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Penny McPhee’s Blank Family Foundation tenure leaves lasting imprint on Atlanta

After 17 hugely successful and influential years as president of The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, Penelope McPhee has taken her final curtain call. She retired February 14. “It’s very hard,” she says, “Bittersweet.”

The foundation will launch a new strategic plan this year and McPhee feels it’s the right time for someone else to implement it. Faye Twersky is in place as the new president. Before coming to the Blank Foundation, Twersky managed special initiatives for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in California.

When McPhee took the job in 2004, The Blank Foundation had just launched a strategic plan that aligned perfectly with her expertise and personal passions. The two documents form the bookends of her unwavering work to support the arts and numerous major initiatives that have helped Atlanta become the city it is today.  

“Penny McPhee’s leadership over the last 17 years can’t be overstated,” Arthur M. Blank said in a press release. “Her work has been tireless and the initiatives she has led will have a lasting impact on the communities and people we are committed to serve. Personally, she has been a dear friend and trusted adviser who has helped me achieve many personal and professional goals.” 

Penny McPhee

Penny McPhee joined The Blank Foundation in 2004 and made the arts a priority in his philanthropy. (Courtesy The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation)

When she started, McPhee found some of Blank’s expectations to be “surprising and unconventional.” Unlike most foundation leaders, his philanthropy encompasses all of his businesses, including the Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta United, the PGA TOUR Superstores and Mercedes-Benz Stadium  along with his properties and businesses in Montana. 

She also discovered she was joining a family, not just an organization, and over time learned the values, goals and passions of both Blank and his children. She has written that she viewed her role with the foundation as steward, facilitator, operative, change agent. She was the person who figured out how to make the family’s philanthropic aspirations a reality. 

“I am particularly proud that the foundation, under my leadership but driven by Arthur and the family, has taken a lot of risks and led the community in so many areas,” she says. The National Center for Civil and Human Rights was part of that — the foundation made one of the earliest grants to the center in 2007 — along with a $200 million donation to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for a new hospital and a push to change the trend line for childhood obesity through the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation. In the early 2000s, the foundation invested heavily in the planning and launch of the Atlanta BeltLine. The ongoing transformation of the historic Westside in the shadow of the $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium and, of course, the stadium itself, is another major initiative.  

The Vine City and English Avenue neighborhood was once a robust middle-class community but by 2011 had become impoverished. Since Blank signed the stadium deal in 2013, the foundation has contributed close to $50 million toward the community’s parks, crime and safety, economic inclusion, education, health and housing. The revitalization included murals that both reflect and engage the community. When the Westside Future Fund was launched, McPhee joined the board. The fund raised millions of dollars from Atlanta Fortune 500 companies to drive change in housing, blight reduction and community development. 

Frank Fernandez, president and CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, launched and led these revitalization efforts when he was senior vice president at the Blank Foundation and worked closely with McPhee. “Since her arrival in Atlanta, Penny has been at the forefront in pushing Atlanta’s philanthropic community on the importance of collaboration and the need to address our city and region’s historic racial and socioeconomic inequities,” he says. “This was also evident in how she led the foundation to support the arts communities in a variety of ways to lift up different and marginalized artists and nonprofit art groups.” 

McPhee’s emphasis on the arts 

It’s almost impossible to capture the full depth and breadth of the Blank family’s generosity under McPhee’s leadership. In raw figures, it adds up to nearly three quarters of a billion dollars. Ten million of that has been donated in Montana, where Blank has properties and investments. The rest has been invested in Atlanta and environs. The results can be seen every day in the rich and rapidly evolving tapestry of city life, from the BeltLine to healthccare, and from social justice to the arts. 

The foundation has invested nearly $43 million in Atlanta’s arts community. In 2015, the foundation established the Molly Blank Fund to support the causes that were important to Blank’s mother. Arts giving from that fund totals another $10 million invested with various organizations in Atlanta and Phoenix, where Molly Blank’s other son, Michael, lives.

Arthur M. Blank

Arthur Blank’s imprint on Atlanta goes far beyond the Atlanta Falcons and Home Depot. His foundation has been a major supporter of the arts, children’s health and education, social justice and community revitalization.

In the beginning, McPhee found the Atlanta arts scene to be relatively undeveloped. “When I came on board, Atlanta had a plethora of small arts organizations with budgets under $500,000 or $1 million, which meant that while we made a lot of grants they were pretty small,” she says. “There weren’t many organizations that had the capacity to accept large infusions of money.” 

That surprised her. “The organizations were mostly White-led, mostly founder-driven, particularly the dance organizations,” she says. “They were all struggling, and there wasn’t a lot of collaboration between them. They were very competitive.” She contrasts this with New York, where dance companies worked together to build the dance-friendly Joyce Theater. 

Before McPhee’s tenure, the foundation supported the arts primarily through education. The goal was to touch as many kids as possible, even if each grant reached only 30 or 100 children. The family felt strongly, and still does, that young people need to find their passions whether in sports or the arts. But McPhee encouraged them to think more broadly and to work on improving the health of the arts overall. 

“The arts as a quality-of-life issue is very important to me,” she says. “This meant we had to give where the opportunity was. So we gave smaller grants, but the notion was always that we wanted to help the whole landscape of the arts.” Larger organizations such as Atlanta Ballet, the Atlanta Symphony, the Alliance Theatre and the High Museum of Art have received funding from the foundation. The Atlanta Opera made good use of a recent $600,000 donation: The Molly Blank Fund Big Tent series, was the major donor for the innovative performances on the Oglethorpe University campus last fall and its new online Spotlight Media offerings. The fund has also been critical for the opera’s Discoveries Series, which showcases smaller-scale productions in intimate locations such as Paris on Ponce. The Molly Blank Fund gave the opera a $1.2 million, three-year grant for the series in 2017.

“This community is so grateful for her,” says Tomer Zvulun, general and artistic director of the opera. “When I think of Penny McPhee, I think of Mr. Rogers when he said, ‘Look for the helpers; you’ll always find people who are the helpers.’ Penny was always there to help. She has a huge legacy in Atlanta and specifically in the arts community and especially with The Atlanta Opera. The Discoveries Series, which has been critical for us, is in large part thanks to her involvement.”

The struggle to build arts audiences 

It was the smaller groups that McPhee felt particularly needed the funds and  organizational support, then and now. Helping them flourish and grow their audiences was an important component of her work. “We knew these organizations didn’t have the wherewithal to market themselves, so we did some experimenting,” she says.

She came up with the idea of connecting the arts with the foundation’s parks initiative. In 2011 and 2012, arts groups did free pop-up events in the parks and gave away vouchers for people to come see them in their venue. “We thought it would attract audiences,” McPhee says. “It didn’t. People loved the free performances but didn’t redeem the vouchers.” 

Penny McPhee

Penny McPhee discovered that many arts organizations were churning their audiences instead of retaining them. She helped form the successful Audience Building Roundtable to help them keep people coming back.

A lot of the reluctance to visit arts venues had to do with comfort and expectations, McPhee believes. “In the park I can wear shorts, but what do I wear to the concert hall? Why can’t I clap between movements?” These were familiar barriers, but Atlanta’s racial makeup also had an impact. “Certain audiences didn’t want to go to the Woodruff Arts Center,” she says. “Certain audiences didn’t want to go to a venue on the Westside or Southside. I call it ‘fear of the venue.’” 

McPhee found this divide, and the lack of racial and international diversity among audiences and the arts organizations themselves, more pronounced here than in Miami, where she had lived and worked for 33 years. 

In 2016, the Audience Building Roundtable became the foundation’s primary investment in the arts and was a big success. It began with a summit at a downtown Atlanta hotel. Representatives of more than 100 arts organizations attended. “We really listened to them and what they thought they needed,” McPhee says. “It soon became clear as we peeled away the onion that the organizations didn’t really know what they needed because they didn’t have data about their audiences. They didn’t know they were churning audiences, losing 70 percent to 80 percent each year. They didn’t know what they needed to do to keep audiences coming back. It took a while to convince people.” 

In the beginning the groups were competitive and didn’t want to share information. “One of the big victories of the roundtable was that by the end they were a self-regulating cohort of organizations that were learning from one another,” McPhee says. They also learned about a core foundation belief that came straight from Blank’s experience leading Home Depot: Listen to the customer.

Gretchen Butler, managing director of Theatrical Outfit, was one of the participants. “If you’ve ever been in a room with Penny, you know how inspirational it is to hear her speak,” Butler says. “Penny’s passion for the arts is palpable and the benefits organizations in Atlanta received through the roundtable — in funding, knowledge and relationship-building — are immeasurable. My colleagues around the country consistently remark at how impressed they are by the camaraderie of Atlanta arts organizations. That sense of unity can be directly traced to the work Penny did through the roundtable, which will serve Atlanta well for years to come.”

The Children’s Museum of Atlanta also benefited from the roundtable. “What began as an idea and a presentation to the community turned into three years of monthly forums where real challenges were shared and opportunities and methods for change and growth identified and encouraged,” says Jane Turner, the museum’s executive director. “We were given the opportunity to ‘try things out’ and as a result, we made significant changes to our operations and the positive impact cannot be overstated.”

The 39 groups that stayed with the program through COVID-19 got exit grants ranging from $25,000 to $50,000 at the end of 2020. They represent a cross section of the arts from theater to dance, classical music to visual arts and film, and such presenting organizations such as Spivey Hall, Rialto Center for the Arts and the Springer Opera House in Columbus. The roundtable is no longer active, but a website managed by the Georgia Humanities Council provides valuable resources and an opportunity to continue the conversation.

“In the best of all possible worlds,” McPhee says, “we’d be growing some of the small organizations to become midsized, and midsized organizations to grow larger, but we haven’t had the capital to do that.”

“We still have work to do”

McPhee graduated from Wellesley College in the same class as Hillary Clinton but unlike her classmate decided journalism, not law and politics, would be her way to change the world. (Journalism is still part of her DNA, and she’s proud of the foundation’s $50,000 challenge grant to ArtsATL in 2013 to help build its audience.) McPhee has a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and wrote for a CBS documentary unit in Miami. From there she moved to Miami’s public broadcasting station WPBT-TV, established the station’s cultural affairs department and served as executive producer of cultural programming, winning five Emmys in the process.  

She had no intention of leaving WPBT until one day in 1990. “I was having breakfast with my husband, reading the Sunday newspaper, and I saw an ad for an arts and culture program officer with the Knight Foundation. I said, ‘That job has my name on it.’” Her husband, she recalls, thought she was nuts to apply, but she did. And she got the job. At the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, she launched the Arts and Culture Program, and became vice president and chief program officer six years later. She was happy at the Knight Foundation too, but when a headhunter called about the Blank Foundation job, she was intrigued. It was the right fit at the right time.  

The foundation’s Speaker Series began in 2007. Penny McPhee (center) is with University of California at Berkeley law professor John Powell (from left), Arthur Blank, Beverly Tatum and Frank Fernandez.

McPhee was already interested in Atlanta, having cowritten Martin Luther King Jr: A Documentary, Montgomery to Memphis, a collection of intimate photographs of King and his family taken by TimeLife photographer Flip Schulke. McPhee contributed the text, based primarily on King’s own words, and read just about everything he had written. The book was published in 1976.

Based on its unexpected success, the W.W. Norton publishing house asked her to write a second book, a biography of King, again with the photography of Schulke, to coincide with the first observation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a national holiday. She made her first trip to Atlanta to do research. “I had this amazing opportunity to come to Atlanta and interview all of his lieutenants, including Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, Rev. Joseph Lowery, C.T. Vivian,” she says. “It was a life-changing experience for me.” King Remembered was released in early 1986, weeks before the first observance of the King holiday.

The Blank Foundation later became one of many organizations and businesses to raise the $23 million needed to ensure that King’s papers stayed in Atlanta.

The city that McPhee encountered when she returned in 2004 wasn’t what she expected racially. “I was so taken by what I thought was an integrated city, something I hadn’t seen in other cities I had lived in,” she says. “But you soon learn that while at the upper social level it’s quite integrated, below that it’s not. Everything in Atlanta revolves around race.” 

Now that the Black Lives Matter movement has shed light on the disparities that still exist, McPhee believes Atlanta has great potential to lead. 

“I am proud that we were committed to social-justice issues long before the recent awareness and the Black Lives Matter movement,” she says. “It was an important underpinning of all the work of the foundation. I am proud that we put together such a diverse staff, probably the most diverse of any foundation in Atlanta. We have leadership that cares about it, and we have a history that points us in the right direction. But we still have work to do.”

Bringing public art to Atlanta

In 2007, McPhee launched the foundation’s Speaker Series to educate and inspire Atlanta’s community leaders on a broad menu of topics, including race. But it wasn’t until a few years later, after the recession required a shift in priorities, that the series became the hot ticket. As the revamped Film & Speaker Series, it brought in arts and business leaders, filmmakers and journalists to discuss topics ranging from child development to biking safety, from public art to sustainability, from race to the needs of veterans. The goal was to spur civic action and citizen involvement for positive change in people’s lives.

One of the speakers was Jane Golden, the muralist and dynamic public art activist whose work has changed the face of Philadelphia building by building and community by community. McPhee met Golden in 2014 on a LINK (Leadership Involvement Networking Knowledge) trip to Philadelphia with the Atlanta Regional Commission.

LINK trips are designed to expose leaders to communities to benchmark Atlanta against. In Philadelphia, they were blown away by Golden’s passion and success. “The commission did something it has never done before or since, to my knowledge,” McPhee says. “On the last day they asked the Atlanta leaders to contribute to a mural project in Atlanta. Everyone was so hyped up, they did. Real dollars. I think people recognized that everyone wanted to do something like this in Atlanta.” 

Penny McPhee

Penny McPhee helped plan the multimillion-dollar art collection on display at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Participants raised more than $70,000 to start a regional public art program in the city. Those murals are now integral to Atlanta’s cityscape and can be enjoyed even during the pandemic shutdown. There are murals on the BeltLine; inside the Vine City MARTA station (by Atlanta native Shanequa Gay); outside the Ashby MARTA station (by Fahamu Pecou, a graduate of Emory University’s Institute of Liberal Arts); and one on the exterior of the Bellwood Boys and Girls Club (by Joe Dreher and Muhammad Suber). The children at the club helped come up with the concept and helped paint the mural. Golden has contributed to the city’s murals by teaching Atlanta artists best practices so their work can be maintained and will endure.

A partnership between the city, the influential but now-defunct arts nonprofit WonderRoot and the Super Bowl host committee in 2018 created a citywide art exhibit called Off the Wall: Atlanta’s Civil Rights and Social Justice Journey. It brought together 10 artists to paint 30 murals downtown and the Sweet Auburn, Vine City, English Avenue, Castleberry Hill neighborhoods and in the Home Depot Backyard at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

While in Miami, McPhee served on the Miami-Dade County Art in Public Places commission, one of the first public art programs in the country, so this was familiar territory. But she believes strongly that public art encompasses more than the murals we see as we drive around the city. Blank brought her into the planning process for the multimillion-dollar collection at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It includes commissioned murals by world-class national and international artists, and a collection of photographs and smaller pieces. In all, about 200 pieces of art are on display, representing 55 artists, 45 percent of them from Georgia. 

“There are 70,000 people there for a football game and 40,000 for a soccer game,” McPhee says. “It’s public art. It’s not locked away in suites. It’s in concourses where people can see it. It’s a remarkable collection. This was another highlight of the job and a testament to Arthur. He thinks of all of his businesses as one enterprise, and he’s smart about using people across the businesses who have expertise. Even though I wasn’t on the Falcons’ staff he brought me into the job, which was fabulous.”

Stadium visitors can see the art during a game and on the art tour. The regular tour is on hold during the pandemic, but kids grades 3-12 can see the art as part of the stadium’s virtual STEAM tours. 

“It was the right moment”

McPhee has some regrets, things she wishes had worked out differently. Her first big arts-related project with the foundation was a new hall for the Atlanta Symphony. The foundation had pledged $25 million toward the venture, and ended up giving $12 million. Like many big-vision projects, the initial budget of $105 million ballooned and no other major foundations stepped up to the plate. The hall never got built. Some of the trouble had to do with timing, McPhee says, some with the health of the orchestra at that time. 

“I think it’s a shame for the whole community that we weren’t able to build a new Symphony Hall and still haven’t 17 years later,” she says. “It was a complicated story that taught us all some lessons. It was a big disappointment for Arthur and me, and was one of my failures, to put it bluntly.” 

McPhee had also hoped to influence and increase Atlanta’s public funding for the arts. A hotel/motel tax helped fund the stadium, but getting public funds for the arts on a state and local level has been tough. She feels Atlanta has failed in this effort. “I can’t tell you how many committees and task forces I was personally involved with — going back to Shirley Franklin’s tenure as mayor — to find a way to get dedicated sources of public funding for the arts.”

Penny McPhee and her husband, Raymond, live at Serenbe in Chattahoochee Hills. She plans to stay involved in advocating for the arts and social justice. (Photo by Kevin D. Liles)

Franklin was prepared to set aside part of the city’s annual budget. “We were looking at $10 million a year, but then 2008 came along and the recession and she couldn’t do it,” McPhee says. 

Franklin’s term ended and McPhee continued her efforts through Mayor Kasim Reed. “He wanted to do it as a multi-county effort, with Fulton and DeKalb. Of course, that’s complicated at a political level. This public support piece is still a real gap. I consider it something left undone.”

McPhee intends to advocate for this post-retirement, believing that the arts need three sources of funding to thrive: philanthropy, earned income and public funding. Georgia ranks next-to-last in the country in public funding for the arts, spending an anemic 14 cents per person.

Franklin recalls that during her tenure as mayor she and McPhee had numerous strategic discussions. “She always understood the value of the community’s input, whether arts organizations, cultural or community institutions, government or the general public,” Franklin says. “She understood the importance of including the community’s aspirations and desires in the programs she advocated for and brought a broad worldview and perspective to the work she does. She is unique in that way.”

It’s always been Blank’s intention, McPhee says, to escalate giving and to think about legacy giving. The foundation’s recent multimillion-dollar donation to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta are indications of their shift in focus. The family will still support education, particularly to help disadvantaged kids thrive, but they will be using new tactics and strategies. “There is going to be more of a focus on social justice,” McPhee says. 

McPhee and her husband, Raymond H. McPhee, a retired film and TV producer, plan to stay in the Atlanta area and enjoy their home in Serenbe. She’s eager to spend more time with her 8-year-old granddaughter and, post COVID, see more live theater. She also wants to continue to make a difference in the community. She’s been asked to join several boards and is taking a few months to decide where she can best contribute. She wants to influence voter registration, public funding for the arts, social justice issues and other initiatives she’s not ready to talk about yet. And she’s excited about her next chapter. 

“It’s different to be focused on the things you care about personally than to lead a staff, keep them engaged and focused, develop them and let them be the best they can be,” McPhee says. “I’ve had 17 extraordinary years. So many opportunities, so many challenges, it’s hard to imagine not being part of that anymore. But it’s the right thing. It’s the right moment.”