Posted on October 1, 2005
Newsmakers: John Barr, President, Poetry Foundation
PND Newsmakers - John Barr, president, Poetry Foundation
For ninety years, founder Harriet Monroe and, from the 1940s, the Modern Poetry Association published Poetry magazine out of modest offices in Chicago, operating in recent years on a shoestring budget of less than $700,000. Then, in November 2002, poetry the magazine and the art form was catapulted into the national spotlight when Ruth Lilly, the last surviving great-grandchild of pharmaceutical magnate Eli Lilly, made a thirty-year gift to the association estimated at between $100 million and $175 million, making it the wealthiest nonprofit literary organization in the country.
Almost overnight, the magazine's annual budget jumped to $860,000, then $2 million, then $3 million, and the association, freed from financial worries, could focus on promoting a vigorous presence for poetry in American culture. To that end, MPA opted to become a private operating foundation, changed its name to the Poetry Foundation, and, in February 2004, selected John Barr to be the foundation's first president.
Born in Nebraska and reared in a small town near Chicago, Barr obtained undergraduate (1965) and graduate (1972) degrees from Harvard, then plunged into the world of business, where he became an "overnight" success. He founded, and for five years chaired, the Natural Gas Clearinghouse, now Dynegy Corporation, and then worked for eighteen years for Morgan Stanley, rising to become a managing director of the financial services giant. In 1990, Barr left Morgan to co-found the boutique investment banking firm Barr Devlin, which in 1998 was bought by Société Générale, where he currently serves as a managing director and global sector head.
Throughout his business career, Barr has successfully pursued a parallel career as a poet. His poems have been published in six collections, and his most recent book, Grace (1999), received accolades for its originality. In addition, he serves on the board of Yaddo, and was president of the Poetry Society of America for five years, chairman of the board at Bennington College for twelve years, and a graduate-level poetry professor at Sarah Lawrence College for two years.
In August, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Barr about his experiences as a "poet-businessman," the differences and parallels between the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, initiatives the foundation has introduced and is considering for the future, and much more.
Philanthropy News Digest: As many of our readers know, Poetry magazine received a $100 million gift from Ruth Lilly in 2002, which led to the Modern Poetry Association becoming the Poetry Foundation and your selection as the foundation's first president. What were some of the other short-term consequences of that gift?
|...The newspapers all called [Ruth Lilly's] gift $100 million, but it was actually about $175 million....|
John Barr: The newspapers all called it a $100 million gift, but it was actually about $175 million. One short-term consequence of Ms. Lilly's amazing gift was all the positive publicity the poetry world, and poetry as an art form, received. It really thrust poetry back into the mainstream of American life and culture, and that is very much in line with our strategy. The second thing the gift provided was a sense of new possibilities. You could feel it run like an electric current through the poetry world and, to a lesser extent, the general public. All of a sudden things that had been limited by the financial resources available to us were limited only by our imagination.
PND: You left a successful career in the for-profit world to join the Poetry Foundation. Are there aspects of your background that made that transition easier?
JB: Three areas of my background have been a help to me in making that transition. The first was my involvement in start-ups. Even though Poetry magazine has been around for over nine decades, everything else about the Poetry Foundation is brand new. When I arrived in February 2004, we had a large bank account, a new name, and the magazine but not much else. In my previous career, I was involved in helping to start three different companies from scratch, and I just naturally saw this organization as a start-up operation. The second thing was my experience with strategic planning. A lot of what I did on Wall Street was to work with clients to help them develop their own corporate strategies, and it was obvious when I got here that creating an organizational strategy should be the first order of business. And the third and last area that has been handy has been my mergers-and-acquisitions experience. The way that has played out here is best seen in our efforts to develop collaborations and joint ventures, which are similar to mergers and acquisitions. In fact, we currently have collaborations up and running with the Library of Congress, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Library of America.
PND: From your perspective, what's the most significant difference between the for-profit and nonprofit sectors?
JB: The main difference is the adrenaline that comes from working on Wall Street and the pressure to generate mergers and acquisitions, give good advice to your clients, and hope that at the end of the process your firm earns a large fee. Of course, the daily need to find business and make money is not a concern in a foundation like ours. But in a not-for-profit where fundraising is a daily fact of life, you can have a good idea, you can develop it and get your board to approve it, but you've still got to find the money to implement it. For us, it's truly liberating to have those constraints removed.
PND: Are there affinities between the for-profit and nonprofit worlds?
JB: "Affinities" is a good way to think about how for-profit and not-for-profit organizations can learn from each other. For example, a nonprofit like the Poetry Foundation can learn from for-profit organizations how better to organize and manage its business. There's no reason a not-for-profit cannot run itself just as efficiently and according to the same business principles as a good for-profit operation. For us, that might mean applying cost-benefit analysis to our programs; it might mean looking at expected returns on the various initiatives in our strategic plan; it would be the kinds of things that corporate managers consider when making investment decisions. We're doing some of that, and we also created an organizational strategy for the foundation within a few months of my arrival, so in my view we're moving as fast as most start-ups in the for-profit world.
|...Business people would be better decision-makers if they paid more attention to what poetry and the arts have to teach them....|
On the flip side, business people would be better decision-makers if they paid more attention to what poetry and the arts have to teach them. Sometimes in the interest of making a bottom-line decision, a business person will simply reduce an issue to the question, "Do we or don't we make this investment?" Poetry keeps itself open to ambiguity and the full complexity of a situation for a much longer period of time. I've noticed that business people who are seriously open to the arts are more subtle and more open to the questions of how one takes risk and reaches a decision.
PND: You worked on Wall Street for eighteen years and were once described in an article as a "poet-businessman." Did any of your colleagues know about or encourage you to pursue your artistic bent?
JB: Thirty or thirty-five years ago, the business world wasn't as open-minded as it is today. That's something that really changed during my career. As my clients came to know about my writing, they would think it was great. In fact, I've probably sold more of my own poetry books to clients and friends in the business world than I have in the poetry world.
The idea of the "poet-businessman" really catches the popular imagination. The two stereotypes a poet cut in the mold of Shelley and a businessman cut in the mold of John D. Rockefeller are so opposite that the contrast is striking. Nobody gives it a second thought when a doctor plays a stringed instrument, but people are intrigued by the idea of a poet-businessman because the business of the poet is to deal with interior reality and get things right in terms of perception and emotion, while the business of the businessperson is to get things right in the external environment. To me, the business of the poet and the business of the person in business are both to create order out of chaos, with this difference: In the case of the poet, it's the internal chaos of our emotions, while for the person in business, it's the external chaos of the business world.
PND: Did you have a particular mandate when you stepped into your job as president of the Poetry Foundation?
JB: The mandate was definitely there, but it was open-ended, and that's exactly what I had hoped for. The board basically wanted the new president to take charge of everything: come up with a strategy, review that strategy with them, and then implement it.
PND: Was your board involved in developing that strategy?
JB: At the outset, we talked with the board about our respective roles and decided the board should write the mission statement they should point the way to the mountain and management should figure out how to climb the mountain. The mission the board came up with is for the Poetry Foundation to pursue a more vigorous presence for poetry in our culture. Then the staff of Poetry magazine and the management of the foundation came up with half a dozen initiatives to support the mission, and the board unanimously approved them.
PND: You announced your strategic plan more than a year ago. Was it meant to be a short-term plan, or did you think it would take longer to implement?
JB: There was no time limit. Basically, four of us the editor of Poetry magazine, Christian Wiman; the manager of our other programs, Stephen Young; our financial officer at the time; and I sat around a conference table and developed the plan out of thin air in a little more than three months. I had a set of views, and my colleagues contributed their own views to the discussion. Together we worked to articulate a clear view of poetry as an art form, to lay out what we thought its needs were, and to describe our own initiatives in response to those needs. While there is no time limit in terms of putting our strategies in place, we are halfway through the second year of the plan, and within the next few months, we will have all our programs up and running.
|...Our new initiatives are national in scope, and over time, our board will evolve into a more national presence....|
PND: Are the programs exclusively Chicago-based at this point?
JB: Only one initiative, Poetry magazine, is specifically Chicago-based, and that's in recognition of the magazine's having been here for over ninety years. Our operation has always been Chicago-centric, and the board is mostly from Chicago, so we want to be a good cultural citizen of the community. But all of our new initiatives are national in scope, and over time, our board will evolve into a more national presence.
PND: As president of the foundation, what has been your greatest challenge to date?
JB: Getting our landlord to fix the plumbing. Seriously. We moved into some extremely temporary space in Chicago, and the daily business of trying to make the heating system work has been a challenge. In terms of serious challenges on the job, there really haven't been any, I'm grateful to say. The board has been wonderful, and the media have been supportive. Before I got here, there had been some negative publicity about the foundation and what it was going to do with all its newfound riches. But we've really been spared negative press since I came aboard. Positive articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Christian Science Monitor, to name a few, and we were featured on NPR.
PND: But you have been criticized in some quarters for your decision not to become a grantmaking foundation....
JB: There's a technical reason for that and a more substantial reason, as well. The technical reason is that after studying a variety of foundation legal forms that we could have chosen under the IRS Code, we ultimately decided to opt for a private, not-for-profit operating foundation. This requires that we spend 3 1/3 percent of our assets each year on programs that we ourselves manage or co-manage with a partner. But the more substantive reason is that the choice reflected what management and the board wanted to do. If the foundation did not have a ninety-three-year history of publishing Poetry magazine behind it, we might have thought longer about becoming a grantmaking foundation.
PND: Why is that?
JB: Because having published the magazine and not missed a monthly issue all those years, the foundation's board already was very much in the business of publishing, as opposed to the grantmaking business. The second reason is that if you're in the grantmaking business, you can only do good for the art form called poetry as long as good ideas are presented to you. Whereas, if you're an operating foundation, you have an opportunity to create a strategy that ties together your ideas about the art form so that they relate to and interact with each other.
PND: The foundation doesn't support poets with grants, but it does support them through various awards and prizes. Do you plan to offer more of these in the future?
JB: We currently distribute over $150,000 a year in prizes and awards. The Ruth Lilly Prize, now in its twentieth year, comes with an award of $100,000; the Neglected Master Award is $50,000; and the Mark Twain Award is $25,000. This year, we plan to offer, in addition to those three, the Emily Dickinson First Book Award of $10,000 to a poet over the age of fifty, as well as a $10,000 award for criticism. And we'll most likely announce a couple of new awards next year.
Prize money is also part of the poetry recitation program we've launched, both for the winning students as well as the schools they attend. We'll probably award about $100,000 in prize money through the recitation program next year, when we pilot it on the national level. That's not putting money in the pockets of poets, but it is putting money in the pockets of the educational community that supports poetry. I believe that if you're funding the arts and poetry, you're feeding future poets.
PND: So you will be taking the poetry recitation initiative national?
JB: Yes. Our pilot programs in Chicago and Washington, D.C., went very well, and for the 2006 spring school term, we hope to have recitation contests in all fifty states.
PND: What else do you have in the works?
JB: We have an initiative to build a big Web site. The content will be closely aligned with what we do in Poetry magazine, and that, in turn, will be aligned with what we do through the prize and award programs. Our new Web editor used to