Ruby Lerner, founder of the arts nonprofit Creative Capital, has been named the inaugural policy fellow for the Herberger School for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University.
During nearly two decades as executive director of the nonprofit, Lerner worked to transform cultural philanthropy by applying the venture capital model that's commonly used by entrepreneurs to the arts and culture sector.
Basically, she finds ways to foster and fund big ideas.
Now, she will bring those skills to Arizona State University and work with Steven J. Tepper, who's been dean of the Herberger Institute since 2014.
The Institute has five schools where nearly 400 faculty teach more than 5,000 students in areas that include architecture, art, dance, design, digital culture, film, theater, and music.
Lerner is based in New York City, but will travel to Arizona as needed to meet with members of the ASU community, and connect with the larger arts and culture landscape in the Phoenix area.
In February, she spent two weeks talking with Herberger Institute faculty, students, and staff – talking about their concerns, ideas, and dreams. “I’m so impressed with them,” Lerner says. “It’s so dynamic, it feels like being on the campus of a startup company.”
She’s got high praise for ASU president Michael Crow, too, hailing his “bold ideas” about creating a university for the 21st century that’s inclusive and diverse, while breeding hybridity and interdisciplinary collaborations.
But she’s also mindful of some very real challenges ASU faces. “They’re incredibly resource-challenged,” she says, referencing state budget cutbacks affecting schools in several states. “Legislatures are pulling back at a time when we really need them the most.”
Part of Lerner’s role will involve helping the Herberger Institute identify ways to increase funding through other sources, including alumni and corporations. But she’ll also work on elevating community awareness about ASU accomplishments, and increasing connections between Herberger Institute and the metro Phoenix community.
Turns out, Arizona has long been on Lerner’s radar.
That’s because Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, executive director for ASU Gammage, is a founding member of the Creative Capital board of directors. Lerner has also known Tepper for some time, since they both travel in national arts policy circles, and she's spoken many time at ASU conferences through the years.
And Creative Capital has awarded grants to several Arizona-based artists and arts organizations, including the arts collective Postcommodity – which is the subject of a new film and currently has work featured in the 2017 Whitney Biennial in New York.
Back in early 2015, Lerner spoke with New Times about what it takes to make cities into healthy, sustainable places for artists and the arts. And she shared a long list of things it takes to make that happen – including affordable housing and diverse exhibition spaces, to name a few.
“Ruby Lerner is the perfect person to help us imagine solutions to the kinds of challenges our designers and artists face," says Tepper. "She brings to ASU a vast network of contacts in the art world and a powerful entrepreneurial mind set. She also has a history of radical innovation in creating new ways to advance the ideas and careers of artists.”
They’re issues at the heart of Phoenix’s cultural landscape, especially as rapid development is changing the face of the downtown arts scene, where several galleries have closed in recent years to make way for multilevel housing several artists say they can’t afford.
Of course, the Herberger Institute is also undergoing transformation.
It’s developed a significant downtown presence that includes studio and exhibition space at Grant Street Studios. And its Ensemble Lab, which fosters the work of renowned artists including choreographer Liz Lerman and composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, is housed at the Arizona Center.
But it’s also faced new challenges, including not getting taxpayer approval for a fall ballot measure in Mesa that would have funded a significant ASU campus with an arts and culture focus adjacent to Mesa Arts Center. It’s in talks with Mesa city officials now about possible plan-B scenarios.
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They’re all issues Lerner plans to explore in her role as policy fellow, at first by getting the lay of the land through conversations within and beyond the ASU community. She’ll return to Arizona this fall, creating an agenda with Tepper that he can work to implement in coming years.
Bottom line: She wants to help Herberger Institute turn dreams into reality.
"ASU is a really inspiring environment right now, and it has a lot of things to work out in the future."