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When you think of the arts in Louisville, you think of Barbara Sexton Smith. She is the face of Fund for the Arts as a long-time fundraiser and now the Acting President and CEO. Barbara’s fundraising is the stuff of legends.  You will be hard-pressed to find a better, more persuasive speaker. She is passionate about life and her job, but mainly she is passionate about Louisville.  She is a light in our community. We caught up with her right before the Fund for the Arts Campaign Kickoff, so the energy is palpable in these shots. She was ready to give her huge speech before hundreds of people.

How long have you worked for Fund for the Arts?

Since January 1999.

Describe your job now.

Acting President & CEO for eleven months. It feels like I am auditioning for the role of a lifetime. I am very excited to have this opportunity to lead the Fund during an incredible time of evolution.

What is your favorite part of your job?

Telling stories about real people experiencing life changing moments through the arts. Stories connect us to one another.

Why are you so passionate about Fund for the Arts?

I felt called to this work. I believe if you listen to the calling, what comes through is your authentic spirit. This feels so right for me. My personal mission statement is to “instill hope in the hearts of everyone I meet.” This job is simply the vehicle in which I happen to be traveling in as I go about accomplishing my part of a much greater mission. That mission is to leave the earth a little better than I found it.

What is the best business advice anyone has ever given you?

The best business advice anyone has ever given me is that regardless of the industry, you have to stay close to operations because that is where the money is made and lost. Make sure that you know how to do every job vertically and horizontally throughout the organization. The best leaders are the best followers.

Who is your mentor?

Greg Heitzman, President and CEO of Louisville Water Company. Greg brings an amazing voice of reason to every situation. He reached out and offered his guidance to me during the leadership transition we experienced at the Fund this past year. I value Greg’s guidance, because he too appreciates the Servant Leader philosophy which I adhere to. In September 2008, just a few days after the “big wind” ravaged our community, Greg showed up at 7:00 am for the annual Fund for the Arts presentation to a group of Louisville Water Company employees. He was steadfast, poised and committed to staying focused while crews were coming in from around the country to help his team put the community back together. Greg never skipped a beat, and more pledges came in for the Arts than ever before.

Let’s talk about your hair–you cut off your very very long magnificent hair recently. How does it feel?

Shorter! My hair drew entirely too much attention when I assumed the role of Acting President & CEO. I cut it one inch every month thinking folks will stop talking about it. I guess that didn’t work.

I love the way you wear color and know what colors look good on you.  How would you describe your style?

When I wake up in the morning, before my two feet hit the floor, I thank God I’m alive and I say “send me in coach!” That’s right. Every day is Game Day. I get dressed up like it’s the most important day of my life, because it might very well be. When it comes to style, I think it’s important to remember that it’s not about you. It’s really about everyone with whom you meet and everyone with whom you have a conversation. I dress out of respect for the people that I’m lucky enough to meet in the course of every day. I guess you could say it goes back to that mission thing. It’s a well thought-out, connected strategy for me. So, of course it’s red when I go to Yum!, brown when I go to Brown-Forman, and it used to be red and black at Fifth Third, but now I wear blue and green.

Do you have a “lucky suit”– the one you wear to the big meetings?

Funny you should ask. My career transitions have dictated which suit works the best. In my 30’s, it was nothing but a tailor-made dark suit, heavy starched white shirt with cuff links and navy pumps. Leaving corporate America for the Arts opened a whole new world: red worked great for awhile, and now I’m feeling more comfortable in the traditional navy blue and black.

What is something that people would be surprised to know about you?

My favorite thing to do is to sit still and listen to the calmness in the air. For in the stillness we open ourselves to hear the answers. The trick is thinking through the right questions to ask.

Do you ever sleep? Eat? Sit down? I have never seen you at rest.

Well, an object at rest tends to stay at rest while an object in motion tends to stay in motion. I’ve always taken my cue from the object in motion. However, I make it a priority to begin every morning sitting with my husband Lacey discussing politics, business, current events and our children while the sun comes up over the beautiful Ohio River. The bookend to my day happens when I return home in the evening, where we make it a priority to eat dinner together every night. The sun long since has set as the fire begins to burn.

What do you do to relieve stress or to relax?

Reike. You gotta stay in the flow. For anyone whom this goes missing on, google Reike.

Secretly, what would you love to do for a career? (You can’t say Fund for the Arts and it doesn’t have to be glamorous)

Be a plant manager at a major manufacturing facility. The closest I came was working at Wendy’s where we made hamburgers, chili, fries and frosties. The biggest assembly line I ran for Wendy’s was the 1981 Ohio State Fair with 90 employees for 1,000 seats. We made $27,000 in one day. Yes, Dave Thomas was there working by my side. How lucky can you get?

What three words best describe you?

Curious. Compassionate. Committed.

What are you reading right now?

Taking People With You by David Novak.

What is your favorite thing in Louisville?

21C, where art drives commerce.  Laura Lee Brown, Steve Wilson and all of the employees are my heroes.

Name three things you can’t live without (excluding family, friends and God.)

Authentic spirit, sense of belonging (connectivity), ability to stand in the flow.

To learn more about Fund for the Arts or to give, click here.

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We would like to thank Adele and Sean Reding from Adele Reding Studio for their wonderful photography. They are located in Westport Village. For a behind-the-scenes look at our photo shoot, click here.

Follow all that is going on this week, including  a custom-made skirt trunk show, Michelle Obama and much much more on StyleBlueprint’s Happenings by clicking here.

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About the Author
Heidi Potter