The Second Act: A Q&A With Ella Baff, Senior Program Officer

Ella Baff

Baff explains how leading Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival and other experiences inform her new role as Mellon's Senior Program Officer for Arts and Cultural Heritage.

Ella Baff joined the Foundation as Senior Program Officer for Arts and Cultural Heritage after seventeen years as Executive and Artistic Director of Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival.  In this newly created role, Baff directs the Foundation's grantmaking program as it seeks to nurture exceptional creative accomplishment in the performing and visual arts, scholarship, and art conservation practices while promoting a diverse and sustainable ecosystem for the arts.  Following are excerpts from a conversation with Baff on her three-month anniversary at the Foundation. 

You have a fascinating background in a variety of arts disciplines, as well as a deep understanding of the role of arts in numerous communities. Tell us a bit about your experiences prior to Jacob’s Pillow.

I was raised in the theater world of New York City; my sister was an actress and theater was part of my daily life.  I took to dance naturally and studied the Martha Graham technique, and then ballet.  This led to an interest in all dance forms, and so I would take classes in the dance forms of India, Africa and Indonesia, for example.  Unless performed in silence or with text, for me, dance was married to music.  I suspect this is because in our household, we were required to study music.  Over the years, I studied the piano, the violin, and the harp.  An omnivore of arts and culture early on, I also lived in museums, which were sanctuaries and wonderlands to me.  

After college, one of my jobs was teaching theater and movement in juvenile correctional facilities in the Bay Area.  A colleague and I produced a play, The Baddest, based on interviews with young incarcerated men with whom we worked.  We obtained clearance to take our cast outside the prison and performed the play in the community.  This was quite nerve-wracking, and a big success.  We had been approved to take our teaching approach to San Quentin but a riot and lockdown dashed our plans.  I also held the position of Program Director at Cal Performances, the capacious and multi-disciplinary presenting organization of the University of California at Berkeley.  We presented and commissioned work in all the arts from all over the world – Fela, the Tallis Scholars, Pina Bausch, Noh theater – and many other well known and under-recognized artists.  I interacted with faculty and students in many departments in the arts and sciences.  My work also included an extensive community program in schools and other community settings.  We hosted memorable residencies with Mark Morris and Yo Yo Ma, Marcus Roberts, Bill T Jones and Arnie Zane, among many others.  

Was the transition to Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in rural Berkshires a challenge?

Yes.  The Pillow had been saved from foreclosure in late 1990s by Board Chair, Neil Chrisman; former Executive Director, Sali Ann Kriegsman; President of the Gilman Foundation, Bob Crane; and other heroes.  The organization was still in vulnerable condition when I arrived.  Artistic direction would lead the way to all other advancements, but we also needed to establish a cash reserve, endowment, capital facilities reserve, and a fund for artistic initiatives.  The pioneering roots of Jacob’s Pillow’s provided inspiration.  The Pillow had been a homestead in the 1790s, a station on the Underground Railroad in the mid-1800s, and a retreat for the visionary Ted Shawn and his Men Dancers during The Great Depression.  I absorbed this great history and set to work with a clear set of goals to move the organization forward with our dedicated board and staff.  We accomplished a great deal and received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama.  

You’ve been on the job at the Mellon Foundation for three months.  Do you have goals in place?

The Foundation is a different kind of legacy institution from Jacob’s Pillow of course, but my approach as a newcomer is similar.  It is a time of information-gathering and absorption while I formulate plans.  Being curious and open is the best way to join any new organization.   

In years past, Mellon’s grantmaking activity in the arts was largely discipline-specific.  Now, the arts and cultural heritage department encompasses performing arts organizations of many types, museums, art history and conservation.  The Foundation’s strategic plan is entitled Continuity and Change It identifies many similar challenges that all arts organizations face.  It also provides a framework for the Foundation to respond to significant new developments in the field, to the concerns of artists and organizations that sustain the arts and culture, and to help create a supportive ecosystem that can convert challenges into opportunities.  Continuity and Change accurately describes our intentions.  We will continue, and perhaps in some cases expand upon, guiding principals and approaches that are improving the field, and we will become active in some new areas within a vast amount and range of achievement, need, and experimentation in arts and culture.  We currently have approximately 850 active Arts and Cultural Heritage grants, many of them providing multi-year support.  We favor multi-year support to encourage learning, longer-term planning, impact within and outside of the organization, and to help mitigate fiscal anxiety.  We also want to have room to support newcomers. 

What do you see as the role of the arts in higher education?  

The arts and cultures in the plural should be fully incorporated into the educational system from pre-school to post-doctorate.  I often hear education discussed in the media as a means to succeeding in the marketplace.  Schools and colleges are viewed as job training centers rather than centers of learning and experimentation where one is enlightened by knowing about the world, the legacies of thought, culture, and the sciences.  That Mellon commits itself to liberal arts education as an end in itself is encouraging, and I am proud to be in this type of environment.  The Foundation is currently supporting a cohort of grantees for artists in residence to work closely with faculty to incorporate the arts into the university curriculum.  This is a hopeful zone.  Artistic practice puts students in touch with aspects of themselves that can be liberating.  Education inspires, trains and articulates curiosity.  To be an educated, well-rounded citizen, students need an environment of broad exposure to ways of thinking and being, and inevitably, this includes the arts. 

How has your experience as a grantee colored how you approach the role of senior program officer?

Working for a foundation is in some ways not so different from working for a cultural organization.  Grantmaking is a type of curating within a broad and complex landscape of great need and achievement that reflects the missions of many types of organizations.  I have been on “both sides of the table,” as they say.  Choices must be made.  It hurts to say “no”; it hurts to hear “no”, and the best part of the job is saying “yes.”  It’s important for grantees and grant-makers to have insight into each other’s work.  This makes us more constructively critical, sympathetic, and yields more thoughtful criteria for evaluating and maximizing the impact of our work. 

In the Boston Globe, you were quoted as saying, “Probably the biggest part of my job is living in the future.  A lot of it does have to do with just having faith in artists and investing time.” How does this philosophy impact your role as at the Foundation?

When I came to Mellon, I asked several colleagues within and outside of the Foundation, “What does Mellon do really well?”  Among the most consistent answers was, “Mellon takes a long-term view.”  A long-term perspective is a valuable path, and necessary when considering what the future of “arts and cultural heritage” may look like.