*It is our shared goal for this series to shed light on the many different ways these local women are working behind-the-scenes to advance the arts every day - no matter what other roles they may also be juggling.
When built, the Liberty Theatre was the first Black theater in the city, and one of the largest in the state. Local lore holds that it gave the best Caucasian theaters a run for their money. It was built by African-Americans for African-Americans at a time when no one was championing Black culture or youth.
Over the last several decades, the Liberty has been faced with its fair share of challenges. Desegregation led to a disruption in funding and audience participation left the theater almost completely abandoned. Then, despite being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984 and major grants for the decades of programming that followed, COVID-19 thrust the Liberty back into a place of struggling to find the sustainability it needs and deserves to have.
Thankfully, the Liberty's future is in good hands.
Meet Dr. Shae Anderson, Executive Director of the Liberty Theatre, the woman at the helm of a new strategic plan to revitalize and bring about the rebirth of the Liberty once and for all.
Read on to learn more about Dr. Anderson's path to the Liberty, the lessons it's provided, what she hopes the future will hold for this essential cultural gem, and her unique role in our community as a fellow woman in the arts.
Image by Danny Piett/Piett Photography
Q: How did you get into the role of Executive Director of the Liberty?
A: Completely by accident! It was 2013. I was commuting to Fort Valley State where I was an Assistant Professor of English. I was living in Midland and my daughter was in school at Pine Hurst. I would leave there, take her to Pine Hurst and then come back the other way to go to Fort Valley. It wasn't horrible because we lived in Atlanta for a long time and were used to a commute. So I was going back and forth to Fort Valley at least three days a week, sometimes more, to teach down there.
At the same time, my dad was finishing his stint at the Liberty. He'd kind of come back as a Board Chair and Interim Director. He called me and said, "We've got an artistic director, but we need you to come in and help out in the office and help us get a summer camp together."
I was like, "No way. I'm commuting to Fort Valley, it's the middle of the semester, I'm teaching classes and advising. I cannot do anything else right now." But you know how these things go. (laughing) I told my dad I'd help with summer camp. Well, it came and went and things just kept rolling. At some point, I started to feel like maybe I was there for a purpose.
Q: Wow. I didn't realize you've been the director of the Liberty for nearly a decade.
A: I know. It's crazy. Here it is 2022, and I'm still there. It's been an incredibly challenging and wonderful season of life, and by now, I'm convinced I am at the Liberty for a purpose. I think I've probably maybe quit a time or two through the years, but I've always gone back. Every time it felt impossible to keep fighting for the Liberty, me quitting didn't really last but a few hours and then I'd realize that, you know, there's a purpose for me being here.
Q: What do you mean?
A: Well, the way I like to say it, is that my time at the Liberty has been a season of obedience. I say this because I can't make sense of it any other way. I'm not super over-the-top religious, my parents are religious, but at this point I'm just like 'God obviously has kept me here for a reason.' So I've just made the decision to have faith and believe that at some point, it's going to all come together and make sense.
Q: If I'm not mistaken, that's starting to happen in big ways. Isn't it?
A: Oh, absolutely. I never would've dreamed that we'd be partnering with the Fox Theater Institute. That still just is amazing when I think about it. Like, how did that happen?! It's definitely been one of those things that, especially in the midst of the pandemic, that has given me the energy to keep going.
Q: How so?
A: Because even after the whole thing with the grant? Our contact at the Fox emailed us and said, " You know what Shae? Stuff happens. Let us know when you've got some new people in place. We're here and we want to support the work that you all are doing at the Liberty."
They have been wonderful. And things like that are always just the kind of confirmation that you need to keep pushing ahead.
Q: Understood. That's amazing. So you're a mother, a writer, a former English professor, and you run the Liberty. Can you speak about what being a woman in the arts means to you?
A: Sure. But it really depends on the day. You know what I mean? Thinking about my job pre-COVID, I had a 13 or 14 year old daughter, and my parents who are great, but getting older. So we're adjusting to how their lives are evolving and changing. So that's the personal stuff. But then, I'd also wake up to emails from rental clients about something that happened a month ago, or people look into rent for an event down the road, or somebody who needs something, or a bride that needs an emergency place in 48 hours...
My job can be wild! But then, there are the days where amazing things happen. There are the days where it's a mixture of all of it. So being a woman in the arts is, I'd say, a bit of a roller coaster. Not in a bad way, but there are definitely some ups and downs. When you're dealing with people, you're dealing with communities, and you have those days where you face disappointments. It's not just my job. It's every job. But I had to learn an important skill.
Q: What's that?
A: I had to learn to be very intentional about what I was going to be bothered by. I mean, I'm still learning it, but being very intentional about what you're going to spazz out about is really important. I am someone who tends to freak out and overthink and overanalyze and obsess over everything. It's not good. When I entered the non-profit world, I had to learn to dial that back and just let some stuff roll off my back. Especially if it was something I couldn't control.
Q: That's an essential lesson for all of us, and one I'm admittedly still learning as well. What else has your time at the Liberty taught you?
A: I think another lesson was being able to embrace help when it's offered. In the past, I had a tendency to say, "No, I've got it. I've got it." Sometimes, I do have it. But others? I don't have it, and it's okay to ask for help or defer to someone else with the skillset to handle things. Now, again, depending on the day, this is all a mixed bag, for sure. Certainly more good than bad, but I've definitely had to learn that part of being a woman in the arts is learning how to be intentional about finding a healthy balance of what we can and cannot take on.
Q: Yes! Now, the Liberty has just launched a new strategic plan. What are you hoping to see as the fruit of this strategic plan comes to play? What are you most excited about?
A: Definitely the rebirth of the Liberty as a whole. Even with where we are now, seeing an engaged board has been absolutely wonderful. They are just as excited as I am about the things that are happening for the Liberty. They're completely committed to our work.
I'm also excited about our partnership with the Fox Theater. It just really means a lot for them to devote so much time and effort on our behalf. It's so nice to know the Fox is behind us. This is not just a one time thing. They've made it very clear they're in it for the long haul. They are not looking to acquire the theater, they are here just to make sure that they can pour additional support into helping us get to a point of sustainability.
Q: Are there any plans for renovation included?
A: Yes. A renovation is definitely on the horizon. It was probably needed when I got there in 2013, but it was just not possible. So, you know, to know a renovation is finally really close? I'm very excited about it.
I will say that one other thing that's gotten me excited is the hearing this feedback from the consultants who did our strategic planning research. They talked to so many people and it was so helpful to hear what the common threads were. Of course it, wasn't perfect. There's some confusion about the work that we do and that sort of thing. But, overall I loved hearing the common threads that came from so many different people in the community. It was super exciting, and we know we have the support of many, many people in the area to implement this strategic plan.
Q: That's amazing. So what do you want people to know about the Liberty's road to rebirth and renovation? What can we do to help?
Well first of all, thank you for asking. Right now, we're exploring what the community wants to see from us. Fundraising shirts? Outdoor concerts? A membership program? We had a membership program that was going really well, but then COVID hit and all of that stopped.
So we're trying to getting a sense of what the community would like for us to be offering. So I'd love to hear from your audience about what that might be. So often in business, we create what we want. But in our marketplace, what should it be? That would be great to know. In our community, how would locals like to support the Liberty?
I also want people to know that the word of the year is sustainability. That's what we're working on for the Liberty. It's been a precarious thing lately - especially for those in the arts. But the longterm sustainability of the Liberty is my number one focus. Ten years from now, when there's a newly executive director in place I want them to be set up for success.
Of course, there will always be challenges. It's the nonprofit world, and we are an arts organization. There will always be competition for dollars. But I'm working today so that person in the future is not solely-focused on worrying about day to day operations. I want this for them so that the focus of the Liberty's work can be on serving the community, working with other local nonprofits - particularly nonprofits of color. I want the community to know what we're fighting for. We're fighting for sustainability. ◾️
Shae's Local Favorites:
Coffehouse: Iron Bank
Dinner spot: Smoke Bourbon & BBQ
Lunch spot: Sally Ann's Kitchen
Place to take a walk: Lakebottom Park
Favorite piece of local art in Columbus: I love Jeremy McCreary's mural on 13th Street. It's of a little girl with her arms propped up on books. I pass it multiple times a day and every time it makes me smile. I love it!