Update: This story was updated on July 17.
Harlan Brownlee, the president and CEO of ArtsKC, has announced his resignation, effective at the end of July.
ArtsKC named Susan Stanton, a longtime non-profit interim leader, to serve as interim president. The organization will begin a national search for Brownlee’s successor.
After six years as head of the organization, Brownlee said, it was time for him to do something different. He cited several major accomplishments for the organization. First among those, he said, was simply making it through the recession.
“In 2009, when I first came on, that’s when the recession hit hard,” says Brownlee, who started at ArtsKC in February of that year. “It was really, really challenging in terms of the fundraising environment, in particular keeping the ArtsKC Fund going.”
Supported by donations from workplace giving campaigns, corporations, foundations, municipalities and individuals, that fund provides grants to artists, arts programs and organizations in five metro counties.
Other high points, Brownlee said, were opening a new, high-visibility location in the Crossroads at Southwest Boulevard and Baltimore, and debuting a new regional cultural plan. Brownlee acknowledged that his departure might appear to create a leadership vacuum at a time when the organization is just starting to try to earn support for that new cultural plan, released in May, from several city and county bureaucracies.
Allan Gray, who led the regional cultural planning effort, will continue to be its public champion, Brownlee said.
“Allan and I have been joined at the hip on this for some time,” Brownlee said. “He will provide that continuity.”
“We recognize and thank Harlan for his countless contributions to ArtsKC,” the organization’s board chair, Becky Blades, said in a statement.
Thanks to his leadership, Blades said, the One ArtsKC Regional Cultural Plan and the ArtsKC Fund “will nurture the arts in our community for generations. These initiatives and more have helped position the organization with strong financial stability and great growth potential moving forward.”
Though ArtsKC’s future direction will obviously be determined by its next leader, Brownlee said, its biggest challenge is likely to be the issue of public support for the arts.
“When I look at where we are in comparison to other communities, and what you see is possible when there’s a stronger sense of public support from the overall community, it’s pretty remarkable what you can do,” he said. “The amazing philanthropic community in Kansas City has taken us so much farther, but that’s a really critical issue for organization: how it continues to build the ArtsKC fund.”
Brownlee said he had witnessed a “sea change” in the city’s understanding of the value of the arts, particularly in the city’s business community. However, in the political arena “there's a lot of work to be done,” Brownlee said, noting the organization's lobbying efforts in Jefferson City this year.
Based on its recent hosting of forums for Kansas City Council candidates, Brownlee also sees potential for ArtsKC to take on a greater advocacy role in other cities and counties. In particular, he noted strong public support for arts education programs reflected in surveys done as part of the regional cultural planning process.
“We’ve been very mindful in looking at candidates for city council, where they stand in their understanding and support for arts, making sure they realize there are a whole lot of people who want them supporting the arts,” Brownlee said. “We’ve done a good job in Kansas City, Missouri, but the challenge is broadening that to other municipalities and counties.”
Brownlee said his role with ArtsKC had been “not only an honor but a privilege,” and said the organization’s successes “would not have happened without a lot of people helping, encouraging, and being there with us. It has been so gratifying to think about all those folks who really helped make this a better organization.”
Brownlee said he had not made specific plans about what he would do next, though he suggested he would continue with several arts-education roles.
Brownlee is a presenter for the Kennedy Center’s Changing Education through the Arts (a training program for arts educators and administrators), is an adjunct professor for Rockhurst University’s School of Education and the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s School of Education and has maintained a part-time teaching role at the small, independent Community School #1 in Mission Hills.