Artsphoria Media Group Workshop: “Women Trailblazers: Female Founders & CEOs Carving Their Own Paths”

By Andrea K. Hammer

Artsphoria Media Group recently launched a New Workshop, Conference & Retreat Series.

The first session titled “Women Trailblazers: Female Founders & CEOs Carving Their Own Paths” focused on the tension between artistic interests and business needs. Here are highlights from the speakers’ firsthand experiences handling various challenges.

Blanka Zizka, Artistic Director of The Wilma Theater

Blanka Zizka, artistic director of the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia

Blanka Zizka has been artistic director of The Wilma Theater since 1981. She is the founder of the Wilma HotHouse: a resident ensemble of theater artists, formally launched in 2016, to serve as an incubator for artistic investigation and experimentation. The 14-person core HotHouse Company of actors are enabled to dare and explore under the Wilma’s auspices as well as resident artists and affiliated artists of all theatrical disciplines.

About 15 years ago, Blanka would look at the budget each season. At that time, the Wilma staged one big and one small production: a drama with conflict and a lighter play.

“Lately, I have given up doing that and, of course, the box office is suffering,” she said. “I’m feeling that theater is very much interested in history and memory, but we have to do it from the present moment.”

In addition, Blanka noted that theater changes and evolves with people in the productions and each audience’s response in a constant dialogue.

“As I get older, I feel that it is more and more important to do work that I need to do personally and be less worried about what people want,” she said.

“Audiences are not one blob–it’s 300 individuals. Now, we’re in a country that’s more divided and splintered into small groups with their own interests and ideas about their own history or ideology. You cannot just serve one small segment of the population. It’s tricky.”

Changing Theater Audiences in the Internet Age

Blanka Zizka also referred to extensive work by young writers, which the theater has produced. She reflected on the Wilma’s longtime audiences, which prompted her to ask a series of rhetorical questions:

  • Is the older audience interested in those things?
  • Will younger people come to the theater when there is so much content available on their devices?
  • Will they come to the theater and watch plays written by their peers?

“These are all questions that I don’t have any answers for, and nobody knows. That’s the problem right now. There is no marketing strategy that can tell you anything about how to go forward, and what will work and what won’t work,” she said.

“There are a wave of problems in the theater world–larger and smaller. Everyone is dealing with changing audiences and the competition that the Internet brought to us.”

“Exchange of Energies” During Live Theater

At the Wilma, Blanka has directed more than 70 plays and musicals. Most recently, she directed the world premiere of Christopher Chen’s Passage, her play Adapt!, Andrew Bovell’s When The Rain Stops Falling, Tom Stoppard’s U.S. premiere of The Hard Problem, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Hamlet, Paula Vogel’s world premiere Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq, Richard Bean’s Under the Whaleback, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s Our Class, Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room and Macbeth. Her other favorite productions are Wajdi Mouawad’s Scorched, Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love and Rock ’n’ Roll, Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, Brecht’s The Life of Galileo, Athol Fugard’s Coming Home and My Children! My Africa! and Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9.

When describing live theater, Blanka referred to an “exchange of energies,” which she believes is lost online.”There is a demand of active participation, which doesn’t happen when watching online,” she said.

Blanka Zizka collaborated closely with Dael Orlandersmith on her plays Raw Boys and Yellowman, which was co-produced by McCarter Theatre and the Wilma. Blanka was honored to be selected into the 2017 Class of the Innovators Walk of Fame by the University Science Center, which spotlights local innovators. She is a recipient of the 2016 Vilcek Prize. Blanka received the Zelda Fichandler Award from the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation in 2011, and she was a fellow at the 2015 Sundance Institute/LUMA Foundation Theatre Directors Retreat.

“We have programs for disabled people and those with visual impairments. That is one way we are using technology to help,” Blanka added.

Joan Myers Brown, Founder of The Philadelphia Dance Company (PHILADANCO) and The Philadelphia School of Dance Arts

Joan Myers Brown, founder and executive artistic director of PHILADANCO and The Philadelphia School of Dance Arts

Joan Myers Brown is the founder of The Philadelphia Dance Company (PHILADANCO) and The Philadelphia School of Dance Arts. She serves as honorary chairperson for the International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD), an organization she established in 1991.

“The times have changed and younger people have changed. Dance has changed. It’s a challenge,” she said.

Joan also founded the International Conference of Black Dance Companies in 1988. She is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, which bestowed upon her an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts; is a member of the dance faculty at Howard University in Washington, DC; and has been awarded an honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa.

In May 2015, she received an honorary Doctor of Arts degree from The University of Pennsylvania. Listed in Who’s Who in America and described as an “innovator and communicator,” Joan Myers Brown has made significant contributions to the national and international arts communities.

Succession Talk, Next Week’s Pay and Alternative Funding

Joan continued her talk by addressing questions about succession.

“I say, ‘What about it?’ I’m worried about paying people next week. Who’s going to pay them when I’m gone?” Joan asked. “Of course, I realize that we have to prepare as an organization and institution for when I’m gone if it’s going to continue.”

Right now, PHILADANCO is committed until 2021.  Joan has continually needed to jump through financial hoops since starting the school in 1970 and the company 10 years later.

“I was looking for a larger space because my dance school was small, and I tried to get a bank loan. The company had no history. So I went to an affluent person and said, ‘I can’t get a loan. How do I get a loan?'”

Joan secured a personal one, which she could repay in 11 years. Instead, she paid it back in 11 months, so they didn’t have to worry about paying rent or moving. Now, Joan continues to find alternative sources for funding.

“I don’t think that’s just my problem but one for the arts community,” she said.

Lessons for Creative Entrepreneurs: Network and Prepare

What has this spirited 87-year-old founder learned about keeping a creative enterprise afloat for decades?

“I found it was good to have people who believed in me, believed in what I believed and were ready to support me,” she said. “Having a network and surrounding yourself with people who are interested in what you’re trying to do. I think that’s important.”

Joan also recommended researching and taking advantage of free resources such as Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts.

“I’ve been lucky. Most of our dancers stay 8 or 9 years before the leave us, and then they go to Ailey. I say, ‘You don’t just move out, you move up.'”

However, Joan added that work isn’t available for most dance students. Despite all of the challenges over the years and the prospect of turning 90, she remains motivated to help them find jobs.

“I think it’s so funny that people look at age and not ability. I feel that way about succession…. I can still work and pick out a dancer. I can still teach a ballet class,” she said.

Then, after describing PHILADANCO’s popularity when the ensemble performs abroad, Joan added: “We have to appreciate our own.”

Sarah Stolfa, President, CEO and Artistic Director Philadelphia Photo Arts Center (PPAC)

Sarah Stolfa, founder and CEO of PPAC, modeled the center after successful organizations in New York City, Houston, Syracuse and Seattle to provide essential photography resources for a community of artists in Philadelphia.

Sarah Stolfa is a working fine-art photographer and educator with more than 8 years of experience in photography, education, curatorial work and digital lab creation and management. She has an M.F.A. in photography from Yale University School of Art. In addition to teaching at PPAC, Sarah has taught at the Yale University Art Gallery, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the University of Delaware and Drexel University. She currently teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.

Bartender and Photographer

When Sarah ended up in Philadelphia 23 years ago, she worked in several bars to support herself. At one point, she complained about the work. After another bartender told her to do something about it, Sarah went back to school.

“I always had an interest in art. I had a very low threshold for commitment, so I signed up for a 2-year program at the Art Institute,” she said.

During my first history of photography class, I saw the work of Robert Frank, The Americans. That work struck a chord so deep in me that it changed my understanding of what the medium was,” she said.

After 10 years working at a Philadelphia bar, the photos that she took there became a book titled The Regulars. This collection allowed her to leave the bar and propelled her forward.

“When I was at Yale, I told myself that I was never going to take another job that didn’t fulfill me creatively or professionally. I had to be doing something that would better who I am,” she said.

Gallery Representation and Business Plan

During her last semester at Yale, she was represented by Gallery 339, which is no longer in Philadelphia. The two owners asked about her plans, when she mentioned probably going to New York. Instead, they challenged her to develop a business plan, leading to donors and others enabling the launch of PPAC.

“They looked at my business plan and had major sticker shock because they were thinking a lot less money. But they believed in it and bought it,” she said.

PPAC organizes about eight exhibits each year, along with extensive outreach programs in the community. The center also provides cost-cutting options for renting photography equipment for those who don’t have purchasing resources.

“We do a lot of programming to create access to the arts. Our after school program is completely free,” she added.


New Arts and Business Workshops, Conferences and Retreats

Please share these stories and tips from female founders and CEOs operating creative businesses. Check back frequently for updates about Artsphoria Media Group‘s New Workshop, Conference & Retreat Series, and spread the word!

About artsbiz365 88 Articles
Andrea Karen Hammer, a Philadelphia-based freelance writer, is the founder, CEO and owner of Artsphoria Events & Media Group ( She leads the operation and innovation at Artsphoria: Arts, Business & Technology Center, Artsphoria Event Planning, Marketing & Reporting (; Artsphoria International Magazine (, Artsphoria Movie Reviews & Film Forum (; Artsphoria: Food for the Soul ( and Artsphoria's Animation & Imagination World (

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