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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, May 15, 2006

Leadership corner

Full interview with Marilyn Cristofori

Interviewed by Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

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Title: Chief executive officer

Organization: Hawai'i Arts Alliance

Born: Sacramento, Calif.

High School: Sacramento Senior High School

College: Stanford University, bachelor of arts in education; California State University, Chico, master of arts in theater and dance; University of Hawai'i, Executive MBA.

Breakthrough job: Since I had three careers, I don't consider that I've had one breakthrough job. When I went to Europe, I got involved in a small American modern dance company, which was a breakthrough job into my artistic career. Although I had a degree in education, my breakthrough job in education was in the mid-'70s when Brown University hired me as a guest professor. My breakthrough job in Hawai'i was with the Hawai'i Association for the Education of Young Children. Since I was out of my direct element, I had to really pay attention to my administrative skills.

Little-known fact: Offered a full scholarship to the Harvard business school. I did not go. I had dancing in my heart.

Mentor: My board of directors

Major challenge: Increasing the amount of corporate donations.

Hobbies: Ballroom dancing, snorkeling, swimming in the ocean and weightlifting.

Books recently read: "The World Is Flat A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century," by Thomas L. Friedman; "Fooled by Randomness — The Hidden Role of Chance in the Markets and in Life," by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

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Q: How many different groups and people does the Hawai'i Arts Alliance touch?

A: We have about 100 member organizations on all the Islands and upwards of 400 individuals, from the smallest to the Academy of the Arts to the opera. We try to be a voice for all of the arts, such as maintaining the grants that go out to small organizations from the public agencies.

Q: Out of a budget of just over $1 million, 51.8 percent of your funding comes from various government agencies while individuals contribute 5.9 percent. How come corporations only provide a total of 1.5 percent?

A: Corporations are still struggling with the myth that the arts are a frill, an extra, whereas individuals usually have had an experience where they know that the arts have made a difference in their lives. Corporations have not yet connected the dots between how the arts contribute to the health of an economy. One study shows that the arts are worth $181 million in Honolulu. Our most concrete example is the Arts at Marks Garage, our project downtown. Five years ago, the Marks garage was pretty much empty of tenants. We had a little teeny seed grant from the city of just under $25,000 to start an arts incubator to prove that the arts do have an impact on the economic vitality of a community. Everybody laughed at us. Now everybody goes there for First Friday and today, five years later, every space in the garage seven or eight is occupied by an arts business or a related business. The area is getting cleaned up exactly like we like it and now we do a program called Families in the Park on the afternoon of First Friday where we have puppet making or visual art making. Now the neighbors come out and the drug dealers aren't hanging out. We figure we have created 1,100 new jobs since the Arts at Marks Garage, counting every artist, caterers and the lei shops that do better business.

Q: You earned three different advanced degrees at different points in your life. Why?

A: My first degree was in education. What I was going to do and what I did do are two separate stories. My family said I needed a teaching credential to fall back on. Then I went to Europe to start my dance career in ballet and concert stage modern dance. My family didn't think that was a good idea at the time. I was supposedly going for the summer but I didn't come home for four years. About 12 years later, I got my master of arts in theater and dance at Chico. They hired me on a tenure track position as a faculty dance professor. Then I was a professor for 11 years. So I had my education degree, then I had my artistic career, then I had my artistic degree and began my education career. Then my husband was offered a position here and I was eligible for early retirement, which I took, and we moved here and I was hired into nonprofit arts administration with the Hawai'i Association for the Education of Young Children and then this organization sought me out. I went back and got an Executive MBA at UH in '98. That to me was the circle I didn't complete because I never did my business degree. I have an early '60s degree and a '70s degree and a '90s degree.

Q: How was your experience with the Executive MBA program?

A: I found out that I got to the ceiling on my intuition and I needed some hard-core skills to be successful. It's a very intense, two-year program. I got the tools and a fabulous network of other working executives. Since we all came in as executives, even though I might have known some of the classmates socially from the medical profession there were two attorneys in the class, there was an engineer it's not the same thing as getting in the trenches with them and sitting down to problem solve and working out a project together.

Q: Under your leadership, the Hawai'i Arts Alliance has grown from a budget of $35,000 per year to just over $1 million. Can you offer any tips for other leaders of nonprofit groups in Hawai'i?

A: I got all of these skills with the Executive MBA program. I had no idea what to do with an Excel spread sheet about projecting different scenarios with X amount of money to put where and do what with it in business scenarios. I wouldn't have had a clue what to do with it. I could have figured out the commands and formulas, but in terms of more complex thinking and budget planning, I had no clue. We don't have the corporate and business support we ought to have. How do we get that? All nonprofits are continually doing fundraising. It comes with the territory. The arts have an additional problem when they're up against the nonprofits that are doing serious social service work. You have to help people understand the investment in children and it's really hard when they think the choice is between "do we buy lunch for this child or give them music lessons." We have to make them understand that we have to buy them lunch now, but not at the expense of music lessons.

Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com.