Creative Conversations: A Q&A With Kelly Pollock, Executive Director Of COCA In St. Louis

St. Louis’ COCA—or Center Of Creative Arts—has been a staple of the visual and performing arts education community in St. Louis since its founding more than 30 years ago, in 1986. The organization’s primary mission, to enrich lives and build community through the arts, has been further aided and elevated by executive director Kelly Pollock. Pollock has been with the organization for 19 years, and signed on as executive director in 2010.

When she started with COCA almost two decades ago, the nonprofit had a staff of 12 and an annual operating budget of $1.5 million. The organization has since grown to encompass 40 staff members and an annual operating budget of $5.5 million, with an ambitious $40 million capital campaign goal to fund an expansion of their space in University City. “There’s been definite growth by the numbers, no doubt, but we’ve also matured as an organization,” says Pollock. Keep reading for our full conversation with Pollock, as we get inside the mind of this formidable leader in art nonprofits.

Arts education isn’t always valued for its ability to produce practical results. How do you address that cultural mythology?
I think most people come to think of arts education as developing technical skills in the arts—how to dance, how to sing—which we absolutely do. But it’s more than that. The value of arts education and the creative process is also about developing the skills that are most in demand in today’s workforce—creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and ingenuity. Also, we shouldn’t underestimate the practical value of inspiration and engagement. We’ve seen that time and time again—that spark in young people when they find their passion. It’s life-transforming.

How have you seen COCA’s mission crystallize over the years?
Throughout COCA’s history, we’ve been focused on making sure our arts programs are of the highest quality possible, but also making sure those opportunities are accessible to all people. That dual focus on quality and accessibility has led to a lot of growth. Right now, we are focused on continuing to expand access through our capital campaign.

COCA has been a very dynamic organization over the years, and very progressive. It’s kept me very engaged, challenged and excited about our vision and what it means for the St. Louis community. We’re focused on building a better St. Louis that is inclusive.

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What brought about the capital campaign?
There are two main reasons we have embarked on this effort: one is the sheer need for physical space, as we have grown. Arts education demands space. And the other is answering the question of how we evolve and stay relevant, while making sure we’re meeting the needs of the community. How do we meet that growing demand of students who need and want access to our programs? How do we address sustainability so that we have the resources—the finances, people and space—to ensure that we’ll be a stable organization that has legs for the long term? For us to be a welcoming place for social dialogue and creative engagement for our community, our physical presence matters.

COCA has allowed itself and its offerings to be informed by St. Louis and its culture in a really beautiful way. What is the relationship between COCA and St. Louis?
COCA’s programming goes far beyond our physical space in University City. At any given time, we’re serving kids in schools, people at community centers, as well as business leaders in corporate settings. We are embedded throughout the community. We work with people at the ground level, but we also have the stability and platform to really scale our programs—to be influencers to advance St. Louis in meaningful ways to elevate our region.

How do you create arts offerings that are equitable across the region?
COCA has really been built on an equitable program model, where kids who have the resources pay for their experiences, and for those who can’t, we meet them where they are. That includes tuition, transportation and tutoring, if necessary. Unfortunately, not everyone comes into our space on equal footing. We try to level the playing field, so that as students do come into the studio they’re able to succeed on their own terms. That model has proven successful, and it really changes the trajectory for a lot of students. It demonstrates that when kids have opportunities to succeed, they take those opportunities and run with them, using the discipline and rigor that arts education demands.

I think people often view COCA’s role, or arts education in general, as a means to develop artists and technical skills amidst students. That’s definitely something that’s part of the process; we have exceptionally talented students who go on to have professional careers. But it’s really the social and emotional skills that are the testament to the power of arts education: their ability to persevere, to fail, and to find their way through obstacles, especially for young people who don’t feel like they fit in at school. Art can be a very positive and powerful way to express emotion. If we can provide this for all of our kids, we’ll develop the type of citizens that we want to have as leaders moving forward.

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Has facilitating a space for others to learn those valuable skills helped you learn them as well?
Absolutely. The creative journey of arts education and what develops in our students is absolutely true of myself personally, and of the organization overall. It’s in our DNA. We’re a learning organization, and we probably have taken a disproportionate amount of risk over the years.

There’s no magic formula in the nonprofit model, especially in nonprofit arts. However, we’ve tried to build a supportive and fulfilling community for our students, but it has also delivered back to everyone involved. We hear that a lot from our key supporters. They say that as much as they’ve given to support us, they receive just as much in return.

Running a nonprofit is really, really hard.
Amen!

How have you progressed throughout the years without getting jaded?
One, I think you develop a thicker skin. You also learn first and foremost that you do have to take risk. Growing your impact incrementally at the edges is very difficult. You have to have a big, bold vision for your organization that’s compelling to donors and investors. It’s definitely an iterative process. There’s no road map. It’s a matter of surrounding yourself and the organization with an amazing group of community members who share the same vision, and then, producing results.

There’s a plaque on my desk that our staff gave me, which says, “We’ll figure it out.” It’s something I say a lot—because in nonprofit arts, that’s what we do. Our success matters, not only in the community, but we have kids whose livelihoods literally depend on us figuring it out.

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