Jennifer Coleman, Senior Program Officer for Arts, The Gund Foundation. Prior to joining the Foundation, she was an architect and president of her own design firm, Jennifer Coleman Creative, LLC. //
What inspires you?
Personally and professionally, what inspires me is the way that physical projects and culture consciously and unconsciously impact how decisions are made. I love how cities transform gracefully (and sometimes awkwardly) in response to challenges (like the Great Recession) and opportunities (like Cleveland rising to the occasion for the Republican National Convention.) I equate cities like the circus performers with spinning plates who always keep them spinning while adding more plates. It’s amazing to me to see all of the different plates that must be spun quickly in a vibrant city.
In your opinion, what is the top issue facing your city today?
The top issue facing Cleveland is how to keep our current renaissance going. As a lifelong Clevelander, I’ve seen three periods of growth in the city – the resurgence of the the Flats in the mid ‘80s, the development of the Gateway district in the ‘90’s, and the current downtown growth. We are good at doing physical projects quickly and efficiently. The Flats entertainment projects and Gateway sports facilities are both examples of this, as are the current renovations at Public Square. Where we struggle is ensuring that our citizens actively use and enliven these places and learn to think of them as their own. Public Square isn’t just beautiful lawns, but a space that should attract daily use, which will then attract more people. I think that local leaders understand that the concept of livability is critical, and are working to make downtown Cleveland a vibrant core for the region. The challenge we face is how to get there.
You wear many hats. What are one or two projects on which you are currently working that you are most excited?
Actually, I had to take off a lot of hats when I came to the George Gund Foundation, because many of the boards on which I sat receive funds from us. I spent ten years immersed in what was happening in physical environments as the Chair of the Cleveland Landmarks Commission and the Downtown/Flats Design Review Committee, and to be honest, I’m going through a bit of withdrawl from knowing the latest news of city development. My past experience led directly to my current position, and has enabled me to be involved in civic matters in a different capacity. Over the years, I have seen projects that were primarily design-focused instead of thinking from the outset about who the buildings were serving. Now that I am involved at the foundation level, I am able to be involved in early project conversations, and have the opportunity to make sure that the focus is on who will be served from the beginning.
What’s your advice for the next generation of city change makers?
Get involved. I’m a little jealous, because when I was in my 20’s, there wasn’t a vehicle for young people to get involved in civic matters in my city. But things have changed in Cleveland, and young people are gaining a place at the table, whether they got their by creating their own organizaitons, or by gaining positions of authority at more established organizaitons. And we are all the better for it.
Also, don’t be afraid to take risks – or to fail. That is one of the benefits of city life – we are able to have successes and failures – because that’s how we learn. Failure isn’t a dirty word. Rather, making mistakes is how entrepreneurial regions like Silicon Valley operate and grow. You fail until you succeed.
Twenty-five years ago, if someone failed in Cleveland, they were run out of town – which usually meant that they were wildly successful somewhere else, using the knowledge they gained here. That was our loss. But we are starting to cultivate a culture of failure/growth- encouraging young people to take risks, and mentoring them as they build their dreams.
What should we know about your work that you haven’t yet mentioned because I didn’t ask the right question?
How much fun it is to wake up in the morning, go to work, and talk to arts organizaitons about how to help them, either financially or through mentoring. It’s an incredible dream job.
My favorite part of the Sunday paper has always been the Arts section and I read it first, find out what’s happening in town. Now, I get to read about many projects, exhibits and performances that I’ve discussed with organizations while they were in their embryonic stages and see how they have beautifully developed and are enhancing Cleveland’s arts and culture community
I still giggle a bit sometimes about the fact that this is what I get to do.
Finally, could you tell us something about yourself than most of your colleagues don’t know about you?
By being an entrepreneur for ten years alone in my own office, I started talking to myself. It’s hard being in an office and having to work silently. (This is one thing my collagues are starting to find out.)
Also, I love movies – and always have. I have a problem not telling people (i.e. my husband) the plot and backstory of a movie while we’re watching it. He’s learned to tune me out for the most part!