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By Jeff Maisey


The YWCA will present its 28th Women of Distinction Awards on April 28 during a luncheon at the Norfolk Waterside Marriott. Among the 11 women being honored this year is Kelly Harlan, Marketing Director of the Virginia Arts Festival.

I recently caught up with Kelly to learn more about her role with the Festival.


When and how did you land a job with the Virginia Arts Festival? 

I began my career at the Festival as a courier back in 2006. I had returned to Norfolk after college and was trying to find something temporary because I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do at that point. My friend Erin Rigney told me about an open position for a courier at the Festival. I applied and got it! I was in that position for about 4 days when I was then moved into the marketing department as a Playbill Coordinator and here I am now, the Marketing Director, 10 years later.



What were your early experiences like with the Festival? 

The Festival was such a different world for me. I had been in the studio art field in high school and college, but the world of performing arts was something I had never really experienced. It was an enlightening and fun learning curve, and the job was challenging in a really satisfying way. The Festival was relatively young at that point, and I was never really restricted to only doing one thing in the office. I learned so many new areas like marketing, event planning, and budgeting all within the first few years of my employment. I am not sure you can say that in many other lines of work, so I consider myself so lucky for the vast experience.



How have you grown both professionally and intellectually as a result during this time?

Professionally, I believe I have found my voice. Surprisingly to those who know me, I was actually pretty quiet when I first started at the Festival. New job, new people, new field… I think I was always worried I would make a mistake or say something silly, so I tended to keep my mouth shut. Then Cynthia Carter West joined the Festival, and strongly encouraged me to do tv and radio interviews and to build my professional network. She even bought me my first black suit – a staple for any job according to her, and I gradually became more sure of myself and more confident in my position and abilities.

Another really gratifying area of professional growth has come out of my service on committees and boards throughout the region. Finding my voice and utilizing my skills for the benefit of other organizations ultimately becomes a new learning experience for me in return. I like helping, and I like learning something new every day, which I guess is my response to intellectual growth. The Festival brings such a diverse group of artists and performances to our community that all of us have built up tidbits of knowledge along the way. (Like learning that Libby Larsen, another woman of distinction, is one of the prominent composers of our time or that there were riots in the street when Rite of Spring first premiered). I don’t know if I would have truly understood the transformative power of music, dance, and performing arts if I were not at the Festival for such a long period of time, particularly when we send performers to interact at schools and with young audiences. I have definitely become more appreciative of that power, both personally and professionally, and it’s something I see translated across all of the arts in our region.



What was the most memorable performance you experienced during the Festival and why? 

I actually hate this question, because after 10 years, and taking into account how passionate I am about what we produce, I cannot choose just one! I think my most notable memories are National Theatre of Scotland’s Blackwatch, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty (especially when gold fell from the sky), Australia’s Strange Fruit, C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, The Wailin’ Jenny’s, Rite of Spring with Richmond Ballet and Virginia Symphony, Meow Meow, and Battlefield Band. The Virginia International Tattoo will also be one that I always remember because my grandfather actually used to take me with my brother and sister… now I love watching him attend every year knowing that I am part of that production!


You are being honored as a Woman of Distinction in the Arts. How do you feel about that?

To be honest, I was pretty shocked that I received this award. I actually got the phone call while I was attending the VEER Music Awards. I kept asking Martha Cloudsley from YWCA, “are you sure you have the right person?”  It is such a huge honor, and I’m truly humbled and appreciative. I love working in the arts, and I feel there are so many women that work tirelessly to ensure that we remain a strong arts area (performers, writers, fellow marketing professionals, leaders of this community, curators, volunteers, and of course artists) who deserve this award too.



Do you see the arts as a field where women are viewed equal to men for their work, whether a performing artist, marketing or production staff member? 

The arts can be a space in which we become blind to race, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural background because we are engaging with the art for art’s sake. It’s an area that has been leveraged as a powerful voice for righting wrongs, shedding light on social and political issues, as well as intellectual and emotional fulfillment. The arts are becoming more accessible to everyone in the 21st century, and I see arts organizations, artists, and activists creating space so that everyone can derive their own conclusions from their experience (nothing is right or wrong). I am happy to work in such a supportive field, but  I do want to point out that we are not entirely equal yet. More arts organizations employ men in leadership roles like artistic director, executive director, choreographer, playwright, conductor, etc. So I think women need to continue to empower each other to not just work in the arts field, but to support each other in obtaining more executive roles, demand equal pay, and equal billing. I love that Dance Theater of Harlem, which is performing for the Festival in May, has the initiative, “Women Who Move Us.” Check it out! I’m thrilled the Festival partners with organizations who are forward-thinking in this way.



What advice would you give to young women seeking a potential career in the arts?

I think my first piece of advice would certainly be to surround yourself with strong female mentors and to continue to learn from them. For years I have looked up to the women around me for everything. I have sought advice, support, and sometimes merely a sounding board for ideas. The field of the arts boasts some of the most powerful, confident, and creative women I have known, so if you need any names, just let me know! My second piece of advice is to give back. I grew up by ODU and went to Larchmont, Blair and Maury, and I love this community for the education and perspective that it has given to me. I am involved with several groups including Downtown 100, CHKD Magnolia Circle, Norfolk Tourism Research Foundation, Maury High School Foundation, among others. I think it is important to get involved and get out of your comfort zone and to be able to give time and energy to great causes. And lastly, let your voice be heard. Make sure that you are speaking up and be confident in your abilities. You may make mistakes along the way, we all have, but the world will never know your potential if you don’t speak up.