Suzette Boulais

Executive Director, ArtsPartners of Central Illinois
Photography by Kira Kwon

A tireless worker and collaborator, promoting the arts as vital to the region’s economic and cultural enrichment

With so many twists and turns in life, who knows how or why we end up in the places we do? Is it all “part of the plan”? Having lived and worked in a number of cities over the course of my career, a quotation I read years ago seems to ring true: “I am a crooked line on a straight path.”

Born in Putman, Connecticut, in 1954, I was raised in a large Catholic family, the third oldest of seven children. When I was six years old, my father was transferred to Indianapolis, where I attended Our Lady of Lourdes Grade School, followed by four years at a nearby public high school. With a natural interest in what makes people tick, I went on to attend Purdue University to study psychology and ended up receiving a BA degree in English-teaching, with a minor in psychology. During a short teaching stint, I continued my studies at Purdue and received an MS degree in counseling and personnel services. A counseling position brought me to this area in 1981, and in 1983, I became coordinator of a community education department at a local family service agency.

When this department was eliminated in early 2003, due to a change in the organization’s strategic plan, I was told about the job at ArtsPartners of Central Illinois. On Valentine’s Day of 2003, I interviewed for the position, and one month later, on St. Patrick’s Day, I was hired. I’ve been with ArtsPartners ever since.

Please list and reflect upon your major accomplishments of 2013.
WCBU 89.9 FM. Along with Program Director Nathan Irwin, I enjoy hosting the Out and About series, in which we engage local artists and arts leaders in discussions about upcoming arts events. With advertising dollars shrinking, so many of our nonprofit arts organizations need as much publicity as possible to sell tickets and make ends meet. This radio spot meets a community need.

WOAM Radio 1350 AM. Now that Breakfast with Royce and Roger is back on the air, I am pleased to be back, too. It’s a delight to talk with Roger Monroe during the last segment of the 6am hour every Friday as we discuss weekend arts events that appeal to WOAM’s listening audience.

All About the Arts. Working with a committed team of volunteer professional photographers this past summer has been a treat and an honor as we developed our “Arts Mean Business” campaign for October’s National Arts and Humanities Month. Through the dynamic slides our marketing team created, our community was shown to be progressive and forward-thinking.

Illinois: Art in the Works. ArtsPartners is pleased to have developed a strong working relationship with WTVP-TV over the years. When my friend and colleague Chet Tomczyk gave me a call last year to see if ArtsPartners wanted to join WTVP on an Illinois Arts Council grant that would showcase the work in progress of a dozen central Illinois artists, I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. The popular short-form programs aired in the fall of 2012 and throughout 2013. We enjoyed collaborating on this project so much that WTVP submitted and received a second grant earlier this spring. Now, a second generation of short films, Illinois: Art in the Works, is airing on WTVP and will continue to air in 2014.

Art and Soul and Brilliant.Bright.Community. Thanks to a fairly new and gratifying working relationship with the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, especially with grant writer Melissa Eaton, ArtsPartners is proud to have been the recipient of national funds through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and The National Endowment for the Arts.

What is your leadership philosophy?
First, I strive to make decisions that result in fair solutions. I’m not sure if this is a leadership style or a life philosophy, but I try to live by it every day: “I am here only to be truly helpful.” The key word here is truly, since it keeps my motives in check. Am I here to advance my own agenda by trying to manipulate or micromanage? If so, that’s being self-serving. That’s not being truly helpful.

In our small office, I am the only full-time employee, along with a staff of two part-time employees. Our goal is to be as helpful as possible to the many artists, arts leaders and arts supporters we serve each day. Our intention is to be positive and professional in all of our efforts to facilitate partnerships that promote Peoria-area arts.

What’s the hardest life lesson you’ve had to learn?
One of the hardest life lessons I’ve had to learn—and continue to learn—is: “Happiness is an inside job.” Charles Swindoll said it well, too, when he wrote that life is 10 percent what happens to us and 90 percent how we react to it. Having a healthy, happy attitude on the job is so important because it paves the way to developing positive and productive working relationships.

What is the best piece of professional advice you’ve ever received?
One of the best pieces of advice I have received comes from a former board president at ArtsPartners, who said, “Always remember that you work for a board of directors. They are your bosses.”

What advice would you give to a new executive?
Let’s just say that I now understand why some classified ads announcing a CEO or executive position state in bold letters: Required: 5-7 years executive experience. Truth is, I certainly didn’t learn how to be an executive overnight. I would tell a new executive that most likely it will take several years before you become comfortable in the role. Looking back at my first year at ArtsPartners, when I was brand-new to working with a board, brand-new to working with city officials, brand-new to working with my own staff and brand-new to working with the arts community, I knew I had so much to learn. Now that I’ve got some experience and finally got the hang of the job, I would tell a new executive to be patient and persevere during the learning curve.

What is one goal you hope to accomplish in your lifetime?
One goal I’d like to accomplish is a personal one. It is to lead a happy, peaceful life. This sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Stay in the present? Let go of yesterday’s regrets? Don’t worry about the future? Easier said than done. The older I get, the more I want my life to mimic my art, which is calm and serene. Often, I’ll paint simple scenes like sunrises or sunsets. A life filled with graceful serenity is what I’d like to lead, one without lots of distractions or self-imposed worries.

Professionally, I’d like to see if there is a niche marketplace for my minimalist, abstract art. As a subscriber to the online radio service Pandora, I sometimes see album covers that look like my own paintings. The recording artists are usually instrumentalists who play soothing, contemplative music for record labels like Windham Hill and Narada. In my dreams, I see one of my paintings or designs as the cover image on one of these CDs.

What is your secret to maintaining a balance between your work and personal life?
This is a tough one for me, and it has been ever since I took the ArtsPartners job. Since the majority of artists and arts groups our organization supports hold weekend exhibits, performances, concerts or productions, I want to support them and make the rounds as often as I can. But ironically, since I’m an artist, too, I also like heading to my own art room on weekends, putting on some pretty music and working on my own art. It can be a real push/pull at times. On one hand, I know I’ll enjoy whatever event I attend once I head out the door. Yet there is an undeniable lure to stay put and continue dabbling with one of my own paintings or art projects. Sometimes the community wins; sometimes the art room wins. I can only hope that my colleagues in the arts community are sympathetic when the art room wins.

What advice would you give to a young, up-and-coming female professional?
This response echoes my last response. The advice I would give an up-and-coming professional woman is to work hard, live by the Golden Rule and give as much as you can to the job, without sacrificing time to develop your own hobbies and personal interests. Make sure you recharge your batteries and go to that sacred space where you feel refreshed and renewed. As one of my gurus, Joseph Campbell, says, “Follow your bliss wherever it leads.” It can be reading, gardening, arts, crafts, cooking, exercising… As women, we’re stereotyped as nurturers, and being nurturing is certainly an admirable trait. Yet we don’t want to nurture others or our careers to the point of resentment, exhaustion or martyrdom. As my mother used to say to us kids when she’d send us off to our rooms to read, color or draw as the evening wore on and her nurturing role wound down, “I’ve given you all of my day. I’m not going to give you all of my night, too.” And off she’d go to play bridge with friends, talk with our dad about his day, read a book or watch a favorite television program. iBi

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