It’s fair to say that ArtsEd Washington would probably not exist today – and certainly wouldn’t be as strong and vibrant as it currently is – had it not been for the vision, drive, tenacity, and leadership of Andrea Allen.
Andrea joined the Board in September 2002. At around the same time, the board made the decision to suspend its programs (at the time the main program was an annual teacher professional development institute staffed by Board members) and examine how it could be more impactful in light of the changing education landscape and most specifically the advent of No Child Left Behind.
When asked by the outgoing president to take over the reins in 2004, Andrea replied, in her inimitable way, that she already had a full-time job (at Seattle Repertory Theatre) and didn’t need another one. Her one condition for taking on the president’s role was that a paid staff person would be hired.
Those early meetings took place before I started working at ArtsEd Washington. Indeed I barely knew Andrea then, but I understand now that hers was a controversial stand to take. The organization, then known as Washington Alliance for Arts Education, had virtually no money. In fact, it was arguably near death, due to a lack of income-generating programming. The budget that year was just under $12,000. As I’ve heard it, there was some push-back from the other Board members — and any responsible trustee would have pushed back — but Andrea was undeterred. Her rationale was, if we give this a shot and it doesn’t work, we can all go away guilt-free knowing we tried. But we have to try. Having gotten the rest of the Board to agree, the position of Executor Director was created and I was hired.
Taking on this organization at that point in time was a daunting task, and I had some concerns about what I was getting into – not to mention my own ability to address the work ahead — but sitting down with Andrea was refreshing and energizing. I’d only recently met her, and once I’d overcome my initial intimidation (contributed in large part by her volume and sarcasm!), I was inspired by her confidence in our collective ability to tackle this mammoth effort and by the safety net she’d laid out to me and the rest of the Board – taking our best shot for 4-6 months to see a) if it worked and b) if we really did have the ability to fulfill a community need. Funny thing, we never needed to revisit the wisdom of Andrea’s vision…
Almost nine years have passed since then and Andrea served as president for the first four and was again Board co-president when she died. After the first two years, I “talked her into” a second term as it felt like we were getting into a good groove and just really getting up to speed as the first two years ended. I say talked her into it, and I do remember approaching the conversation with a little trepidation, but she said yes right away and in fact had the same idea in mind. Boy, we were a great team! Sitting here at my desk only two weeks after her passing, I pause in reflection on the hours of chats and meetings we’ve had over the years and am just flooded with sadness. What’s that expression? Her like will never walk this way again. Or as they say in Ireland, there aren’t many like Andrea in half a dozen.
We spent many hours at the Seattle Rep (all credit and gratitude to Managing Director Ben Moore for his flexibility in embracing this role as part of Andrea’s day to day work), at Café Zingaro, and at local restaurants cooking up ideas and plans and mulling over the next steps for whatever was on our radar at any given time. She had a gift for creating agendas that worked (no small feat in a leader), and her laser-like way of knowing the right next thing to do whenever we seemed to be stuck was put to regular use.
As time went on, it was clear that the need for our work was so huge that it greatly outstripped our capacity but Andrea helped us all to focus on priorities, to aim beyond what we first thought was achievable, and she inspired me personally never to give less than my very best. A couple of years into our partnership, I remember her telling me that I just couldn’t write all the grant proposals myself anymore. She wanted me to have time to actually do the work that was being funded – so she introduced me to Keri Healey in 2006. The email she sent me then refers to asking the Board to take a big leap in the budget – which we successfully did. But more than that success, the thing that makes me smile here is the big leap phrase. Andrea just didn’t do little things. It wasn’t her style to play it safe. In fact, she carried a notebook with the words: “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” Yup, sounds like her. She made me brave.
As all Executive Directors know, there’s nothing as valuable as a visionary and effective Board President and Andrea was all that. Itmade such a difference. She was a taskmaster, but our Board meetings never failed to be funny, uplifting, engaging, and creative. We always came away happy to have been together, and you can’t say that about all Board meetings, right? The week after her death, we convened for the November Board meeting and despite our sadness, we channeled her spirit, even ending on time! It was palpable that she was there with us.
Less than a month before she died, Andrea participated in the Board retreat, helping us develop our vision for the next three years. At the retreat, we each focused on our strengths and how they’d be applied for the success of the mission, creating a superhero alter ego to demonstrate that strength. Andrea was the “bullshitador” (think matador) aptly capturing her uncanny ability to cut through the aforementioned “bs” and get to the heart of the matter. If you ever had the privilege of knowing Andrea, you’ll know that was precisely in keeping with who she was!
At the end of the meeting, everyone shared their “aha” or insight from the day, and Andrea told us all how good it had felt to be reminded of how far the organization had come and to take time to focus on our growth and successes. Knowing now that it was her last Board meeting, I am deeply gratified that she left with that sense of achievement. And I am glad that she was part of creating our vision for the future. We can honor her by implementing it well.
Andrea believed in “making stuff happen.” She was a woman of vision in all aspects of her life. Perhaps because she had served on the Board for so many years, she had a particularly keen sense of what was possible for ArtsEd Washington. I distinctly remember a past Board retreat where Andrea talked about the organization having 5,000 members and being a catalyst for an arts education “revolution.” She really saw this happening. And, because of her confidence, I do too.
As a digital packrat, I have saved almost every email since computers were invented, and during the last couple of weeks, I’ve been rereading many of Andrea’s. They’re funny, irreverent, sarcastic, and full of wisdom. I’ll be saving those in a separate folder for when I need a special boost.
She signed off almost every email with the words “who loves ya?” She did, and we knew it. We loved her deeply too.