6:30. My future will be that I will be at boot camp by 5:30 and into work by 8. But right now in my first year, I have made the decision that I need to spend as much time here as I can. But that will change, because I know that’s not good for me, and I know that’s not going to make me the post productive because I need that time for myself.

    All day long, I am in and out of meetings almost every hour. I get to meet fascinating people, have great conversations, and engage many people in the work that we do to the benefit of the community. Two or three nights a week, I have an after-work function, whether that’s a meeting or a fun networking and cocktail meeting in advance of an arts performance, which is the fun part of what I do. If I’m not at a work event, then I am at a soccer game or a basketball game with my boys.”

     

    LC: What excites you most about your new team?

    CB: “The team that I have recruited is a team that is both young and eager, and also accomplished in their early careers. I’ve been really excited about the opportunity to bring in these new ideas and with a fresh perspective on how we engage this community with the arts, how we help build the future for the arts in this community, and how we make sure that we continue to service our responsibility and our mission about building a strong community.”

     

    LC: As CEO, why do you believe that it’s been important to stack your team with really successful, driven young professionals and how do you think that will effect the positive change that you all will have?

    CB: “I think it’s cliché, but great leaders surround themselves with great people, and so, whenever I started at the Fund for the Arts almost a year ago, I knew some of my inherent weaknesses and I knew that I needed to bring people to the table who were able to bring different strengths. I also knew that I couldn’t lead the kind of change and the kind of momentum that I wanted this organization to drive without leading leaders as opposed to managing others.

    I knew I needed to attract leaders to the organization who could drive initiatives, who could come up with great ideas better than my own, who were able to develop plans and have conversations and move things forward. I knew that if we did that, we could magnify our results. I knew that I didn’t want to have a chief and a bunch of Indians, I wanted to have an organization of leaders and that together, we would be able to have a greater impact on this community.

    And the reason that they’re young was that I knew that they would have an energy and a new sense of thinking. Because this institution is 66 years old, we have a lot of the great thinking and the input of different generations, and so to really kind of reimagine it for the future, I knew that we needed this next generation of leadership to move us forward. We were built on a strong foundation, but to begin to reimagine on that strong foundation what the future could hold, I knew that we needed to attract that next generation.”

     

    LC: What do you foresee for Fund for the Arts? Where would you like to see Fund for the Arts implement in the community?

    CB: “As I wind down my first year in this role, there are two key initiatives that we will begin to roll out and launch next year. One of them is that we plan to facilitate with this community a master plan for the arts. Over the next ten years, what does this community want and need from and with its arts community to be able to continue to advance? And so it’s not just about protecting what we have now, but it’s really about opening our minds to what we need now and what we need for the future. That’s not the Fund for the Arts vision, that’s not the Fund for the Arts plan, that’s our role in helping this community help plan for that future. We’re really excited about that because I think that can open up a lot of new ideas and opportunities moving forward. 
    We at the Fund for the Arts are also going to be convening and leading an advisory committee that will help us better measure and quantify, as well as track, the impact of the arts in our community. And we know intuitively, that that impact is very strong. We know what it means in our individual lives. We know that it brings a certain vibrancy and competitiveness to our community. But a lot of the very specific measures of impact, whether it’s in academics, around student success, or around economic impact through dollars, a lot of the numbers that we have are national statistics. And we often will infer from the national statistics what that is locally. But what we want to be able to do at the Fund for the Arts is to be able to drive those numbers a little bit more, so that when we talk about the value and impact of the arts, we can talk about what that means here in Louisville. And that then helps us have a better conversation about how we improve upon that.”

     

    LC: What was the last book you read?

    CB: “Right now, I’m reading XLR8 by John Cotter. Joe Tolan at Metro United Way suggested this book to me and it’s this idea that as the pace of change in our work increases, that organizations have to continue to do what they do well, reimagine, and innovate at the same time. How do you set up the kind of culture in your organization that keeps things moving and recreates at the same time? And that’s what we’re trying to do here at the Fund for the Arts, and so that book is part of that culture shift.”

     

    LC: What would you have said to yourself at 25 when you initially started out in the professional world?

    CB: “I’m not sure I stood out at 25, and I’m not sure I do now. I think that even at 25 though, I was not afraid of taking chances on my career. At 25, and still today, I’m not sure I could tell you where I wanted to go. People would say, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I would say, ‘I’m not sure,’ but there were some things that I began to understand about myself.

    I had a friend send me a note after I took this job. He and I had gone to college together and have lived in different cities since. His note said, ‘I remember a conversation that we had on a road trip to Nashville in our senior year, and I said ‘what do you want to do when you grow up?’ and you said, ‘I don’t know, but I do know that I want to have impact and improve the lives of those who live in my community.’ And at the time, I was referring to Louisville, and I said, ‘I don’t know what that’s going to look like, but I know I don’t want to just sell commodities, I want to be giving my energy to really improving the lives of people.’ And I had forgotten that conversation. But along the way, I didn’t take opportunities that led me into corporate, I stayed in non-profit. So arts and parks were a theme for me, because I see that they add value to peoples’ lives.

    The whole ‘you have to spend three years somewhere’ was never true for me. I was just ready to move whenever I saw an opportunity and I have never found that to be to my disadvantage. And so I have left jobs, even before I had another one, and I have created job opportunities, and I have followed opportunities. But all through that, I held true to the fact that I knew what I wanted to feel like when I was at work every day, I knew that I was doing something that was for more than a profit line. I wanted to do something that was mission-based.

    So that’s the best advice I can give, don’t be afraid to follow opportunities or to create opportunities. Don’t get caught up in ‘I’m supposed to do this, I’ve got to do this, I’m expected to do this.’ And also, for women, we often get worried as young women and we ask, ‘How am I going to be a mom and continue to work?’ And we get caught up in all of those expectations before they’re even ours, and we pull back fast because we think that we can’t do that. So I think being a little bit ballsy and trusting yourself and that you’ll figure it out, as opposed to waiting until you have it figured out.”

     

    LC: What is your favorite restaurant in Louisville?

    CB: “I love the Mayan Café, I love Seviche, and our favorite family restaurants are usually BBQ, so Frankfort Avenue Beer Depot.”

     

    LC: What is your guilty pleasure?

    CB: “Chocolate. Brownies, chocolate squares, chocolate ice cream, it could be anything.”

     

    LC: How do you de-stress at the end of the day?

    CB: “I fall into bed. There is not a lot of de-stressing. I crash as soon as the boys go to bed at 9 o’clock or even sometimes before they do.”

     

    LC: What is the last thing you do at night and the first thing you do in the morning?

    CB: “The last thing I do at night is kiss my boys – all four of them. And the first thing I do in the morning is just get up and go.”

    Aimee Jewell's picture

    About Aimee Jewell

    My name is Aimee Jewell and I am a graduate student at Bellarmine University, where I'm studying communication. When I'm not writing for Louisville.com, you can find me at the Louisville Palace, the Mercury Ballroom, or Camp Hi Ho helping with events. Follow me and see what I'm up to on Twitter at @AimeeJewell13.

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