Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Three Pair Of Big Shoes To Fill

'Tis the season of transitions, and three deserve special mention -- Andy Dolich, Judith Drescher and Carissa Hussong.

All are about to step down from their jobs, but they share more than the coincidence of their announced resignations. More to the point, they are all class acts, principled people who have shown unusual dedication to making Memphis better and to doing it in the most challenging situations.

When Grizzlies majority owner Michael Heisley hired Mr. Dolich in 2000 as president of basketball operations, it was the first indication that he was serious about running a first-class organization. After all, Mr. Dolich was highly respected in his profession, forever associated with the success of “Billyball” in the glory days of the Oakland A’s.

During his 14 years there, he hosted an All-Star game and six post-season appearances, including three World Series. He increased season ticket holders 40-fold and quadrupled attendance, building a reputation for running a quality operation and for an unswerving customer-focused approach.

No Prisoners

He took the Memphis job with no misconceptions about the “take no prisoners” management style favored by the majority owner, but we suspect that the difficult – if not demanding – work environment finally just wore down his enthusiasm for his job.

Lesser men would have left years ago. Typically, in announcing his departure, he was the consummate professional, refusing to utter even a hint of criticism against the Heisley regime.

Grizzlies games are a tough sell -- the NBA’s smallest market and one where about 20 percent of the population can’t afford tickets under the best of circumstances. Add to that the trade of the team’s most popular player, Shane Battier, the team’s chronic losing streaks and Mr. Heisley’s bungling on-off love affair with Memphis – alternating between “I’m going to make the investments necessary for a winning team” and “won’t somebody, anybody, buy this team” - and it would be hard for P. T. Barnum to put butts in seats. (At least the Grizzlies aren’t last in average attendance, beating out Indianapolis, New Orleans and Philadelphia.)

While Mr. Dolich’s marketing acumen was beyond dispute, his insights into the Memphis psyche were even more impressive. Few people in this city were more thoughtful and more on target in dissecting Memphis’ chronic lack of self-worth and engrained negativism, proving that his American University degree in government wasn’t wasted.

Unappreciated Pros

The exits of Jerry West and now Mr. Dolich are troubling omens for the future, because it’s seems possible that we will someday recall the days when the Grizzlies had the best in the business. The team appears to be headed in an entirely different direction now as the Heisley group tightens the screws on an operation that’s thwarted his ambitions to “flip” the team and move on to his next investment.

Strangely, The Commercial Appeal hasn’t reported on Mr. Dolich’s next job, completing his trifecta of major league sports. Next, he’ll set up shop as chief operating officer for the San Francisco 49ers.

Staying on the subject of often underappreciated professionals, Ms. Drescher steps down as director of the Memphis library system at the end of the month after 23 years of exemplary service.

It hasn’t been easy heading up an operation that regularly received more lip service than public service from city government. She’s suffered through city chief administrative officers who thought libraries were becoming obsolete and rarely funded the system at a level that ensured that it fully responded to the public’s needs.

Book Lover

Meanwhile, her greatest disappointment likely is the dismantling of the city/county library system that resulted from Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton’s unfortunate decision to eliminate county funding for libraries.

Despite these problems, through sheer force of personality and commitment to her cause, year after year, she put together a budget – often with string and baling wire – that maintained library services and prevented cutbacks in services, especially to inner city neighborhoods.

A passionate believer in the power of books – and the Bill of Rights - her vision, not to mention her persistence, resulted in the construction of the new central library, and her defense of its public art – notably the Marx quotations in the sidewalks out front – in the face of the withering right-wing criticism from elected officials like former county commissioner Marilyn Loeffel (now incredulously, a Commercial Appeal columnist) was a reminder of how rare it is in Memphis for political demagoguery to be met with the courageous resistance by appointed officials. To that end, she also fought any attempts by the same right wing cabal to block websites on library computers that offended its sensibilities or to use libraries as the stages for manger scenes and other Christian iconography.

In other words, Ms. Drescher was one of the rarest kinds of public servants. She actually believed so strongly in what she was doing that she refused to make the kind of political concessions that would have made her professional life easier. It’s possible that city government can find a library director with her strong professional qualifications. Harder to find will be a civil libertarian who can continue Ms. Drescher’s special brand of public sector leadership.

Old Pros And Young Turks

It’s worth noting that two other old pros of the Memphis library system are also retiring – deputy director Sallie Johnson and head of human resources Val Crook. They, too, represented the best that public service has to give.

Ms. Drescher fought the public art wars at the new library HQs with Ms. Hussong, who is leaving her job as founding executive director of the UrbanArt Commission in January to become executive director of the National Ornamental Metal Museum.

When she took the helm of the modest new public arts organization, there were big ideas but no real plan to achieve them. The UrbanArt Commission, like so many positive initiatives of those days, resulted from the vision and tenacity of the seriously missed Kristi Jernigan.

The secret to success of public arts in other cities was obvious: percent for art funding that provided a reliable source of revenue. Conventional wisdom at the time was that our city would never pass a similar program here, but in December, 2001, Memphis City Schools passed a policy that set aside money for public art in all new schools, and three months later, Memphis city government followed suit with its capital projects.

No Substitute For Youth

While the most visible examples of public art include the central Memphis library, Cannon Center and Tom Lee Memorial, the impact of Ms. Hussong and her agency is seen dramatically in city schools, community centers, county schools and more.

If there’s a testament to the way that she’s changed expectations in Memphis, now, when people talk about the riverfront, the conversation includes how to integrate public art. When people talk about the master plan for Shelby Farms Park, the role of public art is addressed. When people talk about a skatepark on Mud Island, public art is also discussed as a way to make it even more dramatic.

When Ms. Hussong took the job at UrbanArt Commission, there were some who thought her youth could be a handicap. As is often the case, it was just the opposite, and while impatient for progress, she possessed a durable determination to make things happen, often acting a lot like water dripping on the stone until it’s eroded away.

Best of all, she brought to her work a cerebral idealism anchored in the belief that arts and culture can be transformative forces in Memphis, and that in the end, it’s about creating a vibrant and dynamic community. She also believed that every neighborhood of Memphis deserves the kind of public art that enlivens their every day lives and speaks to their distinctive character.

So what’s the lesson from Mr. Dolich, Ms. Drescher and Ms. Hussong. To us, it’s pretty obvious: There’s simply no substitute for passionate leadership. In the end, that’s the toughest job requirement of all to find.


sherman said...

Surely this means a Smart City tribute to Kaywin Feldman is imminent? She took a tired old museum and turned it into one of Memphis' more vital treasures in a very short time. Tough act to follow!

Smart City Consulting said...


Great catch. We should have thought of her. She leaves January 1 to head up the Minneapolis Art Museum, and one of the things that they liked best about her - by the way, she got a unanimous vote to hire her - was the way that she mixed high art and pop culture. She's exactly the kind of person that we hate to lose in this city - young, talented, visionary and creative.

Another set of shoes that will be hard to fill. Thanks, Sherman, for reminding us.

eat said...

If we're bemoaning Kaywin's Feldman's departure, let's not her forget her less visible but equally influential husband Jim Lutz. Among many other accomplishments, Jim has been instrumental in the formation of Memphis' new Regional Design Center. We have been one of the few cities of any size not to have one. He will be badly missed, as well (although he's sticking around for a few extra months.)

Smart City Consulting said...


This is getting depressing, and we'll have to make the most out of Jim Lutz's last six months here. You're right about his pivotal role in getting the design center up and running after years of contemplating one here. He's another serious loss.

Anyone else, folks?

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