Feeling electrified, Kathleen Spehar witnessed transformative energy fill St. Catherine University’s O’Shaughnessy Auditorium. As she watched a folk opera unfold onstage, the powerful lyrics and melodic harmonies led her to consider the effects of live performances and how exposure to the arts can strengthen a community.
“It captured me and made me understand how I want to share my life through the arts,” reflects Spehar. “I want to lead communities to engage more with art and help artists with the work that they do. Through the arts, imagine the impact we can have as a community when we work together towards a common goal.”
Spehar will serve as the Council on Culture & Arts’ new Executive Director starting this August. Aspirations like these serve as the foundation of her leadership approach. Spehar began her career as a K-12 classroom teacher with a knack for organizing festivals and leading arts integration within schools.
Her yearning to have the arts reach into other sectors of the community carried over into her administrative and managerial roles. Most recently, she served as the director of the O’Shaughnessy in St. Paul, Minnesota. Regardless of position, her first questions when gathering a group of people together remain the same.
“I like to start with the rootedness of why we’re all in the room,” says Spehar. “What’s the purpose? What does the community want? What resources are needed to make a new initiative happen? Exploring these ideas together is crucial, especially when a city or county wants to live in a new, creative way.”
Having spent time in Tallahassee as a Florida State University visiting professor eight years ago, Spehar wants to get to know the city more intimately. She is inspired by how the community incorporates the arts as a vibrant part of its ecosystem, and sees the potential for cultivating this growth to an even higher degree.
Music was Spehar’s first home within the arts. She recalls her grandmother’s elegant hands whipping up and down the piano keys with arpeggios — it wasn’t long after that she was asking for piano and flute lessons. And it wasn’t long after that before she started to teach lessons herself.
“I was in the gig economy when I was in my teens,” laughs Spehar. “This included teaching music lessons on piano and flute to students who were younger than me. I really loved to teach and fell in love with music and theater. So I became the drum major of my high school marching band and directed my first play when I was in sixth grade.”
Spehar earned music and communications degrees from Western Michigan University and a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Minnesota with concentrations in arts administration and women in leadership. Today, she participates in cohorts of women leaders who gather to share their challenges and discover new ideas and solutions together.
She says these peers lend a great deal of support as she steps into her new role, as does her background in the arts. Spehar played for 20 years as part of an orchestra and woodwind quintet, and also worked within many community theaters. She says both contribute to her leadership style when it comes to programming and working in teams.
“There’s so much to be learned from the arts disciplines,” says Spehar. “Sometimes I’m the conductor, cueing and coaching. Other times, I’m more of the theater practitioner where we’re all working on equal levels to make sure the show is going to happen.”
Spehar is committed to immersing herself in all forms of art — attending concerts, reading about and researching our area’s history and heritage, dabbling in new cuisines, traveling and asking colleagues for their recommendations. She says her yoga practice keeps her grounded, as does her gardening. She loves gathering neighbors together to socialize and believes in nurturing a community’s passions and perseverance.
Spehar says she feeds off of the excitement of people’s ideas and builds initiatives based in collaboration. As a curator, she often asks who needs to be around the table to look at challenges from multiple lenses in order to find creative solutions rooted in hope and vision. Spehar is more interested in the process over the product when it comes to making and implementing change.
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