If laughter was truly contagious, Suzy Delvalle’s would spread pretty quickly. While some people have a signature hairstyle or fashion flair, Suzy’s trademark is her joyful laughter. And she has plenty to be joyful about. Over the course of her career, she has gone from a start in banking in her native Curaçao to leadership roles at institutions like El Museo del Barrio and Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling, establishing invaluable institutional momentum creating strong programs and relationships along the way. Currently serving as the President & Executive Director of Creative Capital in New York City, Suzy works toward making artists’ visions into realities. Heading into its 20th year, Creative Capital faces the challenge of functioning as an organization, sans storefront, that focuses on the artistic process rather than product, while hoping to reach a wider audience. However, its focus on process is also what makes it unlike most arts nonprofits; it is uniquely focused on artists’ needs and visions.
With the above in mind, it is no surprise that when Creative Capital was looking for the second director in its history, they looked to Suzy. She lives and breathes creativity and is dedicated to pushing artistic practices to their fullest. Suzy is its accomplished leader - and cheerleader - not only for Creative Capital, but also for women of color working in the field. She gives credit to those who came before her and like the numerous powerful women she names as mentors and examples, Suzy herself is likely to be on a similar list for others.
What is Creative Capital and what is your role there?
Creative Capital was founded in the wake of the culture wars of the late ‘90s when the NEA could no longer support individual artists. To address this funding gap, Creative Capital developed a rather disruptive, non-traditional arts philanthropy model, enforced with a fierce commitment to freedom of expression. In the last 19 years, the organization has committed $40 million to 511 projects supporting 642 artists—offering artists not just monetary support, but professional guidance and a network of connections to help them complete their most ambitious visions. Since I joined Creative Capital in 2016, I’ve seen again and again that, while the artists need funding, ultimately, the community and advisory services we offer them prove to be more transformative.
My role is to connect the various initiatives that Creative Capital has undertaken over the years and capitalize on all the incredible knowledge, resource gathering and community building that help to support artists. There’s such a need for a space for artists to share the incredible work they’re doing as well as discuss their challenges and solutions. Some of the ways we fill this need is by organizing a retreat and gatherings, or sharing business and administrative skills for managing artistic practices, like promoting your work or fundraising. These are some examples of areas where artists realize that they’re struggling with the same things as their peers, and through this peer-to-peer learning, community is formed. Our biggest asset is this group of people that grows with each program and convening we organize—a generative network that creates new connections and deepens relationships between individuals and organizations.
You have blazed a unique path to CC, both personally and professionally. Can you discuss that journey and share the most profound ways you think your history impacts who you are at CC?
I started out in banking back home in Curaçao, but have always been passionate about the arts. I decided to move to New York City, the cultural capital of the world, and make a career move. As someone who made that jump, I have realized that so many opportunities in the art world, especially for people of color, are often only possible thanks to the tireless work of other trailblazers who generously offer mentorship and guidance. I learned so much from the very best role models, like Susana Torruella Leval, Lowery Stokes Sims, Thelma Golden, and so many more brilliant leaders. Our work is never accomplished in a vacuum: we depend on the generosity and insights of others to help us on our way, just as future leaders will depend on us. As Executive Director of Creative Capital, I am keenly aware of the platform I now have and the responsibility to pay it forward.
Are there lessons from your previous roles that have informed the way you manage CC?
One of the big lessons I learned early on in my art career is that leadership depends on the collective that supports you and the work. Especially in the nonprofit sector, where the work is mission-driven, no one does the work alone. We’re developing platforms that allow colleagues at any level to contribute to decision-making, while also assuring that our artists, consultants, and other members of our community inform our work.
Creative Capital is a small organization, but we have a deep network of awardees, partners, and allies all over the country. Hundreds of cultural experts, advocates, presenters, supporters, and influencers have enabled us to build an ecosystem of support around artists that is so vital and unique, and it is my role to help this network grow sustainably and organically.
What is CC’s biggest challenge?
We have record-breaking numbers of applications for the Creative Capital Award, which shows a real need for artist support across the country. Our challenge is how to reach more people and provide more resources without losing touch with the deep, long-term relationships that make our work more impactful. We also raise every dollar we give away to artists, and we’re always seeking to advocate the value of artists voices to the broader public. Just imagine how different our world could be if more artists with their keen, creative minds, were at the table among others who make key policy and similar major decisions.
How would you say it differs from the challenges of brick and mortar institutions?
Brick and mortar institutions, like museums, focus on the finished product, which is what helps them bring in audiences. For us, we’re more concerned with the people and the process. How a work of art is made is often just as important as the work itself. We’re always considering how to better provide artists with the tools and skills they need to have thriving practices.
So for Creative Capital, while we love art, our main concern is the well-being of the artists and communities that make the art. We want to ensure that more artists can have thriving, sustainable practices where they live and work.
What is its biggest strength?
As a small organization, Creative Capital is able to stay nimble and embrace new ideas, whereas the more traditional philanthropy and arts organizations take longer to adapt to the current and constantly changing world.
We act as a sort of confidant to artists, giving us real insight into the field. Sometimes they need someone in the field to bounce ideas off, or vouch for them. If they’re working on something totally bold and new, we’ll help them build it. It may take a few years for people on the outside to see what the artist is going for. Our strength is that we fully trust and invest (time and money) in the artists’ visions. We consider ourselves a premier provider of risk capital in the arts, taking chances to support ideas that are bold, innovative, and genre-stretching.
Going in as CC’s second-ever President and Executive Director, what were your goals for the institution? Have they evolved over the course of your two years at the organization?
Transition is hard, especially when you’re following the brilliant and visionary Ruby Lerner. She has been great in providing me with the space to make this role my own. The nonprofit sector has changed a lot in the last few decades, and with my administrative strengths, I am focusing on professionalizing the organization, codifying practices, building our financial coffers, and assuring we can sustain our services to artists. I also am strongly committed to equity, diversity, and inclusion across the work we do, both internally and externally. I think it is also important to focus not just on the artist as an individual but the community in which they work—context is so important!
Aside from the crucial funding and support you provide to them, what else do you hope artists take from their experience with CC?
Our main goal is to help artists reconsider what success means to them. Artists are working in a space where the goals can feel predetermined, and that can constrict their potential for making groundbreaking work. When we see artists define success in a way that is true to them as individuals, we see them truly realize their full potential and think bigger about their projects and impact of their practices.
Ultimately, the issue is how can artists sustain their practices and do the best work possible while remaining in their communities? Our job is to help them stay locally involved while also connecting them to national opportunities. Titus Kaphar’s work in New Haven is exemplary in this regard. Inspired by the professional development and advisory services Creative Capital offers its artists, Kaphar has developed a multi-purpose space called NXTHVN that will make his community more attractive as a hub to artists, many of them recent graduates. Meanwhile, we have seen his own practice gain national visibility without needing to relocate to one of the main arts cities like Los Angeles or New York.
Do you believe CC has a responsibility to respond to the current political climate?
Yes! We were founded in a time when the political climate was acting against the freedom of expression of artists and their right to exist. So, it’s in our DNA to respond to what’s going on politically—especially through the voice of our artists who are at the forefront of these issues. For example, Tanya Aguiñiga is making work with communities along the US/Mexican border, or Zach Blas is framing Silicon Valley tech companies as creators of dystopian futures. In terms of the freedom of expression, we recently saw Paul Rucker’s work censored by a university gallery. Paul makes connections between historical racism and systemic racism of today, and while some people consider his work provocative, he’s quick to point out that what’s happening on the streets is far more shocking.
Our job is to amplify artists’ voices, but also to make sure they have the tools they need to make that critical and important work. And overall, we want to fight for a world in which artists have an abundance of support and space to create, and not a lack of it—so they are operating from a place of abundance and not scarcity.
Are there any big plans for CC’s 20th anniversary?
We’ll kick the 20th Anniversary celebrations off with the Creative Capital Artist Retreat in summer 2019 at Bard College. It’s always the highlight of the year and the energy that comes from bringing together artists from all disciplines with expert curators, producers, programmers, publishers, and other supporters deeply committed to the arts, is deeply inspiring. We want to look back at all the incredible artists and supporters who have contributed to our community, and highlight the stories that demonstrate the necessity of the work we have committed ourselves to over the past two decades. At the same time, it’s all about our ambitions for the future and increasing our number of annual awards to 50, supporting 50 projects with an equivalent of up to $100,000 in financial and advisory support.
As an Executive Director, even when you are not on the clock, you’re still “on”. What is your favorite way to unwind?
I am so very lucky to work in a field that I love. I am often energized and so very inspired by spending time with artists and experiencing their work. So, it doesn’t always feel like I'm “on the clock!” When I really do need to create space for myself, I need to immerse myself in the ocean—preferably the crystal clear Caribbean sea, but I have learned to appreciate the colder, murkier waters of Long Island.