upcoming grant deadline: 03/01/2019

upcoming grant deadline: 03/01/2019

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Leeway @ 25: Interview With Linda Lee Alter

Who are you?

In Buddhist Philosophy, a person has No Beginning and No End.  All living beings, plants, and minerals are part of one great whole.  In Science, a person has no boundaries and is just a loose grouping of moving atoms.

I believe in both the Buddhist and Scientific definitions of being all one and try to act in the belief that we are all one Family.

In the more traditional sense, I can be identified in many ways:  Woman, I-She-Her, Mother, Mother-in-Law, Sister, Aunt, Great Aunt, Jewish, Buddhist, Old, Lesbian, American, Philadelphian, Artist, Art Collector, Plump, Employer, Detail-Oriented, Cat-Person, Colleague, Philanthropist, Partially-Disabled, Democrat, Collaborative, Humorous (sometimes), Optimist.

In the mid 1980’s, thanks to the hard work of my family, I became financially well-off.  Strongly believing in the Jewish tradition of tzedakah—I felt it was my duty and privilege to share what I had with others and wanted to use what I’d been given in caring and thoughtful ways.  As an artist, it felt natural to focus my giving in the arts.  Several years were spent participating in local not-for-profit arts groups, and in serving on the Boards of arts organizations.  But that did not feel like enough.

I started to collect art when I was financially able; I just started going to galleries and I’d buy what I’d like and what I could afford, and about 6 months in, I realized I’d bought art entirely by men! And it wasn’t that I was seeking out men, it was just that I bought what I saw and liked in the galleries and that’s what was in the galleries…women weren’t represented. And I thought to myself, “If I’m a woman artist and even I didn’t realize that, I’ve got to do something!” 

I made it my mission, from the very beginning, to collect art by women.  I knew it would take many years for me to build a significant collection that museums would be interested in acquiring.  But I was determined not to let the art museum that would get the collection “cherry pick”—selecting only art by well-known artists and rejecting art by artists less well known. I wanted to find a museum enthusiastic about the entire collection—the art by academically trained artists and self-taught artists, the well known and unknown, and art in all kinds of mediums.

I was told by several art consultants... if I gave the art to a major institution like the Smithsonian, it would be “a drop in the bucket.”  A safe place for the art, but only a small portion of the art would likely be shown, and only shown infrequently.  However, if I gave the collection to a more modest-size institution—one that was moving in the direction of greater diversity and inclusion—my collection could be significant enough in size and focus that it could help the institution continue to go in that direction. So it could be transformational in some sense.  For more than a quarter of a century, I continued to build the collection. And in 2010, after several years of exploring possible options, I gave my entire collection of Art by Women to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.


What made you want to work with women specifically when you founded the Leeway Foundation?

Well, I'm a woman. I grew up in the 40s and 50s when women subordinated themselves to men… I mean, I lived that way, that’s what I knew. When I got married, the idea was to be “the moon to my husband's sun.” When I decided to start Leeway, I wanted it to be for and about women, because I knew they didn't have any type of advantage in any field. 

One morning in 1990, while eating my breakfast oatmeal, Light dawned!  “I’m an artist. I know, first-hand, that women artists don’t have opportunities equal to male artists. I’ll create a foundation to recognize, encourage and help support local women artists!”

So, I did.  Of course, it was only possible with the assistance of many others.  Ella King Torrey, founder of the Pew Fellowships in the Arts, gave me encouragement. Virginia P. Sikes, Esquire, incorporated the Foundation and served on the Board for many years.  Charlene Longnecker and Suzanne Cunningham, who were early Board members, were very supportive.  Edna Andrade was an inspiration.  Barbara Silzle and Denise Brown championed Leeway as Executive Directors.  And my daughter, Sara Milly, was essential as adviser, and as leader and catalyst when she became President of Leeway.  

From the very start, and as the years went by, many other people were important in helping Leeway evolve.  We all learned as we went along.  And we had much to learn. Yet from the start, we could see we were making a difference in the lives of women artists. 


What did it mean to found this organization and then give up power? What did it mean for you to make that decision and what was challenging?

From the beginning, the Board, Staff, Advisory Board and I wanted to reach out to women artists of color and other less well-represented artists.  However, the original Board of Directors was composed of friends of mine.  We had good intentions, but we were all middle-aged, middle-class, white women.  We did not know what we did not know.  And we did not know how to reach out to the people we most wanted to serve.

When Sara came on the Board, and especially when she became President of the Board after me, she brought the gifts of broad vision and understanding of the need for major change.  Working together with the support of Board and Staff—Sara brought in consultants, and representatives from local organizations, who were already doing work similar to what we wanted to do, to give us advice and training. 

There was a very lot to learn.  We had to acknowledge what we didn’t know, our misconceptions, and our mistakes.  We had to learn about ourselves and learn new ways of interacting.  Transitions, even the best ones, have difficult aspects. Change is hard—even when necessary, wished for, positive, and successful. 

Also, back then, I was not knowledgeable about the gender identity and sexual orientation spectrum.  But I did know that all of us in our country, except white men, were under-represented in the arts and sciences and medicine and politics and just about all other fields of endeavor.  And I wanted to help make things more equal. 

Under Sara’s leadership, and with my enthusiastic affirmation, and the committed Board and Staff—change, positive change, happened!! The composition of the Board and Staff changed. We became more diverse and inclusive. We began making grants to women and trans artists.  Then to women and trans artists working for social change. And now Leeway supports women and trans artists and cultural producers working in communities at the intersection of art, culture, and social change. 

At each step of the way, when changes were proposed to make Leeway more inclusive, I was glad. Reaching out more broadly has always been what I wanted to do but had not known how to fully accomplish.  


So, you talked about the major art pieces that really informed how you think about change?

I remember going to see Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party when it was first on view in New York in 1979.  It was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. To be surrounded by those shockingly beautiful visual symbols of so many strong creative amazing women, from ancient times and throughout history. To have the intimate parts of a woman’s body be celebrated so openly through art. It was life-changing, to realize that the efforts of hundreds of women working together had brought into being this complex, well-researched multimedia work of art and love—making visible women’s profound contributions to the world, and women’s beauty and power. The Dinner Party showed me how women through the ages had been brave in many different ways. The experience helped me to be brave. To take risks. To believe that I could make a difference. 

The Guerrilla Girls, with their provocative message and art and costumes, tell truth to power.  And they remind us that the art world is like a private club, where women and minorities are often not welcome. They were very well-respected artists who felt they needed that disguise to be able to speak out, otherwise they’d be ostracized, or they’d really be forced out of any positions of power that they had. The disguises really helped the message. Seeing The Guerrilla Girls was really wonderful…the forcefulness and the visual images, I really admired that greatly. I’m introverted and shy and second-guess myself…but these strong women, these strong artists, helped me to change and helped me to help other artists.


Can you offer advice to people in positions of privilege who want to change leadership and decision-making power?

I can only speak from my own limited experience in starting the Leeway Foundation and in building a Collection of Art by Women. 

Choose to contribute and to help others in an area that is of great importance in your own life.  Focus your efforts in an area you know and love.  

Choose people to help you with similar personal values, but with different points of view.  Choose people whom you can trust, and who will tell you the truth, even if it is not what you want to hear.  Choose people who know more than you do.  Choose hard workers with a sense of humor.  Make sure that the people you want to help have a major presence “at the table.”  Choose people who enjoy collaboration and are kind.  Choose people who believe in the Golden Rule. Know that if you commit to this new venture, your mission will take over your life for a very long while. You will need to be “all in” to sustain your efforts over time.

Be able to let go.  Be aware that you are not integral to the work successfully continuing. Let others take over when it is time—when others can fulfill the mission you envisioned better than you.  

In speaking about Leeway and my part in its creation—I’ve often used the metaphor of birthing and raising a child—and knowing that when your child is grown—you need to let them go off on their own to lead their own life.  Love them but let them go.


How would you see Leeway playing a role in your own personal transformation?

Leeway has taught me humility.  It has helped me to be brave.  Leeway has helped me to know what I do not know—and helped me be more open to and understanding of others.  It has given me the opportunity to meet and work with and learn from people I greatly admire.  Leeway has allowed me a window into the lives and art of many talented people committed to improving the lives of others.  Leeway has taught me to listen to others, and to listen to my own heart. Leeway has allowed me to be useful in the world.

Looking back, I see that all the time and energy and resources I gave to Leeway—and all the uncertainty and struggles and change—have been worth it.  I can see that my dream of helping other women artists has evolved—and now is so much more.  Others have made Leeway’s mission their mission too.  And Leeway is now much more inclusive, and better at helping others through the arts, than I could ever have hoped.  That is the joy.


Where do you see Leeway in the next twenty-five years?

I don’t know how Leeway will change in the next quarter century.  I have no crystal ball.  Hopefully, Leeway will continue to encourage and support all kinds of people to express themselves through art, and will continue to use art to help people accept one another more fully, and will continue to help people celebrate our differences as well as our similarities.  We are all members of the same family, after all.


Lastly, if Leeway were a playlist, what song would you be?

Billy Joel and Marlee Matlin serenading Oscar the Grouch to “Just The Way You Are”.

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Leeway grant?

Leeway Transformation Award

The Transformation Award provides unrestricted annual awards of $15,000 to women and trans* artists and cultural producers living in greater Philadelphia who create art for social change and have done so for the past five years or more, demonstrating a long-term commitment to social change work. [read more]

deadline 05/15
Upcoming events
03/017:00 pm - 9:00 pm

FLOODGATE: First Friday Performance

Marcelline Mandeng is the selected 2018-2019 Leeway x Headlong Performance Artist-in-Residence.

[learn more]

03/024:00 pm - 6:00 pm

FLOODGATE: Artist Presentation and Workshop

Marcelline Mandeng is the selected 2018-2019 Leeway x Headlong Performing Artist-in-Residence.

[learn more]