LexArts picks Arkansas art and development executive as next president

Ellen A. "Nan" Plummer addressed a community forum on Sept. 27 as part of the interview process before she was named president and CEO of LexArts on Wednesday.
Ellen A. "Nan" Plummer addressed a community forum on Sept. 27 as part of the interview process before she was named president and CEO of LexArts on Wednesday. Lexington Herald-Leader

LexArts has named Arkansas arts and development executive Ellen A. "Nan" Plummer to head the organization as its president and CEO.

"I am feeling this beautiful sense of welcome," Plummer said Wednesday afternoon. "I'm so looking forward to getting down to work with the staff and the board as a whole, and I feel very well prepared to roll up my sleeves and tune up my ears and get going."

Search committee chair David Smith said, "In terms of strategic thinking, fundraising and collaborative instincts, she rang all the bells. We felt she was the right fit for the job, and just as importantly, we were the right fit for her."

Plummer's appointment follows a nationwide search for a successor to James Clark, who retired in June. Two finalists visited Lexington late last month to meet with the search committee, other stakeholders in the arts and the public.

The public forum for Plummer was distinguished by her presentation of an analysis of fundraising by United Arts Funds around the country and a conclusion that LexArts did well by comparison but that there was room to grow.

After the presentation, Clark's predecessor Dee Fizdale said, "Nan brought a thorough knowledge of fundraising and how to do it."

One of the primary functions of LexArts is its annual Fund for the Arts campaign, which raises money for general operating support for organizations including the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra and Lexington Children's Theatre, and finances grants for organizations and individual artists.

The other finalist was Christine E. Crawfis, director of the Unison Arts Center in New Paltz, N.Y.

Plummer's current position is senior development officer at the Arkansas Children's Hospital Foundation in Little Rock. Before that, she was executive director of the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, the state's oldest art museum and its second-largest arts organization. She previously held posts at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio and the University of Michigan Museum of Art in Ann Arbor. Plummer has a bachelor's degree in the history of art from Mount Holyoke College, and three degrees from the University of Michigan: a master's in art history, a master's in business administration and a doctorate.

One concern on Plummer's record at the Arkansas Arts Center was the 2009 and '10 exhibit World of the Pharaohs: Treasures of Egypt Revealed, which was expected to be a blockbuster but fizzled. It sold just more than a third of its expected tickets and left the center in financial straits. According to the Arkansas Times, the Arts Center suffered a budget deficit of $1.6 million and owed its foundation $2.2 million.

Plummer left before the exhibit closed and acknowledges it was because "the board wanted a change in leadership because of the difficulties and the disappointments with the exhibit."

Plummer said she thought the exhibit accomplished its educational and community goals, but she said the center probably let expectations get out of hand. She also said two significant problems were an expected $500,000 donation that did not materialize and the exhibit launching in the depths of the Great Recession. Among lessons she said she learned were building up contingency funds and developing a more thorough consensus about the potential risks and rewards of major projects.

Smith said that Plummer was upfront about the situation and that through her conversation with the search committee and interviews with her references, "We were convinced there was nothing there that impugned her ability or judgment to lead LexArts."

Children's health, where Plummer has been working the past several years, is a passion, she said. But she is looking forward to returning to arts administration.

"It's the home of my heart," Plummer says. "The arts are where I have a lot of experience in terms of personal and intellectual resources, and I would like to use that in the last third of my career."

Plummer is to begin her new job Nov. 17.