An Enduring Mark on Richmond

John Bryan retired this week after more than five years as the founding president of CultureWorks here in Richmond. For those outside Richmond, CultureWorks is the champion for arts and culture in the Richmond region. John is a mentor to many and a friend to all. Despite decades of experience in nonprofit leadership, he has a naturally inquisitive spirit and a lasting commitment to continuous learning. He has left a truly enduring mark on Richmond — in more ways than one.


I recently sat down with John to talk about leadership, our community, his tattoo, and his thoughts as he retires from his position with CultureWorks.

Some people will be surprised to learn that you’re an excellent painter. Where and when did you learn?

As a child, and I have two advanced degrees in painting.

Your most recent show was paintings of fish. Have you always painted fish?

No, I used to do huge paintings at Vanderbilt, and then we moved to New York City where you didn’t have any space. We lived in a tiny little apartment, so there wasn’t room to do big stuff. You couldn’t just put it on your car and carry it somewhere, so by necessity I knew I had to get little. I like to work from live models, and I liked to fish, so I caught a fish from the Hudson and brought it back to my apartment. I put it in the freezer, pulled it out, laid it down, got a watercolor sheet and said, “This is cool.” That’s where it started.

Is there somewhere people can go online to see your work?

No, I don’t market or sell my fish. The only thing I do is that occasionally someone will ask me to do something special, and I will. And everyone who’s an artist gets called a million times every year to donate their artwork to an auction. That’s my pet peeve: they don’t call the doctor to donate their next tonsillectomy or the attorney to donate their next client.

Why do you think artists get asked to do free stuff all the time?

Eric Booth, who is a real thinker about the arts and their value, spoke at a national gathering in Richmond and said it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t believe that the arts are absolutely wonderful and they make our lives better. But most of those people also say we really need to take care of the “essential things” first. He said that there are only six percent of people who say the arts are among the most essential.

Give a man a sandwich and it might sustain him for a couple of days; but put a song in his heart and it’s with him forever.
John Bryan

What I always say is that hospitals and highways are among the things that enable us to live, but the arts are among the things we live for. Give a man a sandwich and it might sustain him for a couple of days; but put a song in his heart and it’s with him forever. Which is more essential?

So unfortunately most people in the world don’t think of art creation — especially visual arts — as something that really has much monetary value. So it’s theoretically an easy matter for an artist to give that away.

You’ve had lots of opportunities to see other cities’ arts and culture scenes. What should Richmond be proud of?

Three things:

1. The collaborative spirit among arts and culture organizations. You have an example with this Curtains Up performance you all are doing — that’s amazing that all those groups are going to do that.

The fact that the Richmond Region Cultural Action Plan was written to form CultureWorks by a task force convened by the arts — I haven’t found that type of collaborative spirit anywhere else. It was led primarily by Bill Martin of the Valentine Museum with a 27-person task force –arts leaders from various organizations, alongside Fortune 500 companies’ executives, major foundations, the City of Richmond, and the surrounding counties’ administrations.

2. The quantity of the arts. And the biggest feeder for that is VCU School for the Arts. They have 3,000 full-time students studying visual, performing, and design arts in that school, one-third of whom stay in Richmond after graduation to make their careers. It’s been that way forever. This is a HUGE engine for the creative spirit of Richmond.

3. A culture that allows creativity, exploration, and all sorts of crazy, fantastic things to find a comfort level in Richmond. I mean, Richmond is the origin of what was voted by arts marketing professionals the “Most Outrageous Band in the History of the World”: GWAR. This is a climate that not only allows really crazy things to happen, but which welcomes them and feeds them.

You’ve traveled extensively to conferences: Americans for the Arts, Conference Board, etc. If you had to pick ONE thing that you learned through those experiences that has stuck with you, what would it be?

Relationships with people in other cities can help make lives better in your own.

And why is that?

Anytime I’ve got any sort of challenge I need some help with, I’ve got somebody somewhere that I can call and ask.

John Bryan's Award From Americans for the Arts

John Bryan’s Award From Americans for the Arts

It was not my intent to become nationally involved. I wouldn’t have done it, except when I started this position, Katie Fessler at Altria [Altria’s former point person for the arts] said, “You need to become involved with Americans for the Arts.” We were getting money from Altria, so I said OK, even though I had never even heard of Americans for the Arts. [He went on to win a major award from Americans for the Arts.]

Just the same, Josée Covington, who heads Covington International Travel, said, “You need to go on the Greater Richmond Chamber’s InterCity Visit each year.” I would have never done that. But that has paid off big time.

So the one thing I’ve learned on these national things is that if you have a national network, it will make lives better in your city if you leverage it and use it right.

One could say that CultureWorks’s mission isn’t necessarily easy to describe. Do you find that it’s hard to explain to people what CultureWorks does?

I don’t, of course, because I’m 24/7. But yes, members of our Board do. I’ve come up with a one-page sheet that simply says, “What CultureWorks Does,” and there are 11 things on there. To boil it down even further, we give money away, we do advocacy, and provide a ton of services. We create no art or culture — it’s our job to strengthen the entities that do and to strengthen the atmosphere for it.

You started by saying, “I don’t, of course.” So how did you get from, “Here’s this new organization with a complicated back story” to giving an eight-second elevator speech?

That was easy. When the Cultural Action Plan came out and it said we need an organization to do this 110 pages of stuff — it basically says, “save the world and cure cancer” — I immediately realized nobody could do all that. Just add up all the money it would take — it would be impossible. So I saw it as an opportunity for some organization to do some good things, and to say they’re a part of this plan.

There wasn’t even a name for the organization. So I went to the task force and said, “What’s the process for coming up with a name?” Can you IMAGINE what it would be like trying to come up with a name with 27 people? Finally, I think it was Bill Martin that said, “Look, just pick the name and announce to everybody that the name has been selected. And do it with confidence.”

So is that a good rule of thumb? When there’s no one else stepping up to take the lead, you should do it, and do it with confidence?

If you feel like you’re not usurping responsibility from someone else and you feel like you have as good of a chance of doing it as well as someone else, then yeah, I think that’s your responsibility.

[John went on to share a hilarious story of another time when he stepped up, but it didn’t work out so well. Click below to listen to the 2-minute audio.]

You are probably the best listener I’ve ever met. You’re great in conversation, and usually you’re not talking about you. What are your tricks?

Well first of all, I disagree with you 1000%. I see myself as the worst listener and the one who is always trying to do more of the talking. It’s nice to hear the reverse.

So I can’t speak to that issue, other than to say that I see this as one of the things I would love to change about myself. I’ve even got on my to-do list to explore something called Active Listening — I first heard about it one of these national gatherings a few years ago and then Norman Burns, executive director of Maymont Foundation, brought it up. He was our guest at a recent workshop, and he described himself as I would describe myself: he said “I’m always the one who has to talk, and I’m a terrible listener. But I am smart enough to know that, in order to know what your donors think and feel and believe, you’ve got to figure out how to listen to that and how to do it actively, so I’ve pursued this active listening thing.”

So I have a note on my calendar for three weeks from now to Google “Active Listening” and see if there’s a book or something.
[There is.]

For the last year, you’ve been teaching a year-long class with arts/culture development officers to focus them on major giving from individuals. What was the impetus behind this Moose Management (aka Moves Management) class?

1. I wanted there to be more money for the organizations that participated.
2. I wanted more people who had never made a major gift anywhere to make one because they’ve been asked for the first time.
3. And I wanted to see individual persons who work for organizations transformed in the way they look at their organizations and the way they look at their donors.

Has it been successful?

Very much so. Of the 12 organizations that stuck with it through the year, when you look at the aggregate numbers, it is impressive. At midyear, participants reported an aggregate of more than $640,000 in the bank or in the pipeline that came directly from their participation in the course. Do you know how many corporate grants it would take to achieve that? So that’s when I knew we had something.

It has been enormously successful for SPARC.

So you all feel that you’ve benefited from being a part of it?

No question. When I think of the effect it has had on Candace [SPARC’s director of development], and through Candace to me, I know that I have learned and been motivated to engage in the major gift process in a way that I wasn’t before. And Candace’s guidance has given me the confidence to take the right steps at the right time, and those are things that have produced real results. When I think about the whole process and how it has affected us, I think of the quote about “Teach a man to fish.” It is a one-year program, but those lessons will continue to benefit our organization the next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. I literally can’t thank you enough.

Thank you for saying that.

You are very thoughtful about philanthropy — the art and science behind fundraising. Has it always been that way through your whole career?

No, it was a single turning point. I was first hired by VCU to start the art school’s development program and ran it for 23 years. VCU’s central fundraising office got a VP named John Kudless, and he gathered all of us who raised money for all the various VCU schools and said, “The money is not with these phone-a-thons you’re doing. It’s not with the direct mail. It’s not with the corporations or foundations. The money is in major gifts from individual people. It begins with a personal relationship, sitting in their living room, and asking them for a big dollar amount.” He said, “I need those of you who are willing to do that to get on this train… because the train is leaving the station.”

So I forced myself to learn this — I felt like it was something I had to do.

It’s scary the first time you’re in there, to say, “we’re here to ask you to consider a gift of $300,000” when the only thing they’d ever gotten before was a letter. But the more you do it, the more comfortable you get.

What’s your proudest achievement as a leader?

I try not to be proud. The one that I LOVE to talk about and that I think might be most distinctive is the CultureWorks donor tattoo.

It’s pretty amazing that we were able to get a nonprofit organization to provide a real, burn-your-skin tattoo to affirm your lifelong, forever, indelible, permanent belief that the arts are vital to this community. And then to get a Board to go along with it, and to get our funders to go along with it, and to get a group of 12 prominent people to be first out of the gate, all of whom had been tattoo virgins until doing this — that’s pretty distinctive. ‘Proud’ isn’t really the right word. I just think it’s really, really cool. That’s the coolest thing.

Yeah, I’ll admit that I thought you were crazy when you announced it.

Thus far, every tattoo virgin that’s gotten it — every single one, 100% — has said it has changed their lives for the positive in ways they would’ve never anticipated. Maggi Beckstoffer, who runs a marketing firm in town and is the head of the United Way campaign, said, “The four things that have had the most positive impact on my life are yoga, my husband, my iPad, and my CultureWorks tattoo.”

What size shoes do you wear?


I ask because I think whoever is named your successor has got some big shoes to fill.

Thank you.

I think you’ve been not only great for CultureWorks and for our community, but you’ve been really great for me, as a resource, a mentor, a connection as I’ve gotten settled in town, and I know that every arts leader in town feels the same way.

What do we expect next from John Bryan?

I’ve got a full plate. I’ll be working for myself and I’ll share more right after September 1. For now, I’m still hard at work on a manual for the new person, getting all these thoughts down, and first and foremost saying, “Here’s where the money is, now go get it.”

That’s really important in a transition, isn’t it? Like you said, fundraising is about personal relationships, so if you’ve been stewarding these relationships along, it’s a challenge to hand all of that off in a way that will prevent the relationships from resetting just because it’s a new person.

I’ve been intentional about that, working with our donors to ask in advance for them to support the arrival of the new person in various ways. I’ve been trying to put the things in place to offer the new person a launching pad.

What else do you want to add?

The only thing I’ll add is this. I guess anytime somebody leaves and they haven’t been a complete disaster, everybody tells them they’re wonderful. But here at CultureWorks, Leslie Huffman and Caron Sterling [John’s two staff colleagues at CultureWorks] were the first people here, even before me, and any — any — nice things that have happened have been equally, if not more so, owed to them. They’ve been willing to put up with me — I’m a lousy administrator — and they are even more a part of whatever formula that you admire about CultureWorks than I am.

Question: What do you admire most about John’s leadership? Please leave a comment by clicking here.

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