Big business and the arts are natural antagonists, or so the cliché goes. But don’t tell that to Guillermina Gonzalez. As executive director of the Delaware Arts Alliance, a not-for-profit headquartered in downtown Wilmington, Gonzalez perceives the deep affinity between statewide economic development and dynamic arts communities.
She brings a capacious skill set to her role of arts advocate, wedding a pragmatic business approach to an innovator’s imagination. And given that the arts represent a $143 million industry in Delaware and generate six times the investment, to neglect the marriage of the marketplace and the maestro is good for neither business nor the arts.
Born in Mexico City, Gonzalez was rooted in a high-achieving family. “I would say that I come from an intellectual background, particularly from my dad’s side. My father is a neurosurgeon, one of the toughest specialties in medicine. And my mother is a chemist.” Although Gonzalez dabbled with the idea of becoming a chemical engineer, “I realized it was not for me. I didn’t see myself working in a lab.”
Gonzalez was never in want of ambition, however. “I entertained many different ideas: becoming a psychiatrist, an economist—everything got my interest. It was painful for me to make a decision.” Cultural activities, too, were woven into the tapestry of her early life. “I always remember going to museums and exhibitions, and my mom and dad made it part of a ‘fun day.’”
Gonzalez finally settled on a field she believed provided access to a wide sampling of her interests: business. She earned both a bachelor’s in business administration and an MBA, and began working for large corporations like Xerox while still in school in Mexico.
In fact, it was as an employee for ExxonMobil that she first came to the United States, in 2001. “They brought me here thinking I was going to spend three years and then go back to take another position for the company,” Gonzalez says. “But I never went back.” Instead she met someone who brought chemistry back into her life: Charles Sobrero, a Caltech-educated chemical engineer working for DuPont, whom she married.
“I had my life all mapped out,” Gonzalez says. “I thought I was going to be one of those super-marketing gurus for corporate America.” Instead, in a space of one year (2001), marriage took her from the comforts of a good salary and a corporate structure to unemployment in a foreign land. Being stripped of her former identity proved a “scary rite of passage.”
“I needed to reinvent myself by realizing that I was somebody beyond a position within a company,” Gonzalez says. She relied on the support of her husband and family, as well as something called the Highlands Ability Battery: a professional assessment test that “helped clarify who I was and where my real priorities were. As a result, I was able to move forward with a leaner, more sharply focused version of myself.”
This clarified vision led to Voices Without Borders, a not-for-profit that called on her to advocate for Latinos in Delaware, promoting immigration reform, economic development and financial literacy. “I also coordinated the very first Latino gubernatorial debate,” she says. Then-candidate Jack Markell was one of the participants, addressing his audience in Spanish. “It was a fantastic experience, fostering the Latino presence in the state,” which, Gonzalez offers, “is growing.”
It was while working for Voices Without Borders that Gonzalez was invited to be part of the transition team of newly elected Gov. Markell. “In that capacity my friendships with many artists grew.” But Gonzalez’s career path was about to take another unanticipated turn. In 2009 the director of the Delaware Art Museum, Danielle Rice, emailed Gonzalez about a new position at the Delaware Arts Alliance. “She thought this was just calling my name and that I had to do it.” And so in January 2010 the alliance, a coalition of cultural and arts organizations from across the state, had its first executive director.
Gonzalez’s business degrees have proved invaluable in advocating for the arts in Delaware, because corporations and their nonprofit counterparts “need to learn from each other. When it comes to a not-for-profit, at the end of the day, it’s a business, with a different kind of mission, but you need results. You need to think strategically, probably being much more efficient, because you never have tons of money. So the best practices from the business world should be applied.”
And the business world should also take note as Gonzalez makes her case for the role of the arts in economic development. For example, when attempting to attract new talent to the state, “you need to provide them reasons to stay, even to consider coming here. And the quality of life is closely related to the arts. People think of the arts in terms of ‘What am I going to do on the weekend?’”
The arts have their role in how prospective Delawareans will educate their kids, too. “Innovation is sparked by the inclusion of the arts early on,” Gonzalez says. “Not everything is math and science, and I’m a big believer in math and science. But without the connection that the arts spark in creativity and innovation, we’re not going to have the competitive environment that is needed.” And that means preparing students to compete globally.
Fostering such a competitive environment today demands at least one special chemical process: changing STEM to STEAM—Science Technology Engineering ARTS and Math. Among the challenges facing the alliance is to ensure that core standards reflect the inclusion of arts education in all public and charter schools. Too often the first part of any curriculum on the chopping block during a budget crunch is the arts, when, as Gonzalez is quick to point out, research has demonstrated that inclusion of the arts enhances both reading and math scores.
During her tenure at the alliance, attention to the impact of the arts on the overall health of the state has been expanding—via social media, public dialogues, matching-funds campaigns, even a National Arts Advocacy Day. Gonzalez credits the current administration with help in achieving some of these advances. “We’re lucky in this state to have a governor, a first lady, and a secretary of state who get it. That’s not the situation of some of my peers in other states.”
While it’s important to note what the Delaware Arts Alliance does, it’s also necessary to understand what it does not do. “If you’re looking for money, then the place to go is the Delaware Division of the Arts. If you need somebody to go to the Joint Finance Committee and ask for an increase in arts funding that will be distributed by the Delaware Division of the Arts, then we come in. The Delaware Division of the Arts cannot advocate for itself.”
If Gonzalez appears almost too perfect for her mission, she does admit to one weakness: “I am not detailed oriented, and that has caused some issues at times. I seek advice from detailed oriented people—Nivea Mercado, DAA’s wonderful administrative assistant, for instance, is a perfect complement.”
Another perfect complement, at least to her highly persuasive communication skills, are Delaware’s airwaves. Currently Gonzalez is host of two radio programs, including Latinisimo, on WVUD, the only program in Spanish from the University of Delaware. This forum enables her to stay connected to the Latino community and proves “a way of giving back.” (She earned a second master’s degree, in liberal studies, at UD, to which she’s currently adding a Ph.D. in business administration from Wilmington University.)
If you’re exhausted just keeping up with a précis of Gonzalez’s professional life, fear not: She does know how to relax. “A perfect ending to an evening is a nice dinner with good red wine” in the company of husband Charles. While they have no children, they do enjoy the company of “three bilingual cats” that “ignore me equally in English and Spanish.” What spare time the intellectually curious couple manages to cull from their schedules is spent reading serious books, attending the theater (“straight plays almost always”) and international cinema, and watching the Discovery Channel.
Gonzalez is not one to dwell on past mistakes, preferring to maintain a determined positivity. “Difficulties become opportunities to grow up and be a better person and professional,” she insists. And while she is happy in her current role of making “tangible the intangibles of advocacy” and “triggering imaginations,” Gonzalez is always open to change, to reinventing herself yet again if need be, and she possesses strong opinions about those who remain in office beyond their sell-by date. “You begin to feel entitled about things. And that is the beginning of the end. I don’t want to ever feel that I am entitled to anything, because I always think that I need to deserve to be there. The minute I feel less hunger about something is the beginning of the end.”
Until such time, Gonzalez’s goals for the alliance remain robust: “Having tons of members. Whenever something related to the arts is needed, we’re the go-to organization. Financially self-sustainable, finding different revenue sources. When the governor or the legislature thinks about ways of attracting businesses, they’re thinking about the alliance as a pivotal member sitting at that decision-making table. We’re not there yet.”
But thanks to Gonzalez’s refusal to pit artists against CEOs, they’re closer.