Deena Epstein, Senior Program Officer, The George Gund Foundation
2014 ROBERT P. BERGMAN PRIZE
Photo by Rob Muller
Deena Epstein is a problem solver. Aspiring to a leadership position on Ohio University’s student newspaper, she faced one obstacle: campus curfew rules prohibited women from working late enough to put the paper to bed. She and another female reporter presented their issue to the dean of women, who then arranged for campus security escorts so they could work as late as necessary. Deena was named managing editor.
The native of New Castle, Pennsylvania, had wanted to be a journalist for as long as she can remember. She loved reading and writing, but journalism was a special kind of writing. “Journalism gives you the freedom to be curious and to ask a lot of questions of a lot of people,” says Deena, senior program officer for the arts at the George Gund Foundation.
Upon receiving her BS in Journalism in 1968, she had many job offers from newspapers, but they were mainly in what was then known as the women’s department, so she joined The Plain Dealer. She started in the suburban department as women did at the time, while male reporters started on the police beat, but the sharp, young journalist quickly moved on to cover a variety of topics like higher education and consumer affairs. She crafted editorials and ended up writing her own column.
“The column was great fun, because it was much more creative writing,” says Deena, who wrote for the PD under her maiden name Mirow.
Then her love of the arts came into play. She had written extensively about foundations, so knew people in that realm. When Jim Lipscomb, the Gund Foundation’s long-time executive director died, the foundation asked if she would be interested in helping by reviewing proposals on a consulting basis. She felt that the areas of education or social services might be a conflict-of-interest because of her reporting, but the arts would be perfect. She did that for two years before the new executive director David Bergholz asked if she would become the foundation’s first-ever arts program officer in 1990.
Though it was tough to leave her beloved journalism, the opportunity was too good to turn down. And it was a completely unexpected career twist. In fact, Deena likes to tell people she got the job because, as the song from the musical “Hair” goes, “ the moon was in the seventh house and Jupiter was aligned with Mars.” “It’s a gift to be able to do what I do, and to work for a Foundation and a family that understand the importance of the arts and the role they play not only in people’s personal lives but also in building community and a vibrant urban area,” she says. “I’ve also continued to use the interviewing, analytical and writing skills I developed as a journalist.”
While many of the funding projects she reviews and recommends are for small and mid-size organizations, she also works with larger organizations on specific, discrete projects or at moments in an organization’s life that make sense. Because one of the Foundation’s goals is to support accessibility to make the arts available for everyone, she has encouraged organizations to reach beyond their stages and galleries to serve new audiences and has supported projects that make the arts part of communities and neighborhoods. Arts education is also a particular passion, and she has spearheaded efforts to put the arts back in Cleveland classrooms.
One of the toughest parts of her job is the necessity to draw on her experience to provide direct and honest evaluation. “Her ability to be a counselor is something a lot of organizations appreciate about working with Deena,” states David Abbott, the foundation’s current executive director, who has known her since their reporter days at The Plain Dealer in the ‘70s. “They know the advice she gives is always constructive and useful, even if it isn’t always what they want to hear.”
Through it all, Deena has always appreciated what her job enables her to do to help the arts flourish in Cleveland. “If I personally had a million dollars to give, these are the organizations I would give to,” she says.