Performing Arts

Women forge paths to the top of KC performing arts organizations

Deborah Sandler has been general director and CEO of the Lyric Opera since 2012.
Deborah Sandler has been general director and CEO of the Lyric Opera since 2012. JTOYOSHIBA@KCSTAR.COM

So the other day I was sitting across the table from Deborah Sandler, the general director and CEO of the Lyric Opera, and put a simple question to her:

Had Sandler in the course of her career at three opera companies ever confronted unambiguous sexism, either in an individual or an institution?

Sandler is intense, and she talks fast, but suddenly she fell silent. She stared at me as she considered an appropriate response.

“I guess you can’t print: ‘And she smiled,’ ” Sandler said at last.

And, yes, she was smiling when she said it, and the smile became a laugh.

Sandler doesn’t want to talk about sexism by name. (“None of us wants to appear as a crybaby,” she said later in the conversation.) But she did share a story.

Two years ago Sandler attended the Opera America annual conference and found herself in a room with general directors from all the top and second-tier opera companies in the country.

“And when I left the room I passed a colleague of mine who is the general director at one of the top five companies … and I said, ‘Did you notice anything about this meeting?’ And he said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Did you notice I was the only woman sitting at the table?’ And he said, ‘I hadn’t really thought about it. Is there a problem with that?’ And I said, ‘Yes, there’s a problem, there’s a big problem.’ 

The conversation continued until at last Sandler said: “Do you think we’re not smart enough? Or not skilled enough? Or talented enough?”

“I stopped him cold in his tracks,” Sandler recalled. “He said, ‘I just never really thought about it.’ 

Sandler and Angela Gieras, executive director of Kansas City Repertory Theatre, head two of the city’s four major performing arts organizations. They aren’t unique, but they are in the minority. Of the 32 top performing arts organizations in the Kansas City area, 10 are led by women.

That ratio lags the national figures. A 2013 Americans for the Arts study showed that 69 percent of arts CEOs nationwide were women. The survey, which was based on voluntary responses, also showed that female CEOs tended to earn about 80 percent as much as their male counterparts. The median salary for women was $64,000; for men, $80,000.

In Kansas City, women hold executive positions at many other smaller companies and arts organizations — the Friends of Chamber Music is led by Cynthia Siebert, president and founder, and the Unicorn Theatre is led by Cynthia Levin, producing artistic director.

Other women have forged successful careers in Kansas City and continued them elsewhere. Jane Chu, former executive director of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, is now chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Cynthia Rider, former managing director of KC Rep, is now executive director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

One thing that women interviewed for this article agreed on was this: The smaller an organization’s budget, the more likely it is that you’ll find a woman in charge. The larger the budget, the more unusual a female executive is.

Sandler, a Philadelphia native, assumed the general directorship of the Lyric in 2012 after leading opera companies in Kentucky and New Jersey. She arrived soon after two major events in the Lyric’s history: the opening of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, where the Lyric is the resident opera company, and the unveiling of the opera center, a complex between Charlotte and Holmes on 18th Street that houses administrative offices, rehearsal facilities, and scenery and costume shops.

Sandler’s tenure has been rocky, especially since April, when the board chose to eliminate the job of artistic director, held for decades by popular conductor Ward Holmquist. There was some blowback. A few longtime donors who liked Holmquist decided to withhold future contributions, at least in the short term.

Sandler, who studied music and musicology in her college years, has assumed all the duties that formerly fell to the artistic director. And she has launched an initiative to elevate the Lyric Opera’s profile in the community.

As she leafed through materials in a folder, Sandler said, “I have some statistics that might blow your socks off.”

Sandler cited a study conducted by Judith Warner in 2014 for the Center for American Progress: Women make up 50.8 percent of the U.S. population and earn 60 percent of both undergraduate and master’s degrees. Even so, they represent only 14.6 percent of executive officers, 8.1 percent of top earners and 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs.

“This is not just a nonprofit issue,” Sandler said. “It’s a societal issue.”

Gieras, who became KC Rep’s executive director in 2013, occupies a rear office in a building on Troost Avenue that houses a number of the Rep’s administrative staff as well as the KCUR-FM radio station. She has a little cardboard sign on her desk: “The Buck Stops Here” it says, and, yes, it’s a souvenir of her first visit to the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence.

Gieras surmised that women, being inherently nurturing, probably have an advantage in fundraising. And fundraising is something she’s good at. She said the Rep raised $2 million in fiscal 2013, and the next year bumped the total to almost $11 million, which included $5.5 million to remodel Spencer Theatre and provide operational support.

In terms of women executives, Gieras shared some statistics of her own. The League of Resident Theatres, which includes KC Rep and more than 70 other regional theaters, sells tickets to an audience that is 65 percent female. Theater staffs are 56 percent female, but only 27 percent of the top leadership jobs are occupied by women.

Gieras lets the numbers speak for themselves. But when asked if she’d ever confronted obstacles in the form of sexist attitudes, she preferred to accentuate the positive. She said the support and flexibility of her husband, mortgage banker John Gieras, was essential to her success.

“Almost all of my mentors in this field are male,” she said. “Most of them have opened many doors for me during my career. When that door couldn’t be opened sometimes, I’ve banged the door down. At the end, the accomplishments I’ve had have been pretty great, and I’ve had a lot of men help me along the way.”

In her job she works collaboratively with artistic director Eric Rosen, whose vision often leads to expensive productions. Gieras said they have a good working relationship based on mutual respect.

“I have the heart of an artist and a head for business, and I want to find a way to make great art,” she said. “What we’ve been able to do is figure out a way to expand our artistic ability and be a healthy company at the same time. That takes both of us to do that, and we’ve done that really well.”

Sandler, meanwhile, is spearheading the Women’s Opera Network, a possible remedy to an entrenched system that limits opportunities for women in the field of opera. She envisions it as a sort of forum that will exist under the umbrella of Opera America, a national service organization. Women will be able to use it to connect, share information and compare notes.

“Throughout the course of my career there were many times when I recognized that there were very few women in leadership roles in opera companies,” she said. “And when I say leadership roles, just to be clear, I’m talking about the role of general director. I’ve often thought to myself, ‘Wow! Wouldn’t it be great if there were some mentorship program? Wouldn’t it be great if there was someone I could call?’ And don’t get me wrong. I’ve had some wonderful men mentors.”

Because of her decades of experience, Sandler found that women new to the field began turning to her for advice.

“I started getting phone calls from young women,” she said. “Some of them were directors, some composers, some were getting degrees in administration. … I started to talk to them about it, and I heard a lot of frustration and a lot of questioning.

“I often say when you’re younger, you can kind of look around and see who’s in the room. And if there’s nobody who looks like you, it affects you in a particular way — and not in a positive way. So women who want to function in this business need support and networking and encouragement.”

Most of the women interviewed for this story cited no significant stumbling blocks in their careers in the form of sexist attitudes, although Siebert recalled that when she was trying to organize the Friends of Chamber Music in the 1970s she was urged to call an influential male leader in the arts community. So she did.

His response: “Oh yes, I’ve heard of you. I don’t care how beautiful you are, I have no intention of talking to you,” and he hung up.

“I was very upset and I thought, ‘What on earth does that mean?’ ” Siebert recalled. “I think it was definitely a female thing.”

Siebert laughs when she tells the story. But Siebert said she often received encouragement from Patricia McIlrath, the founding artistic director of what was then called Missouri Repertory Theatre.

“Dr. Mac”, who founded the Rep in the 1960s, is virtually a patron saint of women arts leaders in Kansas City. Levin, who moved here four decades ago, certainly thinks so.

“I grew up in Washington, D.C., and I was incredibly fortunate to have as my role model Zelda Fichandler, who ran the Arena Stage, and then I come to Kansas City and there’s Dr. Mac running the major theater. The two cities I’ve lived in have had women at the helm. And then I realized it was a fluke. But it was kind of cool that I got to watch those women.”

Levin said women coming from the East Coast could have had a tough time adjusting to certain Midwestern attitudes.

“I was the East Coast Jewish female come to the Midwest to ruffle everybody’s feathers,” she recalled from her office at the theater company near 39th and Main streets.

“I’ve absolutely had to deal with (sexism) everywhere outside the Unicorn Theatre,” she said. “I remember when we were starting with the National New Play Network (a national consortium of theater companies), the majority of the people running theaters in that organization were men. I always felt that I just had to fight harder, and I’m sure that every person that was in any sort of minority, a female or a person of color, feels you have to prove yourself every time. And you had to speak out. You had to fight for your position.”

Joette Pelster has twice served as the executive director of the Coterie for a total of 20 years. She has also worked for the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey and the Gem Theater, but she said she has yet to run up against unadulterated sexism in the arts.

Pelster, a former college track athlete and volleyball player, stands about 5 feet 10 inches but often wears heels. It boosts the intimidation factor when dealing with men, she said one afternoon from her office above the intersection of McGee Street and Pershing Road.

She added, however, that when she was in her 20s she worked as a researcher for the Nebraska legislature. One day she came face-to-face with a flagrant male attitude.

“I happened to not experience a great deal of it, because I just ignored it and plowed on,” Pelster said. “Or else I was oblivious to it. I only took it personally one time when somebody called me a ball-buster and it upset me so much I went into the bathroom and cried. I just remember being very upset by the remark.

“But I always had a real confidence about being a woman. I never felt inferior in any sense. Maybe inferior in other ways, but not because I was a woman.”

Marilyn Strauss, founder of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, said she was too focused on specific goals to worry about attitudes. Strauss had already acquired credits as a Broadway producer before she set out to create a Shakespeare festival in Kansas City.

“My answer is that I’ve experienced absolutely no discrimination, and if I did I paid absolutely no attention to it,” the 80-something Strauss said. “Sometimes you’d hear things. Someone said, ‘Boy, you sure were a women’s libber,’ and I said, ‘No, I was willful.’ I did what I wanted to do and didn’t worry about setbacks.”

Since 2000, the festival has been run by Sidonie Garrett, who started off as a self-producing director in the ’90s and gradually worked her way up at the annual festival. She said her career has received strong support from men and women.

“Maybe there’s been tons of sexism and I just didn’t realize it,” she said. “I’ve been pretty much allowed to do things on my merit.”

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to