Arts + Culture: I’m curious about your career trajectory from singer to education to policy. Were you an opera singer?
Gary Gibbs: No; I sang religious music. For three and a half years I toured with the German version of Billy Graham. I was a soloist and the choir director. We traveled the world.
A + C: Sounds like a movie.
GG: There were lots of stories.
A + C: What happened when you returned to the states?
GG: I went to grad school to get my Ph.D. I always thought I would be in academia, but then I couldn't find a job. When I finished my degree, there were very few openings. So I began teaching public school in Houston ISD. I taught pre-K to fifth grade music. I pushed a cart from room to room. So I went from teaching college students to teaching bilingual kids, over 1,000 of them, 45 minutes, once a week.
A + C: How did that experience prepare you for the work you did at Houston Grand Opera?
GG: When I got there they were starting a brand new education program called Students Through Arts Reach Success (STARS). The teachers wrote the lesson plans and I ran it.
A + C: What was it like to go from a hands-on teaching job to an administrative education role?
GG: It was refreshing. I found working with adults more intellectually challenging than teaching the same lessons to first graders. Plus, HGO was a wonderful place. David (Gockley) encouraged creative thinking, and there were more ways to utilize my creative skills.
A + C: What was your job title going into HGO?
GG: I was always the Director of Education. When I left I was the Director of Education and Outreach.
A + C: When I look at the programs in place now at HGO, I imagine you had a hand in growing them.
GG: Yes, I did. We did an opera called The Outcast by Noah Ain based on the Book of Ruth from the Bible. We had audience development activities that involved an African-American Baptist Church, a Jewish Congregation and an Episcopal Church. Opera America used it as an example of how to create these kinds of programs; I was very proud of that. I saw how this art form could be embraced by a broad spectrum of folks if the work spoke to them. I also commissioned numerous operas for student and family audiences during my time at HGO.
A + C: From opera to policy feels like a big change.
GG: Politics has always interested me. One of the challenges is that in my position at the Texas Commission on the Arts, I'm not able to have a political viewpoint. My job consists of meeting with policy-makers to educate them on the role that arts and culture play in the quality of our lives—something I have always had a passion for. That's what I have dedicated my career to. It's not hard to advocate for something you believe in. I just have to do it in a non-political manner.
A + C: So how's that going?
GG: As a whole we are doing better, but our arts advocacy in Texas is not where it should be. Artists and patrons need to engage with elected officials to let them know that the arts are important.
A + C: What's the best way to do that?
GG: Write a letter. Invite them into your space. Let them have a first-hand experience of how your work impacts your communities.
A + C: What is the day-to-day job like?
GG: It’s bureaucratic in that there are rules and regulations to follow. We had a successful sunset review, and have been renewed as a state agency for 12 years. After the last sunset review, the agency was only renewed for six years. At HGO, I was much closer to the art and art-making. Here, I'm more distanced from it.
A + C: How is Texas perceived in terms of the arts outside of Texas?
GG: Well since I serve as the secretary on the board of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, I have a good perspective of how we are viewed. People think we have great cultural institutions and assets, especially considering how little state funding is available for the arts.
A + C: Looking back over your career what would you have done differently?
GG: When I was pursuing my three degrees, I had no idea that arts administration jobs were a possibility. I wish I had known that I could go to work for an arts organization; I would have focused on that earlier! That has changed. SMU has a strong program and the University of Houston has a new program focused on arts leadership.
A + C: The UH program is connected to the Center for Arts Leadership. This interview is part of what they do. So, you have come full circle in that your story is helping the next generation of arts leaders. Do you have time to see much art?
GG: I do. It’s one of the perks of the job. I travel around the state and see the arts alive all over the state. And that does reconnect me to my passion.
This is part of a series of interviews in partnership between the Center for Arts Leadership at University of Houston and Arts+Culture:Texas Magazine.