SALT LAKE CITY — Utah native Stephanie Rhodes Russell has been on the road for the past 10 years, hitting the stage in Washington D.C., Moscow and San Francisco as a professional pianist, conductor and vocal coach for opera companies — and she’s noticed something.
“There’s a special absence of women in leadership roles throughout the arts and I think that has a trickle-down effect on any organization. … Even now it’s rare to see a female conductor,” Russell said in an interview with the Deseret News.
After receiving music degrees from Utah State University and the University of Michigan, Russell is now at the University of Utah where she hopes to finish her doctorate in musical arts in orchestral conducting this spring. While Russell continues to travel — she recently returned from the University of Michigan where she will conduct an opera next year — she has her feet firmly planted in the Utah arts community and is ready to enact change.
Along with four of her artistically inclined sisters, — Ashlynn Rhodes, Lindsey Newman, Erin Farnsworth and Karlie Ady — Russell has created a new nonprofit organization called the Women’s Artistic Leadership Initiative, which aims to “empower female artists to become community leaders by equipping them with both leadership skills and business acumen,” according to its website.
“It’s fascinating because the arts tend to be a very progressive field generally, but they’re also a field that is steeped in tradition and those traditions have been male- based for a long time,” Russell said.
It was this absence of female representation in the arts that urged Russell to finally begin her organization, an idea that’s been in the works for three years. As a seasoned performer herself, Russell and fellow female artists have either experienced or witnessed firsthand the loneliness, sexual harassment and unhealthy power struggles associated with advancing their careers in the arts.
“We’ve seen a number of cases of sexual harassment come to the surface," Russell said, " … and I think that one thing having women in leadership drastically changes is the dynamic of those types of conversations, creating a safer space for all voices and allowing people to feel like they can come forward."
Russell believes that if she and other young women in the arts received basic business training and leadership skills in the early stages of their careers, they would be better able to deal with issues as they come up. As she put it, “The best thing we can do to create sustainable change is education.”
Knowing what she wanted her oranization to do was the first step. Knowing where to establish it was the second — although that was a step that Russell, who grew up in American Fork, didn't have to ponder for long.
“(Utah) was a community that I wanted to give back to," Russell said. "There are so many talented women here that pursue the arts. Some may choose to then stay at home and still pursue their career by starting a teaching studio. Others, such as myself, may choose a different path. We want to equip women for success no matter what direction their career takes.”
Russell didn't have to go far for women pursuing different artistic paths from her own. Her younger sister, Erin Farnsworth, a piano performance major at BYU, is experiencing this gap in her musical education firsthand.
"I have a fair amount of friends and we've talked about it before, (asking), 'What are we supposed to do after graduation?' because my major is in piano performance, which is a really descriptive title for something we don't want to be — we don't necessarily want to be performers, but we have all of these music skills that can be applied in so many different fields," Farnsworth said.
"Even for my piano studio, I have to have all of my studio documents for my (students') parents — policies and all this stuff that no one really teaches you how to do, but you need to."
The Women’s ALI's target audience is high school juniors and seniors and undergraduate college students. If they can educate women early enough, it has the potential to sustain change for the next generation, which is Russell's ultimate goal.
So how do they achieve this?
This year Women's ALI is kick starting its inaugural Summer Leadership Intensive, a four-day program where music students will participate in workshops, discussion panels and, most importantly, are assigned their own professional mentor who can give them insight and advice about the industry.
“We want to expand their horizons and knowledge base so that they have the business savvy to advance their career in the arts — perhaps in leadership positions within an arts organization and even as leaders in their community,” Russell said.
Russell hopes the Summer Leadership Intensive will eventually evolve into a two-week program and receive enough funding to give scholarships, but until then, Women's ALI is entering the school systems at local high schools and universities to build their network and spread the word about their organization.
"I have already been talking to students — I'm more than excited. I'm definitely going to go with Stephanie and talk to other students because I think, from my perspective, … the education that you can get is priceless," Farnsworth said.
Having started this organization with their sisters — who all have a diverse background in the arts, among them a dancer, photographer and singer — Russell and Farnsworth feel their initiative is uniquely qualified to help women. Russell believes that it's their close relationship that will enable Women's ALI to grow into her vision.
"That’s one of the unique things about our organization — it starts from one of the basic relationships of women: sisterhood," Russell said. "That's something that builds a level of care for women into our organization.”
If you go …
What: Women's Artistic Leadership Initiative Fall Benefit Recital, featuring opera singer Rachel Willis-Sørensen
When: Wednesday, Oct. 24, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Thompson Chamber Music Hall, 201 Presidents Circle
How much: $35 for general admission, $10 for students