ArtsQuest...Where the Arts and Leadership Meet

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ArtsQuest is a Bethlehem based nonprofit dedicated to increasing access to the arts through music, arts, festivals, cultural experiences and educational and outreach programs, while significantly contributing to local economic development, urban revitalization and community enrichment. Musikfest is run by ArtsQuest and is the flagship event of the organization, which reaches 1.5 million people annually.

If you are a regular follower of this blog, you know that I love to look at how organizations can be "real time" case studies for different leadership models. In this article, I will share the inspiring story of a ArtsQuest, a transformative organization and how it applies to THE LEADERSHIP CHALLENGE . The Leadership Challenge approaches leadership as a measurable, learnable, and teachable set of behaviors, The Leadership Challenge framework grew out of rigorous research that first began in 1982 when Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner set out to understand those times when leaders performed at their personal best. They conducted hundreds of interviews and reviewed hundreds of cases studies and survey questionnaires. What emerged were five fundamental practices common to extraordinary leadership achievements. Now known worldwide as the most practical model of leadership development, The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® continues to prove its effectiveness in cultivating and liberating the leadership potential in anyone—at any level, in any organization—who chooses to accept the challenge to lead.

Inspiring a Shared Vision

Founded in 1984 by an organization which ultimately became ArtsQuest, a community-based nonprofit, the first Musikfest featured 295 performances on six stages, attracting more than 180,000 people to historic Bethlehem.

Over the past three decades, the event has grown a bit, evolving into one of the largest and most diverse music festivals in the nation, with 500-plus shows on 16 stages over 10 days. Each year more than one million people make their way to the festival, with their sights set on experiencing all the music, food and fun of this musical extravaganza.

SteelStacks, the ArtsQuest campus became the “BHAG” (big hairy, audacious goal) for ArtsQuest starting in 2002 with a visit by ArtsQuest leaders to repurposed steel mills and coal mines in Germany.

While the long-term ownership of the former Bethlehem Steel plant was still in doubt, ArtsQuest invited nonprofit arts, education, and public media organizations to brainstorm on the possibility of an “arts park” on the site of the former plant. As a result of these meetings, the local PBS affiliate, PBS39, committed to partnering on the development of an arts and culture campus eventually named SteelStacks, anchored by the ArtsQuest Center, a multipurpose music and arts facility.

In 2004, an investor group purchased some of the land in the historic core of the steel plant that runs along the Lehigh River on the City’s South Side. That same year, the Pennsylvania Legislature approved slots casino gaming. In 2006, the state awarded a license to the Las Vegas Sands Corporation for a casino on the eastern end of the core steel site, with the understanding that the Sands would donate approximately 10 acres to ArtsQuest, PBS39 and the City of Bethlehem for an arts campus.

The vision of Artsquest is clear and focuses on affording our community access to arts that otherwise might not be available to the community, while supporting regional artists and cultural traditions. And it took visionary leadership to assist in transforming the largest brownfield in the United States, once the home of Bethlehem Steel, into the centerpiece of this award winning organization. The Artsquest Center is home to the Musikfest Café, a year round host to music, comedy and theatre events, as well as two full sized cinemas and several smaller performance spaces.

Musikfest itself has been inspired by its leadership in partnership with the community. Musikfest is not just music. It has become an economic engine, helping, along with the SteelStacks campus, to revitalize the South Side of Bethlehem.

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“That a Rust Belt city dependent on Big Steel reinvented itself to become a modern, economically diverse community with a standard of living, education levels and cultural riches any town would be proud to have isn’t the story that many current leaders of our country are telling. But it’s true. It happened. Right here in a modestly sized Pennsylvania town. And it happened not because we looked back at a past that could not be recaptured. We did it by embracing new ideas with a hopeful spirit.”-Jeff Parks, founder of ArtsQuest

Model the Way

My connection with this organization is personal. My husband has been involved with Artsquest for nearly 20 years as a volunteer and a member of the Board of Trustees, recently having been elected Secretary of the Board. I worked for ArtsQuest one summer. We are donors. But most importantly, we are ambassadors for this organization. It is easy to represent this organization because the leadership team consistently models the way.

Kassie Hilgert took over as CEO of ArtsQuest in 2014. In a 2017 article in the Allentown Morning Call, Kassie shared a bit of her leadership story:

"I don't feel like I worked a day," she says. "On Sunday at 2 o'clock, I can't wait for Monday. I know that sounds weird."

Asked if it is hard to juggle all of these different worlds she replies, "It's impossible to juggle all of it. That's where my staff comes in."

63 full-time staff, in fact, and hundreds of part-time and seasonal workers and they are essential to the operation.

"My father taught me early on, you should surround yourself with really smart people which, luckily for me, is a really low bar," she jokes.

That self-deprecating humor reflects a philosophy: all hands on deck, everybody contributing. The low man on the totem pole can put forward big ideas but that street runs both ways. "At Musikfest, I'll pour beer, I'll pick up garbage," Hilgert explains.

This attitude of inclusiveness and sheer passion for the mission is seen in the faces of the volunteers and the excitement of the organizations senior leadership team. It inspires others to share the joy. I can’t think of a better way to model the way.

Challenge the Process

ArtsQuest collectively challenges the process on a regular basis. Yes, the organization is most known for the Musikfest festival, but everyone in the organization is continually thinking how to use the campus in creative ways. One of my favorite stories concerns World Cup soccer. Yes, soccer. Prior to the 2014 World Cup, a member of the senior leadership team (one not “responsible” for programming) pitched the idea of hosting World Cup parties on the site.

And so, in 2014, ArtsQuest hosted a brand new event, a World Cup viewing party. Fans, seeking soccer matches on mammoth TV screens together with a great party atmosphere, came from near and far to cheer on the home team, filling the SteelStacks campus in Bethlehem to capacity as chants of ‘U-S-A.’ echoed throughout the old Bethlehem Steel mill. When the U.S. team was not playing, fans of other countries flocked to the site to join their fellow supporters. When all was said and done, more than 10,000 people showed up to support the U.S.A. Men’s National Soccer Team during its huge match against Portugal, pushing attendance at the inaugural FIFA World Cup™ SoccerFest and Viewing Party at SteelStacks to more than 35,000 guests. Thanks to ESPN featuring the Soccerfest on its broadcasts, the event gained nationwide attention in only its first year!

Many nonprofits consider alternative funding streams but this organizations commitment to “outsight”. The Leadership Challenge defines outsight as follows:

“With innovation: you must always scour the external realities. Innovation requires the use of outsight. The sibling of insight (the ability to apprehend the inner nature of things), outsight (the awareness and understanding of outside forces) comes through openness. “

My observation is that challenging the process for ArtsQuest is directly correlated to the inclusive leadership environment that has been fostered across the organization…Bravo ArtsQuest!

Enable Others to Act

I’m not going to spend a lot of time here as Kassie’s story above exemplifies enabling others to act. I will say that I am always impressed by the leaderships ability to support autonomous thinking by the collective enterprise.

Think about the realities of this practice. This festival happens in two distinct areas in the City of Bethlehem, on both sides of the Lehigh River. The senior leadership team is spread out across the event but everyone can’t be at the same place at the same time. Empowering others, staff and volunteers, to make decisions is critical. Yes, walkie-talkies help, but at the heart of a great event is trusting your team to solve complex problems on the fly. Whether is responding to a customer service request or dealing with mother nature and its impact on an outdoor festival, enabling others to act is a cornerstone of organizational excellence.

Encourage the Heart

And last but not least, it is obvious that ArtsQuest puts tremendous effort into Encouraging the Heart. It’s hard not to love this organization. Not only does it have a powerful mission, but it really treasures its greatest assets; volunteers and donors. This year, over 1600 volunteers, donating hundreds of thousands of man hours, help to manage all aspects of the ‘Fest. Volunteers are recognized for their years of service, and this year, Muskfest’s 35th Anniversary, 13 volunteers were honored for volunteering at all 35 Musikfests! ArtsQuest club members and donors, as well as sponsors, are treasured. Constant attention is paid to mobilizing all of these human resources into being actively engaged on a personal level.

Let me give you a personal example. My husband is passionate about this organization and about music. As a leadership volunteer, he gets to do some cool stuff. But what makes his heart full is having the opportunity to be part of the festival in a unique way. As Musikfest kicks off, ArtsQuest members are invited to get up on stage to promote ArtsQuest and to introduce acts throughout the festival. Yes, this makes the lives of the staff easier because there is no way they could be at every event, but more than anything, it encourages the heart of the member who, for that moment, on that stage, plays a special role in this event.

This week on my Facebook page (Think Good Leadership), I am sharing the stories of ArtsQuest staff, volunteers and donors. I hope you follow me on this journey. Throughout the year, I use the Leadership Challenge as a model for exemplary leadership with my clients and nonprofit organizations. For more information on how you can learn how to practice “Think Good Leadership” everyday, visit www.thinkgoodleadership.com.