The word “tireless” comes up a lot when colleagues and admirers talk about Virginia Hepner, the president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center for most of the past five years. Hepner, 59, has announced she will leave the job May 31, at the end of the fiscal year. Woodruff leaders have already begun looking for a successor.
Whomever they choose will have the proverbial big shoes to fill.
It isn’t hyperbole to say that Hepner has led the Woodruff’s components — the Alliance Theatre, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the High Museum of Art — through a time of significant change and success.
In partnership with the board, she has reshaped the center’s leadership and its structure. New leaders are in place at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (Jennifer Barlament as executive director) and the High Museum of Art (Randall Suffolk as director).
Also new are leaders in the Woodruff’s advancement, finance, facilities, marketing and legal departments. And Hepner helped combine separate development departments into a single integrated entity.
“The Arts Center is in a much stronger position today as a result of her commitment to our art, her willingness to take on some of the difficult issues the Arts Center has been facing and her incredible energy,” says Doug Hertz, governing board chairman.
With a budget approaching $100 million a year, the Woodruff Arts Center is the largest arts organization in the Southeast and one of the three largest in the country.
Hepner’s focus on building awareness for the arts and arts education and their importance to metro Atlanta has led to significant healthier finances, a statement from the Woodruff says. It has seen important gains in fundraising (annually and in the completion of one of the largest fundraising campaigns in its history, the $110 million Transformation Campaign). Debt has been reduced by more than $33 million, nonstrategic assets have been sold (the 14th Street Playhouse to SCAD, for example) and each Woodruff division has operated with a surplus for the past two years, the first time that’s happened in more than a decade.
When Hepner signed on in the summer of 2012, conflict filled the Woodruff — ASO managers has locked out their musicians and Arts Center leaders learned that an employee had embezzled $1 million.
With her guidance, the Woodruff negotiated ASO contracts to end the impasse and pledged to begin an endowment campaign to push the orchestra to its full complement of 88 players.
That $25 million Musicans’ Endowment Campaign was part of the Transformation Campaign, an ambitious plan to renovate the Alliance Theatre, rebuild the ASO, underwrite educational and outreach programs at the High, and create steady income to take pressure off operating expenses.
The Musicians’ Endowment Campaign finished two years ahead of schedule, with an extra $10 million pledged. Plans for the Alliance Theatre renovation are progressing. Construction will begin after the 2016/17 season ends in mid-April; the theater will perform at a collection of metro sites next season and return to the Woodruff and its new home in 2018/19, the company’s 50th anniversary year.
Hepner joined the Woodruff after a 25-year career in corporate finance, retiring from Wachovia Bank as an executive vice president. She has always been involved in the arts and nonprofit worlds, as interim director of Young Audiences, Atlanta Ballet and Brand Atlanta, for example. She sits on the boards of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, the Midtown Alliance, the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Penn Institute for Urban Research, the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta Endowment Board, the Service Advisory Board for Mayor Kasim Reed and the Scheller College of Business Advisory Board at Georgia Tech.
In 2015, she received the 2015 Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans Award, which honors exemplary for-profit corporate board service by female directors. She also received the city of Atlanta Phoenix Award, Lexus Leader of the Arts and YWCA Woman of Achievement honors.
When Hepner joined the Woodruff, she says she knew it would require “complete focus and dedication.” Her plan was to commit no more than five years to the role.
“We have an exciting next chapter ahead,” she says, “and now it is the right time to begin the transition to new leadership. I am so grateful to so many people who have made it possible for us to accomplish a great deal for this wonderful institution.”
What’s next for her? A vacation.