Women Making History

"Don't Just Give Your Ideas Away," and Other Female Leadership Advice from UH's Karen Farber

The director of UH's Mitchell Center and next month's CounterCurrent Fest shares what she's learned throughout her career.

By Jeanne Lyons Davis March 31, 2017

Karen l farber headshot djvias

Image: Karen Farber

As Women’s History Month comes to a close, we chatted with Karen Farber, executive director of UH’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts.

Farber has spent the past 16 years rising through the ranks of leadership roles within arts organizations across the country, from getting her feet wet at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in D.C. to her current position as director of the Mitchell Center, where her most recent feat includes the 2014 launch of  lauded interdisciplinary art event CounterCurrent Festival, which returns to Houston next month (April 18–23).

Celebrating her 11th year in her current post, Farber shares five lessons she learned about being a female leader through her robust career, from the positive impact of women mentors to the one piece of advice she never forgot.

Working with Women

"Our entire staff is women, with a majority being women of color. I’m super committed to creating an environment where people can work and also have their lives," shares Farber. "I’ve really sought out women with leadership potential, and I try to create an environment where they can thrive. Also, we have this great hierarchy of women leaders at the University of Houston, with president Renu Khator and provost Paula Myrick Short being women, so there is this trickle-down effect. Even the arts institutions here in Houston have great women leaders at their helms." 

Finding Mentors

"I was brought here in 2005 by the previous director of UH's Blaffer Art Museum, Terrie Sultan, who was a mentor for me. That was 11-and-a-half years ago, and I was really looking for that kind of mentorship. She’s an extremely strong woman—super decisive, able to give her staff a tremendous sense of direction and vision—and I learned a lot by watching her. Earlier in my career in the Northeast, I had many female mentors, including the president and artistic director of Creative Time and first woman director of the Brooklyn Museum, Anne Pasternak. I have their voices in my head and think a lot about the things I learned from them."

Passing the Torch to Mentees

"One of the things I learned from my past mentor, Marie Mattson at the Kennedy Center, that I never forgot was that she really didn't believe that there were any 'bad' employees, but rather just people in the wrong jobs. She basically meant, 'Help people find their place.' And I’m really interested in doing that—helping people set their goals and find what they're good at. Another thing I learned: If you don’t have your eye on another job within your institution and you're a career-oriented person, you might not be in the right place and should examine where you want to be."

Career Advice For Her Younger Self 

"Work on having thicker skin. There is absolutely no way to please everybody. Criticism isn't the stuff that you have to spend time focusing on, and if you do, you won't be moving forward. Early in your career is the time to cultivate that mentality because it can really hold you back otherwise. Sometimes, the best way to address things at work is by just doing a great job." 

Don't Give It Away

"Within our own jobs, we will do things and not take credit for them. I don’t think men do that as much. Even if it's mentoring people, that should be something you're known for doing, and get credit for that. I can’t tell you how many meetings I've been in where someone said, 'At the last meeting someone said such and such, I think it was him.' And I sat there knowing that I said that, while a man gets the credit. We have a lot of ideas; don't just give your ideas away."

CounterCurrent Festival, presented by UH’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, is April 18–23. For the full lineup of programming, countercurrentfestival.org

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