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Take Five: Kelly Lamb Pollock, newly tapped head of COCA

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 24, 2010 - Since its founding in 1986, the Center of Creative Arts - COCA - has had just one executive director. After 23 years at the helm of the organization, Stephanie Riven will be stepping down on June 30 to take a position with the New York consulting firm David Bury Associates.

Word came this month that taking Riven's place will be Kelly Lamb Pollock, herself a COCA veteran. Since 2006, Pollock has served as general manager of the organization, which offers 500 classes, camps and workshops annually, both at its University City headquarters and in 50 schools and community centers across St. Louis. It has, the leaders note, grown into the fifth largest multidisciplinary community arts center in the nation.

In 2009, COCA was chosen as one of 19 case study sites for research conducted by Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. Researchers explored "the complex factors, actors, and settings that must be aligned to achieve quality in arts education."

Key among their findings were the significance of ongoing reflection about quality within an organization and the importance of personal, passionate and persistent efforts to achieve excellence. They emphasized the multifaceted nature of arts education, stressing not only the roles of teaching and learning, but also of the classroom community and environment.

And finally, they discovered that foundational decisions about programming, as well as the people who make those decisions, are crucial to ensuring each student has a rich learning experience.

Pollock will assume considerable responsibility when she steps into her new role on July 1. But as a graduate of Washington University and the CORO Women in Leadership Program, with a master's degree in public policy administration from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and a track record at COCA that includes overseeing a $3.3 million increase in the organizational budget in eight short years, it's no surprise that she emerged as the person for the job.

Pollock was interviewed Wednesday from her office at COCA headquarters.

Q: Through the years, COCA has received many awards for excellence in arts education. What are some of the key components of the organization's success?

Pollock: From the beginning, we've had a commitment to quality, and that starts with the teachers in the classrooms and the studios. From the very beginning, there was an appreciation for the relationship that's established between the teacher, the artist and the student, and that is really where the magic happens. We've always been committed to that, and I think that's been core to who we are.

I think also our core values of accessibility and diversity [are central to our success]. That comes in many ways: making it a program that's available to those at an introductory level as well as those who are on a pre-professional path, bringing a diverse cross-section of people together, and offering diverse disciplines - the fact that we're a multidisciplinary model - all of those things coming together I think have been our recipe for success and are all areas that will continue in the years to come.

Q: You've been at COCA since 1997. What have been some of the highlights of your career there so far?

Pollock: I started in our development office doing fundraising. We started with just me in the fundraising office and really established a department here in terms of a team that takes on the significant fundraising goals each and every year to sustain and fund the programs we do. So really, that was the first eight years of my work here. As part of that, I worked on a lot of the major foundation proposals to secure funding for some of our key programs and moved on to the general management role.

In the past four years, I've been overseeing all of the programs and activities except really the fundraising division, and now have the benefit of working on all of the programmatic aspects - marketing, finance, technology, HR - so it's allowed me the opportunity to understand each and every aspect of our operation and our organization, and to work with the donors, the board, as well as the faculty, the students and the parents. I think that expansive approach that I've been able to have throughout my career here at COCA has really allowed me to take on the leadership role I'm about to assume.

Q: Stephanie Riven has been at the helm at COCA since 1986. What have you learned from working with her and watching the organization grow?

Pollock: As the founding executive director, Stephanie has been so passionate about the arts. She's been a great ambassador and advocate for the arts, and I think that her passion for the work that we do, she's instilled that in me and I will carry that on and take that with pride as I move into my role. She's just been a great spokesperson for the arts in general.

The work Stephanie's been committed to in making sure that COCA is a place that's accessible to all, regardless of your financial status, is another thing we'll move forward with. Regardless of your socio-economic background, there's a place for you at COCA, as well as a place for diverse interests and backgrounds to come together here in this wonderful space, to share ideas and dialogue.

Because of the vision of Stephanie, the founders and the board members and patrons that have supported us through the years, we have great building blocks.

Q: What are your goals in your new role as executive director? Do you see any changes ahead?

Pollock: As I said, we have a wonderful track record to build on, and the good news is that COCA is healthy and thriving in all capacities. I think that building on our multidisciplinary model and ensuring that we broaden our reach to engage audiences in deeper ways is what I'll be focused on.

We are widely known for an outstanding dance program, and we'll build on that, but I also want to continue to develop our theater and visual arts, and bring that out to the forefront a little bit more.

When we talk about accessibility and arts learning for all, we're looking to expand even that, for example, through a new program that we're taking into the business community that I think is very innovative. We're excited about that potential. It's a program we call COCAbiz.

We think COCA can provide the forum to allow artists and business people to work together in new ways and use the arts as a vehicle to stimulate creativity and innovation in the workplace.

We've been working on this for the past couple years, and we think that this really could be a breakthrough for businesses in St. Louis, in terms of having a stimulating dialogue, a creative workplace and using arts - because they're experiential learning, not just neck-up learning - to really challenge and allow people to take risks in new ways and have a pathway to new perspectives in the workplace. We'll be unfolding more of that in years to come.

The other program that I'm excited to continue to work on and build is our Interchange program, partnering with the St. Louis Public Schools and a variety of arts and cultural organizations to engage students in learning in the core curriculum. We've been on a great track with that, with support from the Ford Foundation. I think we have a great opportunity to continue to engage students in learning in new ways through the arts.

Q: What are some of the challenges you expect to face in the coming years?

Pollock: I think all nonprofits have had to find a new path through this challenging economic environment over the past couple years, and COCAbiz is one way that we've tried to adapt and innovate. We can no longer just be reliant on contributed revenue, so finding new revenue streams and broadening the mix of revenue that we have here [is crucial].

COCA has such a great program to build on that really the greatest challenge and key to the future is just to be able to sustain what's been built here over the past 23 years. We've had such rapid growth - we serve 50,000 people annually - that the next phase of COCA's development is to be able to sustain what's been built, maintain the dynamic programming and keep it fresh as we do that.

Margaux Wexberg Sanchez is a freelance writer.

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