Take a passion for the arts and mix it with a talent for shaping Atlanta’s cultural landscape and you get the unique skill set of Emory alum and civic pioneer Doug Shipman 95C.
This June, Shipman accepted an exciting new gig as the CEO of cultural behemoth, the Woodruff Arts Center, home for the High Museum of Art, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Alliance Theatre.
Following a string of successful stints in high-profile leadership positions in the city, it should come as no surprise that Shipman was tapped to take on this new challenge. As the founding CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and the CEO of BrightHouse Consulting, Shipman is more than prepared to run with his new opportunity, but maintains a sense of modesty in the face of his success:
“I tend to see myself as someone who is constantly trying to expand what it is that I know or what it is that I experience. I grew up in a very small town, 1200 people in Arkansas with no real exposure to the world, not a lot of travel, not a lot of culture. And so at every step I’m trying to say: what it is that’s so unique about this and how is it that I can learn something?”
Following my visit with Shipman in his BrightHouse-yellow office in Ponce City Market on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, it became apparent that his outlook – about the world, the city and the arts – doesn’t spur from a stand-offish position of detached power, but from an active, constant engagement with his surroundings.
Loli: How would you describe yourself?
Doug: When I came to Emory, it was all about learning about Atlanta, learning about identity issues; when I went to grad school, it was about religion—I travelled a lot, I lived in India for a year—and so, I see myself as someone who’s trying to understand something for what it is—all aspects of it. Also, I like being rooted in a place and bringing all kinds of people together to make that place better. In my own social life, I like introducing divergent people and making sure that they all are part of a process. That’s how I see myself—as a bridge between different individuals whom I’m lucky enough to know, and between different topics.
What are your ambitions as the new CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center?
The Woodruff Arts Center is this incredibly iconic institution. It not only houses three amazing organizations in theater and visual arts and symphonic presentation, but it’s also a destination—people come to Atlanta to go there. So, first and foremost, I want to maintain that position and grow it. I want this institution to continue to be iconic. What does that mean? It means two things: we should present the best of Atlanta to the world and we should bring incredibly world-class things to Atlanta for residents and visitors to experience.
I also think Atlanta is in a healthy spot from an arts and culture perspective, but it still has a lot of work to do. We have a lot of good, healthy institutions in various disciplines, but we still don’t have quite the scale, especially in the middle of the arts community. We have a lot of young, burgeoning artists and a lot of established, big institutions, but the middle is also important and I hope the Woodruff can play a role in developing it. I want to make sure that we can keep artists across disciplines in Atlanta if they want to stay throughout their career.
Finally, it is very close to my heart that we serve every person in the region, of every background, in ways that are unique to them. We have very interesting populations, whether they’re racial and ethnic groups, religious groups, language groups, diverse generations. I want us to be an institution for which everyone can say “The Woodruff is mine” – you could’ve been here for two years or 30 years, could’ve come from Pakistan or Alabama, but it’s an institution that has universality. There are certain things that are happening that we need to tell the stories of, for example: almost 50% of visitors to the High Museum are non-white, a fact that might be a surprise for many. We want as many communities as possible to feel attached to the institution.
What are some projects you are looking forward to, both professionally and personally?
The Alliance Theatre is building itself physically; it’s in renovation and its space is about to be reinvented. So, I’m looking forward to that process, it’s very exciting. I’m also thinking about what the Woodruff should be 50 years from now. Atlanta has changed—Midtown has grown and it includes many people who haven’t been there before—what does that mean for us? How do we serve not only people who have been living here, but people who moved to the area three months ago?
I want to understand better the broader arts community in Atlanta and what we collectively want. There’s going to be a lot of change – there’s going to be a new mayor, a new governor, the Beltline is changing, Colony Square and Westside as well. I’m excited as an Atlanta resident and as someone who can bring people together and figure out where we all collectively want to go. I know people in their 30s who tell me that they don’t want to leave Atlanta because they want to create it. I look forward to continuing to have these conversations with folks, that will be fun. The arts scene here showcases our distinctiveness and our universality, often at the same time. The particularities of our arts are special but then there’s the sheer universality of the fact that we’re all talking about the same things. There are common fears and desires and wishes that we all share, and that starts a conversation.
On a personal note, I love all three disciplines housed at the Woodruff [theater, visual arts, music] and I’m very excited about having an excuse to talk to a curator about a show, or to see a rehearsal, or to attend a performance as part of my job.
How did you arrive to where you are today?
I grew up in a small town; I didn’t have much exposure to anything. I ended up going to Emory and my college roommate, who is still my closest friend and who was a theater major, was very instrumental for me starting to expand my horizons, including that he and I got Atlanta Symphony tickets—very discounted rates for Thursday nights. He also took me to the Alliance Theatre and to exhibitions, all kinds of things. That combined with Emory (I did a lot of study around identity issues, race, ethnicity, religion, and sexuality) made me very interested in provocative, artistic endeavors.
I ended up going in the private sector for a while, doing public policy and theology – religion and social movements. This was in Boston, at Harvard. Then I worked six years at a consulting firm because I was still interested in business and I wanted to put my wife through medical school. She actually brought us back to Atlanta because she went to Emory Medical School; now she’s an Emory doctor.
Then the firm I was working with was used by the mayor Shirley Franklin for pro-bono projects. One day, she conceived of an idea about a new museum celebrating civil rights history and Martin Luther King, Jr. She called the firm asking for someone well-versed in those topics; I studied with Robert Franklin at Emory and Preston Williams and others at Harvard, so they sent me over. A ten-week project turned into a ten-year effort to found the Center for Civil and Human Rights. I was the first employee and the founding CEO. We had very high-caliber designers and artists involved in the project, which was thrilling for me. I also had to learn how to fundraise, since the project cost $100 million.
I left after a year with the Center for Civil and Human Rights to be the CEO of BrightHouse, a firm funded by Joey Reiman, an adjunct professor at Goizueta [Emory’s Business School]. He was in the process of selling his firm to Boston Consulting Group, where I used to work. Since I knew Joey and BrightHouse and the BCG, he asked me if I wanted to take over and help BrightHouse become part of BCG and grow. That’s what I have been doing for the last two years until the Woodruff Arts process unfolded. The Woodruff Arts Center marries the two things I’m interested in, business and arts—that’s what attracted me to the position.
Tell us a little about your time at Emory.
There are a lot of memories I cherish, I had a wonderful Emory experience, but two in particular stand out. One is the course with Dr. Robert Franklin—he’d written a book about Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Booker T. Washington and W.B. DuBois and the religious perspectives on their social engagements. His course turned me onto religion and civil movements and was one of the big reasons why I went to graduate school. The other was that I was an SA [Sophomore Advisor] for a year and an RA [Resident Advisor] for two years. I was an RA for a freshman co-ed dorm and I have lots of memories of Friday night conversations and all different kinds of people arguing all kinds of things: religion, politics, foods, sports…whatever. Being able slightly older and seeing first year students trying to figure out everything made me comfortable with different perspectives and arguments. Also, to meet people with different experiences than mine was quite thrilling.
What would you advise recent graduates? What about graduates interested in a career in the arts, in particular?
When you are just out of school, you feel a lot of pressure imposed on you to make decisions, figure out what you want to do, and go forward. My advise is that this is actually a time you have to explore, to take risks, to go in a direction that might not work out. This is the time for it—you might not yet have a mortgage, a family, you may have grad school in front of you…there’s more time than you think. If you put too much pressure on yourself, you might say yes to the wrong stuff.
Secondly, explore a few things. Figure out where your passion and your skill intersect, because that is where you’ll find both happiness and professional resonance. In the arts, no matter what side of the art equation you are – an artist or producer or administrator – you have to really love the artistic endeavor it can’t be separated from its financial applications. You don’t want to starve as an artist or not have money for your organization – it’s just not fun. For me, it has been gratifying to bring a heart for arts and culture, but a head for business, because that is how you can actually get things done. If you’re an administrator, you have to be savvy about art, and if you’re an artist, you have to be savvy about the financial side. You’ll be more secure where you are and it will give you more longevity.
What do you wish you knew as a young adult at Emory?
I wish I would’ve known how much professors enjoy student interaction. I don’t think I took full advantage of building the kind of relationships with professors and staff that I could have. On the flip side, being someone who engages with and coaches students, it’s incredibly energizing and invigorating for me.
Another thing I would suggest is to explore. I took a lot of courses in different subjects—in Greek tragedy, African-American, female-male relationships, women in poverty, classical music. That liberal arts side of the equation has come in so handy. Exploration is invaluable—that’s one thing I might’ve gotten right during my time at Emory.
How can Emory students and Arts at Emory be more involved in the arts scene, and with Woodruff Arts, in particular?
The arts community in Atlanta is far more accessible than it looks when you’re a student at Emory. A lot of well-placed arts folks will return students’ calls, invite students to coffee, if there’s an outreach from the student. If someone looks interesting and you’d like to meet them, take a try – the worse thing that can happen is for them to say no or not respond and the best thing is to find yourself developing a friendship.
There are a lot of things happening in arts and culture in Atlanta that are not only performance-based. There was and probably will be a big arts tax conversation and potentially a big referendum for the city of Atlanta to put a permanent tax in place. That’s a large political effort. There are a lot of pieces to that; it needs people to be involved. There’s another conversation about zoning in the city regarding public art and murals. Go to the hearings, see what people are talking about, how people are lobbying, and what the politicians say. There are a lot of publications that write about art in Atlanta: ArtsATL, Art Papers, Creative Loafing. There are ways to be involved on that side. The life of the arts community is quite vibrant.
Because Atlanta is so transient, it is easier to get involved here than it is in other cities with more of a hierarchy where you have to be a patron or from an arts family. The Woodruff in particular offers lots of free things: there are ways to get into the High for free, to go to free events and rehearsals. Just be cognizant of the offerings of the institution. Also, there are a lot of internships that happen across the three platforms and across organizations; but if there aren’t any listed and there’s something you’re interested in, just reach out. There are 400 full-time Woodruff employees, 800 part-time. It’s a big fundraising, marketing and education machine. There are lots of ways Woodruff can help you in your career. Also, use the Emory alumni network to find internships – the Alumni Center can help, the Career Center can help—you could just google “Emory arts alumni” and there’s a bunch of articles about those of us who are alums. Be proactive and reach out to folks.
By Loli Lucaciu